Music Monday: The N-Word and How We Talk About Hip Hop
Awkward experiences with the N-word occur frequently, especially in the realm of hip-hop. Imagine this: you’re singing “Forget You” by Cee-Lo Green at karaoke with your friends, and you come to this part:
“Oh sh** she’s a gold digger, just thought you should know ni**a”.
The N-Word has the power to stop anyone’s karaoke jam in its tracks. What’s a music lover to do? Mumble something else? Forget the word entirely? Laugh it off?
Talking about and quoting hip-hop lyrics can be challenging, and may seem downright inappropriate when uttered in communities or around people who may take offense. Recently, actress Gwyneth Paltrow found herself the target of backlash on Twitter, after tweeting “Ni**as in Paris for real” while attending a Jay-Z and Kanye West concert in Paris. Paltrow later defend herself on Twitter by writing, “Hold up. It’s the title of the song!”.
Does Paltrow have a point? We here at Word have written extensively about the N-Word in several previous posts, and the following two questions continue to arise: Who has the license to use the word? In what contexts is the word not offensive?
Paltrow’s defense was that she wasn’t using the word as a slur, but rather simply referencing the title of the hit song by Jay-Z and West.
In a previous post, “Why Black People Can Use the N-Word: A Perspective“, guest blogger Luvell Anderson writes:
Uses of the word by African Americans typically aren’t offensive…whereas uses by others (with some exceptions) generally are offensive.
When non-black individuals like Paltrow use the word in reference to someone else’s use of it (like in the title of a song) is it a more appropriate use or still a deregatory term? Is there simply no context in which non-black persons can use the N-word without it being offensive? Celebrities and bloggers are divided on this issue. On The View, co-host Whoopie Goldberg questioned Paltrow’s actions, saying:
I would ask Gwyneth this. I don’t know that there’s ever a time that a white person can say that and not get a backlash for using it.
However, other black celebrities disagreed with Whoopie. Rapper NaS defended Paltrow by saying:
She’s the homie. She’s cool. Gwyneth gets a pass. Real people get a pass…We pick and choose…Gwyneth Paltrow is a real n****, that’s my homie. That’s how I’m on it.
License to use the N-word (non-offensively) is controversial and not everyone agrees on who gets to use the word and in what contexts. NaS argues that the ability to use the word comes from “being real”, but Whoopie isn’t sure whether a white person ever has a right use it. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder and when it comes to the N-word, as we’ve seen here, it’s always important to recognize the word’s history and social power.