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Music Monday: The N-Word and How We Talk About Hip Hop

July 2, 2012

Rapper Jay-Z and Gwyneth Paltrow

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.

Rapper Nas

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.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2012 5:55 pm

    I’m white, and would NEVER use the n word, even in talking about the word itself. Live with it, fellow white people. It’s something that we just don’t get to do.

  2. December 2, 2013 5:59 am

    Is there ever a time in which a non-black person can reference the N- word and not be backlashed even when it’s referencing someone else’s usage? Again, we find a dicey question, as the answer will for sure vary from person to person. Personally, I feel like if we are so comfortable with putting it into the atmosphere then we should be prepared to hear something that WE have made a part of our day-to-day vernacular. As alarming as this word may be coming out of the mouths of a non-black counterpart, as black society and culture has been known for its impact on America and the world around us…what do we expect? We should never tolerate the word in a demeaning context BUT we as a culture should realize the impact we have made and accept that doing this gives us little control as to the context at “appropriate time” into which this can be used.

  3. Zahida permalink
    December 2, 2013 2:43 pm

    What a complex word that N-word is. I, as a person who isn’t Black, would never feel comfortable using it, but I am fascinated by the way it has been (or is still being?) reclaimed, largely through hiphop. I don’t know if there is any other word that is so context-based, so much so, that it becomes impossible to develop a set of rules around it and so that people like me and my fellow-non-African-Americans embarrass ourselves in karaoke bars over and over again. To my African-American friends- a user’s guide would be helpful…

    Reading through the other blog posts and comments on this word, the question I wonder about, which has been raised over and over again, and maybe can never really be answered, is whether a word attached to such a painful history can ever really be reclaimed or whether the history attached to it is simply too strong and a certain sting will always accompany the word, no matter who uses it.

    When I watch my African-American friends use it on each other, I still can’t decipher what they mean by it, but I can see that most of the time, it is friendly. This also fascinates me because I could never imagine me and my Indian friends ever happily referring to each other as “paki” the same way I watch my African-American friends call each other n&**a, and “paki” doesn’t even carry with it as much history.

    What I think for now though is, until the rules around the n-word are figured out, it is not my word. If “paki” was ever reclaimed, I wouldn’t want white people to use it. I would think, it’s our word now, so please just let it be. So for now, although I don’t think I will ever understand this word in all its complexity, I am content to continue awkwardly stumbling over it in karaoke bars, because the fact is, it isn’t mine, and I’m sorry Gwyneth Paltrow, but I don’t think it is yours either.

  4. Carolyn Klier permalink
    December 8, 2013 2:36 pm

    The n-word, more than any other word I can think of is highly context sensitive. The discussion of its context is not only a question of intention and audience, but often of race. Who is allowed to to say it? Personally, I’m a believer that when discussing the word itself and its place in our culture, in an academic or analytical setting, anyone should have the right to say it. However, I find that I have a difficult time with my opinion on whether or not there should be “rules” on who can and cannot use the N-word in social situations. On one hand, it is hard for me to agree with the idea that there should be rules at all on a person’s right to spoken language, especially since language itself is so transient and the meaning of words are constantly being reconstructed to fit the current culture.
    On the other hand, the n-word has a hugely complex history that distinguishes it. It is also a difficult topic for me to have an opinion on at the moment because of the unstable idea of reclaiming. I feel that there are many more questions I would need to have answered and logistics of these so called “rules” that would need to be figure out as far as who gets to reclaim the word: When at first, and in which parts of the globe, did the n-word take on or establish its derogatory meaning? And then depending on that, does the word belong to all black people in America since the n-word may, in the present day be used in a derogatory manner toward them. Or does it only belong to those of African descent? What about African-Americans who are recent to America, and/ or do not have their history in the slave trade? What about mixed race individuals who may not look to their African ancestry. What are the sociolcultural complexities when it becomes difficult to visually distinguish who has the right to this word? And from this point on, won’t it only become more difficult to distinguish who has the right to the n-word as time progresses?
    As far as quoting, in the case of Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m not sure that I would stand by her using the n-word on her own. However when used in a quotation she is not the agent in giving meaning the word. Even though she is the one to speak (or tweet) the n-word, it has already been constructed a certain way by another individual who most people believe has the right to use the word. I would equate this to quoting from a piece of literature where the n-word is used. To remove it or “stumble/mumble over it” changes the meaning of the song, quote, ect. previously created by the artist or writer. It is also difficult to say, in the case of artists, that only a selection of their audience should have full access to their work. Although my stance on social use is foggy, as long as the word is quoted maintaining the context it was established with, I think it belongs to whoever the artist gives it to.

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