Compliments of Paula Deen, the usage of the N-Word has returned to our social radar. Having taken a few years of nonchalance appeal, not since Nas chose to name his ninth album the epithet “Nig***” (until public outcry had him simplify it to “Untitled”) has the word garnered so much thought and opinion once again.
Due to Deen’s admittance to using the word on multiple occasions, alongside degrading images of African-Americans, it’s been challenged directly towards rappers and hip-hop on why it’s been nearly negotiable for them to voluntarily intersperse it in their lyrics. On Twitter, former Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel was the current spark plug in questioning hip-hop’s pass, which has lead to a honest stream of even the most innocuous stars of the genre getting asked if they think it’s OK and what are their views.
Whether ending in “a” or “er”, it may be the most publicized epitome that rivals “b*tch” in derogatory words, though enough acknowledgement of how with the slight switch in spelling and pronunciation, the word has been executed as something more than its original historical context. Deen however, exploited the word in its latter state, which has caused her extreme damage, including losing her show on the Food Network.
Now, it’s no secret that rappers have had an odd admiration of saying “nig**” in their lyrics, and the rough coolness of the word has achieved such American pop cultural omniscience, it’s not entirely surprising to hear it spoken in a public space, or casually spewed from a Caucasian youth in all Pac Sun gear with their friends in the streets. Now, to take it even further, what happens when R&B singers use it? How does it fit into a genre that supposed to celebrate compassion and true love?
On Access Hollywood Live, Ciara was asked by the always assertive Billy Bush on where she stood, and twice, during the live broadcast. It was a question that left the singer somewhat going in circles and ultimately feeling uncomfortable. The “Body Party” talent did her best in trying to convey to Bush and his co-host Kit Hoover that for her generation and one that follows the archaic context more often than not just does not exist when being spoken from their place of standing. As she stated:
“As an entertainer you have fun and it’s all about the context it’s used in. I am an African-American woman, so I can identify with that word in different ways. It’s all about the context and in my case I know I can have fun because I know where I’m coming from with it. You have to be light-hearted and it has to be in a certain way. I cannot hear another person of another race saying, ‘you this’ like ‘you that.’ Again, it’s all about how you say it and what context it’s used in. That word has as much power as you give it.”
It was brought up again during her 1-1 with the hosts because in her new song “I’m Out” with Nicki Minaj, for the first time on record, Ciara says the N-word in the line “And now this nig** want to text me.” While R&B greats of the past like Barry White, the Motown era, and even the days of Toni Braxton in the ’90s had no need for the word; the music was sensual, at times sexual (hello Jodeci), and impassioned without such flaming words sung to leave an impression; in today’s landscape, acts like The-Dream use it regularly and it’s a tad bizarre because it’s not spoken in its usual militant manner, but during a stretch of infatuation (e.g. his song “I Luv Your Girl” in which after the chorus he coos: “But she like, f*ck,that nig**”).
And it’s not just The-Dream. Everyone’s favorite girl Beyoncé has slipped the words on tracks for other artists, like the bonus track of “See Me Now” for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare; Brandy says it loud and clear on the fan favorite duet between her and John Legend on “Quickly”; Alicia Keys let it out on the Jermaine Dupri-produced”Girlfriend” admist a piano-heavy debut on Songs in a Minor; Kelly Rowland referred to her abuser as such on “Dirty Laundry”; and Rihanna has increasingly gotten too close for comfort with the word, in not just writing it for her Instagram and Twitter posts, but her albums as well, despite obtaining a decent percentage of a young fanbase still in high school–but again, as she states, she is NOT a role model. Could you imagine Malia and Sasha singing along to “Nig**, is you blind?” on her (yes, otherwise, great track) “No Love Allowed”?
As pleas from The-Dream himself in wanting R&B to return to its natural state of being about love-making, not secluding your lust and desire for your partner, and to just say no to ratchet culture, isn’t including the N-word acquiescing to this deranged cycle of debauched behavior for the sake of keeping up with the kids and their more attention-grabbing counterparts in rap and hip-hop?
The question may had been awkward for Ciara, not so much because she doesn’t have an opinion to dispel about it, but more so because it was a question of whether or not it really belongs anywhere in her spectrum, but especially her music. The audience and Billy Bush quite frankly do not have a say on whether it does in her personal space, but what about “I’m Out”? Ciara isn’t a rapper…is she? Does the N-word belong there? What was the purpose of its inclusion? Truthfully, whenever the word is spoken or used, it is expressed in a manner that is frequently mocking or angry, and neither of those moods are very inviting, let alone indicative of the roots of R&B music, at least as far back as the ’80s when Whitney Houston released “You Give Good Love.” You think that song could use a N-word upgrade in a remake? It’s always jarring when R&B talents use the word because, we somewhat expect “better” from them in the sense that, they’re here to remind us that life isn’t over because you had a bad day. The roots of rap began from a background of undeniable creativity but crumbling real-life surroundings. The N-word’s place is more plausible in comparison because the streets were too real for even the most level-headed boy or girl coming of age. For R&B, trying to catch cool points for dropping an N-word doesn’t always work because this is genre rich is lush instrumentals, and richer in enamored imagery, even during its most debonair moments.
So while young people rap along to A$AP Rocky cantankerous confirmation of, “At least a nig**, nig** rich,” the debate may go on for the rest of the year on the stance of the N-word, as we’ll see where Deen is at come Christmas time. As fans of this hip-hop culture, we may catch ourselves asking, is the N-word a term finally left said in the privacy of our homes and close friends? There’s no need to deny having said it, but as Ciara showed, it’s not always easy to explain for various reasons ranging from how we were raised to the music we’re connected to. Answers won’t please everyone, and debates will get heated as they have before. For example, for some that may be view Frankel as a privileged White American, how does she think it’s appropriate to question why African-American entertainers have gone out of their way to turn a belittling term into an endearing one? Rappers wont back down anytime soon for the sake of classic rebellion, so maybe the discussion should at least be applauded for having come up. If only it do so without Paula Deen’s participation, and a post-racial America is a not so close to home reality after all.
–C. Shardae Jobson (@lavishrebellion)