So, Nas is calling his next release “Nigger.” Will it be a biting exploration of “that word” and its affect on the African Diaspora, or will it be minstrelsy set to a funky beat? As of yet, no one knows but Nas and those involved in the record’s production, but that hasn’t stopped folks from weighing in. What About Our Daughters reports that Al Sharpton has taken Nas to the woodshed over the album title and that the state of New York is threatening to attack Universal Music Group’s pension. Sandra Rose has a video up of Alicia Keys offering measured support, while Swagger Ready: More on Nas' "Nigger" Debacle says that LA Reid, chairman of Island Def Jam, the Universal subsidiary that is releasing Nas’ album, blew a gasket at the Manhattan “American Gangster” premiere and was all “We support everything our artists do, EVERYTHING!” Um, okay LA.
The n-word has an ugly, violent history, but it is, just a word. Like any other word, it requires context for meaning. But this is Karl Rove’s America, where everything can be divided into black or white, patriots or evildoers; where symbols are more important that the principles behind them; where facts aren’t as important as picking a side and staying the course. The n-word is a symbol of this country’s racist past and present. But if we look behind the “Nigger” on Nas’ new record, the brother may have something worthwhile to say.
Consider this, there is a history of artists and activists using inflammatory language in their work to make important political, social or cultural statements. A quick search on Amazon reveals Dick Gregory’s “Nigger,” Gil Scott Hearon’s “The Vulture and the Nigger Factory,” and H. Rap Brown’s “Die, Nigger, Die!” Recently, author Randall Kennedy explored the impact of the n-word in “Nigger.” (Disturbingly, I also discovered that in the 1930s, Agatha Christie, whose mysteries I love, wrote “Ten Little Niggers,” a book whose title was changed to the nearly-as-racist “Ten Little Indians” and “And Then There Were None” for American release.)
“That word” isn’t the only epithet that gets literary treatment. There is “bitch” used as a demeaning slur to keep women in their place, a dirty word from the mouth of the rapist, the abuser and the misogynist. There is also “Bitch” the seriously awesome feminist magazine. It’s the context and the intent that is important.
Now, I’ve got no love for mainstream hip hop. (I’m more of a rock, folk, classic soul kind of a girl.) And I don’t know a thing about Nas. I don’t know whether he’s one of those “conscious rappers” that people like to bring up when hip hop is taking a beating, or if he is of the 50 Cent variety. But it doesn’t matter. Reason does matter, and it is something that more and more is missing from public discourse—even when dealing with a topic as frivolous as popular music. I say, everyone take a breath, count to 10, and wait to hear Nas’ album before going on the attack. After all, haven’t we learned that it’s not smart to rush off to war without the facts?
Want more discussion of reason and the weakening of public discourse? Pick up Al Gore’s “The Assault on Reason.” It’s a great book.