Due to his well-meaning but entitled Daily Mail essay on why eradicating the n-word from the English language would bring about verbal peace, Piers Morgan became the guinea pig of Twitter derision. From everyday users, to celebrities like John Legend, and prominent Atlantic scribe Ta-Neshi Coates, Morgan was regulated as the latest culprit of white privilege. Who did this White news journalist think he was to suddenly care about the jargon of black people so much and then write an essay about it? The piece had its brief moments of honest observation, but it was flawed in its self-imposed jurisdiction in having all black people follow his suggested lead. His stance even hit a sore spot when he (unintentionally?) compared obsoleting “nigga” to the maltreatment of black slaves in America: “Better, surely, to have [the word] expunged completely. Eradicated, obliterated, tied to a literary post and whipped into such brutal submission that it never rears its vicious head again”. Did this graphic explanation go over his head, or was he just a little too clever for his own good? Bad choice of words aside, what was included in his piece was that according to Topsy, an analytical site of social statistics, the n-word is used on average 500,000 times a day on Twitter alone. That is a staggering number, and real-time research will show that while some extremely ignorant White users are a part of the problem, many of those tweets are from Black people. While Morgan chose to use this information as ammunition for his essay, but the conversation of the n-word goes beyond him. Most likely, and like most white people, he is probably confused about the nature and continued existence of the n-word and here’s why. Black people still say it… all the time.
It’s only natural to look towards hip-hop music as a source for the n-word’s proliferation in pop culture. Over the years, full albums have had the infamous trigger word in its title, like Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s N**** Please and Wiz Khalifa’s O.N.I.F.C. (Only Nigga in First Class), but just since 2011, we’ve had huge crossover hits that feature the word blatantly. Jay Z and Kanye West’s first smash as “the Throne” was “Niggas in Paris” which earned two Grammys. YG has “My Nigga”, and while the untouchable Beyonce and biracial butterflies like Drake and Tinashe have sung it on record, Nicki Minaj released “Looking Ass Nigga” that featured “nigga” almost as many times as “nigger” was heard in Django Unchained (which topped out at an outstanding 251 times). The biggest rap hit of summer of 2014, which is still dominating the radio, was Bobby Schmurda’s “Hot Nigga”. While Schmurda’s audience remains (for now) a fan base that visits World Star Hip Hop religiously, the clout of a Jay Z, West, and Minaj has extended past its initial core audience of black America. They are international stars of not just music, but fashion, and entrepreneurship, so their work reaches many outside of their culture and lifestyle. What these artists also have in common is that by not forgoing the usage of “nigga” in project as visible as a song title (it’s already a given that the word will be featured in verses), it makes for an awkward case of having to pull out the proverbial magnifying glass. Are these influencers telling fans and curious listeners, like Morgan, that the word has (maybe) become just that: a word? And is that okay?
The word has long been desensitized– perhaps since 1989 when a west cost rap group led by Easy E and Dr. Dre named themselves N.W.A. (Niggas with Attitude). Amongst the Black community, division on this matter is deep and longstanding. Despite what someone like Morgan might believe, there are plenty of Black people who oppose, hate, and boil at just the sight at the n-word, and this includes the ever omnipresent Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey challenged Jay Z in 2009 about his perpetual insistence of the word in his lyrics and he responded by squirming in his seat, sitting across the Queen of Talk with a clearly opposing stance on a volcanic topic. Rappers are regularly pressured to speak on behalf of Black America, questioned on whether using the n-word really does take back the power, as many feminists have with attempting to reclaim the meanings the words “bitch”, “slut”, or the more abrasive “cunt” through empowerment.
The n-word debate is practically at ad nauseum, but for what it’s worth, Morgan does return the spotlight on the reality that many Black people use the word and are poetically unapologetic about it. The question is, does the usage of the n-word by the Black community signify a semantic shift strong enough for the n-word to take on a positive connotation in a way that can erase its ugly, historical past. Furthermore, if the majority of Black America believes that the word has been reclaimed, is the current and widely accepted narrative that White people should not be able to use the word contradictory to any and all attempts of reclaiming it? Left to the minds of pop-stars and music artists, often the rational of appropriating terms and symbols is highly individual. Remember how Kanye placed a confederate flag on an army jacket? He claimed live on the radio that it was his flag now, and not white supremacists. Does that work for “nigga” too? You wanted to call me that, well now I won’t stop saying it. It may not be a white man’s place to be the voice of reason, but the word is shockingly more present that ever. For all of his misguided musings on race, Morgan, and even Winfrey, do have a point in that the same community that continues to lash out at anyone non-black, non-brown on saying the word themselves are sending mixed messages and decreasing merit when it seems they can’t even control their tendencies in not saying the n-word at any given moment.
Whether the influence descends from those innately rambunctious like Schmurda, or of the echelon of the black yuppie like Kanye and Jay Z, when thrown around so capriciously, black people may understand there’s a time and place for “my nigga” but what are white people supposed to think, as they’re being constantly re-trained on the fact that they are not invited to the party. Gwyneth Paltrow made a fool of herself when she chose to tweet “Niggas in Paris for real” with a snapshot of herself dancing on stage with the Throne during their concert in France. Such a statement could’ve been and was interpreted in many ways. Recall Madonna’s #disnigga on Instagram for her white son Rocco? Also Google comedienne Lisa Lampanelli referring to Lena Dunham as her n-word. Black people can attest to now seeing Asians, Hispanics and white kids saying this word amongst friends and it’s not at all said with a racist undertone but as another playful jab (“this nigga right here”. “Come on my nigga”). We all know where they learned this from. Are we still allowed to upset?
According to pop-culture (and Black Twitter), White people are toast when it comes to saying n-word in any setting. While Morgan’s call to eradicate the word may be rooted in a noble notion (albeit draped in White male privilege), he alone can’t moderate the verbiage of a nation and certainly can’t even begin to compromise the complex role that the n-word plays within the Black community. But perhaps he does have a point? If we continue to use the word casually, celebrate in our cultural art forms and continue to make the attempt (no matter how misguided) to reclaim its meaning, we certainly can’t continue scold our non-Black brethren for using it. And if saying the n-word is going to continue to garner our brothers and sisters of other colors immediate admonishment, or an ass-whooping, perhaps it’s time we let that whole lame, “it doesn’t mean what it used to mean” argument go. John Legend and and the internet certainly have a valid point about Piers Morgan, this is a Black on Black conversation and he might need to see his way out. But the conversation still lives on and will continue to unless we (and yes, I’m looking at you Jay and Ye) make a decision to love nigger or leave it alone. But when it’s a Grammy award winning global anthem, the n-word certainly doesn’t cut both ways.
What do you think? Sound-off in the comments or chat with me on twitter @lavishrebellion