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It’s Your Nigger Problem, Not Hip-Hop’s


April 22, 2007.


By Mark Anthony Neal


The basic tropes of “blackness” – black culture, black identity, black institutions – have been distorted, remixed, and undermined by the logic of the current global economy.


At stake is the preservation of a “modern” blackness – that blackness which was posited and circulated as a buffer against white supremacy, aparthied in South Africa, racism in Europe, political disenfranchisement, slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the collusion of racist imaginations and commodities culture.


In many sectors “blackness” is literally thought to be under siege. It is in this context that many of the contemporary tropes of “blackness” that circulate in commercial popular culture, particularly in popular music, film and music video, are deemed threats to blackness – as tropes of an erosive and inauthentic blackness that is as threatening to the Black Public proper as “death” itself.


This sense of threat, has been, perhaps, most powerfully expressed in these debates over the use of the word “nigger” in popular culture which highlights a philosophical divide within “blackness.”


It is in the context of this divide that I posit my own “nigger” theory. Whereas the term “nigger” references notions of “blackness” as landlocked, immobile, static, segregated, and an embodiment of black racial subjects in the pre-20th century American South, I would like to argue that the term “nigga” (and its attendant variations) relates to concepts of blackness as mobile, fluid, adaptable, post-modern, urban, and embodying various forms of social and rhetorical flow that are fully realized within the narratives of hip-hop.


In other words, there are myriad meanings, uses and possibilities that have always been associated with the term “nigger.” In large part the debates over the term “nigger/nigga” represent a crisis of interpretation. The failure of some to discern the distinction is akin to what Samuel R. Delaney calls a discursive collision.


According to Delaney, “The sign that a discursive collision has occurred is that the former meaning has been forgotten and the careless reader, not alert to the details of the changed social context, reads the older rhetorical figure as if it were the newer.” (See Samuel R. Delaney, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue [New York: New York University Press, 1999], 119.)


There is perhaps no word within American Vernacular English (AVE) that has elicited more animus among blacks than the term “nigger.”


There is little dispute over the fact that the term “nigger” has been a staple of white supremacist discourse often employed to shorthand commonly held societal beliefs about black folk as being less than human or more powerfully less than “American” (as in “just a nigger”), while also tactically deployed as a direct attack on individual and group black self esteem, hence its power as a racial epithet.


Indeed legal scholar Randall Kennedy writes in his book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” that “If nigger represented only an insulting slur and was associated only with animus, this book would not exist, for the term would be insufficiently interesting to warrant an extended study.” Kennedy further describes “nigger” status as “paradigmatic slur…the epithet that generates other epithets.”


Nigger’s” status as “paradigmatic slur” highlights the complexity of it’s usage, even in the face of the word’s obvious negative connotations. Kennedy cites the autobiography of Helen Jackson Lee who in describing her Cousin Bea, acknowledged she had “a hundred different ways of saying nigger.” (See Helen Jackson Lee, Nigger in the Window [New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1978], 27).


Lee acknowledges her familiarity with the word growing up in Virginia during the during the World War I era, reflecting that “By the time I was three, nigger was as familiar as mama, daddy, brother, uncle, aunt.” But it was her Cousin Bea’s use of the word – the first person she heard use the term – that brought the word’s complexity alive for her:


“Listening to her, I learned the variety of meanings the word could assume. How it could be opened like an umbrella to cover a dozen different moods, or stretched like a rubber band to wrap up our family with other colored families…Nigger was a piece of clay word that you could shape…to express feelings.”


Lee’s comments suggest the possibility of seeing “nigger” not simply as a word entrenched in racist discourse, but as the basis for a hybrid black identity – one that speaks the complexity of people of African descent who live in the United States. Though many blacks in the United States and elsewhere are likely to reject such logic as a meaningful defense of the word’s casual use, such examples of “nigger” usage prominently circulate throughout the world of Hip-Hop culture and by extension American youth culture.


What hip-hop culture has essentially done is make explicit the very crisis of identity that the black public at large faces. According to literary scholar Sharon Patricia Holland, “identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty.” (See Sharon Patricia Holland, Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000], 137).


There is also a perception that those of the hip-hop generation employ the word out of a sense of historical ignorance and in the simple pursuit of the financial opportunities encompassed in being the “realest” nigger within the music industry. Such perceptions hold the hip-hop generation and its artists accountable for making explicitly public, aspects of black life that largely remained within the confines of segregated black spaces, just a generation or two ago.


As legal scholar Imani Perry observes, “there is no private space to distinguish between the nigga in the black linguistic world and the nigga in the white.” (See Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004], 143).


Already accepting that they were products and inhabitants of a brave new black world – post-Civil Rights, post-Reagan era, post-crack, post LA Riots, post-MTV, etc. – the hip-hop generation has been less concerned with the validity of a term like “nigger,” but rather defining what a “real” nigga was, in other words, the black subject that was most organically representative of this brave new black world.


Though the quest for the “real nigga” has, as Robin D.G. Kelly suggests in his book Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional, long been the concern of urban anthropologists, here the objects of study, become the primary interlocutors. (See Robin D.G. Kelly’s essay “Looking for the Real ‘Nigga’: Social Scientist Construct the Ghetto” in Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America [New York: Beacon Press, 1997], 15-42.)


The irony of this search for the authentic “nigga” was addressed by novelist Paul Beatty in his book Tuff. In the book, the character Rabbi Spencer Throckmorton comes across two young black boys wearing tee shirts that say “I Ain’t Got No Time for Fake Nigga” and “I love Black people but I hate niggas” respectively. The quotes are drawn from Lil Kim’s track “No Time” and Chris Rock’s comedic sketch “Blacks vs. Niggers.” Throckmorton says to the youths:


“Your shirts bespeak a bit of a familiar paradox. The quest for the real nigger within us and the simultaneous hatred for that selfsame nigger as other. As in I’m a real nigger, but I hate all other niggers who don’t fit into my idiosyncratic perception of essentialist niggerdom.” – Paul Beatty.Tuff: A Novel(New York: Knopf, 2000), 87.


Arguably, the dominant existential crisis within contemporary hip-hop, the search for the “real nigga” was perhaps most coherently articulated in the chorus of Lil Kim’s track “No Time.” Throughout the song’s chorus, hip-hop artist and mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs repeats the line “no time for fake niggas.”


The song was recorded in the midst of a virulent exchange of threats between Combs, head of Bad Boy Entertainment and Shug Knight, head of the Death Row Recording company. While the latter camp embodied what was perceived as a more authentic hardcore ghetto identity, Combs roots Bad Boys’ authenticity in economic productivity – the distinction between performative gesture (“talk shit”) and productive labor (“counting bank figures”).


Combs’ distinction finds resonance in the work of theorist and philosopher Ronald A. T. Judy. In his essay, “On Nigga Authenticity,” Judy argues that “the ‘nigga’ (as embodied within hip-hop discourse) is what emerges from the demise of human capital, what gets articulated when the field nigger loses value as labor…a nigga who understands that all possibility converts from capital, and does not derive from work.”


According to Judy’s logic the “nigga” articulates a distinction between the labor of actual black bodies and the “labor” of that which ostensibly represents those black bodies in a global marketplace. Explicitly linking this new “nigga” to the world of hip-hop, Judy states that hip-hop is “thinking about being in a hypercommodified world”.


In other words “niggas” – shorthand for the very idea of the hip-hop – fully understand that with the demise of black labor’s value (niggers), that real capital accumulation comes from the circulation of black “representations” (niggas) throughout the globe. Rather than a civil war between “blacks and niggers,” it’s the labor of black popular culture vs. the labor of black bodies. (See Ronald A.T. Judy, “On Nigga Authenticity Boundary 2 [Fall 1994], 212.)


"Real capital accumulation comes from the circulation of black 'representations' (niggas) throughout the globe."

Judy is of course talking about very traditional notions of labor – cotton picking, sharecropping, factory and domestic work and other forms of menial labor – the kind of labor that has defined the black experience in the United States that is, per Mexican President Vincente Fox, now largely the province of new immigrant workers from Mexico.


In the context of the contemporary labor force, the “field nigger” is now rendered too expensive, though some might argue that many “field niggers” view themselves as being above such labor in the aftermath of the social gains made by blacks since the late 1950s.


Regardless, some young black laborers were forced into illicit and underground sites of labor, including the prison industrial complex – the drug economy and the pornography industry being two of those sites – and in the process have helped redefine the very idea of labor by elevating hustling as an act of necessary self-preservation in an era when the kinds of jobs that sustained the working-class lifestyles of their parents and grand-parents, have been lost to foreign laborers.


Hip-Hop’s brilliance (if we could call it that), was not only to exploit the narratives of “nigga laborers,” but if we consider how much contemporary rap music and videos traffic in the bodies of nearly naked black women, hip-hop clearly also exploits the bodies of those “nigga laborers.” In fact one could argue that hip-hop produces a surplus labor – rappers, ballers, video-hoes, thugs and strippers are a dime a dozen within the discourses of hip-hop.


As sociologist Roderick Ferguson suggests, this surplus labor only heightens the sense that hip-hop is outside of a normative blackness: “As surplus labor becomes the impetus for anxieties about the sanctity of ‘community’, ‘family’ and ‘nation’, it reveals the ways in which these categories are normalized in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Indeed the production of labor, ultimately, throws the normative boundaries of race, gender, class and sexuality into confusion.” (See Roderick Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004], 17.)



"Banning the word ‘nigger’ will not erode the realities of white supremacy."

Judy defines authenticity as “adaptation to the force of commodification.” In this regard, Judy argues that “Nigga is not an essential identity, strategic or otherwise, but rather indicates the historicity of indeterminate identity” (Judy, 229).


This notion of “indeterminate identity” is echoed in literary scholar Saidiya Hartman’s description of the black slave – the organic “nigger as property” – in her book Scenes of Subjection where she asserts that the “fungibility of the commodity makes the captive body an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others feelings, ideas, desires, and values; and as property, the dispossessed body of the enslaved is the surrogate for the master’s body since it guarantees his disembodied universality and acts as the sign of his power.”


While Hartman may have been talking about the white elites within a 19th century “slavocracy,” more than a century later, some within the black community use “niggas” as the empty vessel to project their hatred, disgust and embarrassment with those black bodies that don’t fit some bourgeois and idiosyncratic notion of who “real” black people are supposed to be.


Banning the word “nigger” will not erode the realities of white supremacy, but at least for some, it will further diminish the visibility of those within our ranks who some feel are not deserving of the very humanity that we all seek.


Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books and an Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University where he also serves as the Director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies.


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