I haven’t felt as embarrassed as an African American as I did when I heard comedian Larry Wilmore call President Barack Obama “my nigga” at The White House Correspondence Dinner. Don’t get me wrong. There have been many moments that I have considered low points for our culture but this was the lowest. The only thing that is more offensive to Wilmore’s ignorance is the response by people who have no problem with the use of the word because it’s just “Keepin’ it 100” or “Keepin’ it real.” Yes, Wilmore kept it real—real stupid. For anyone who says that this is just a natural term for us to use and that we’re used to it,” let me explain the three reasons why they’re wrong.
Nigga is not a term of endearment
Let’s really “keep it 100.” I am a rapper. I also have been “hip-hop” since birth so I am no newcomer to hip-hop culture. It’s the soundtrack of my life and so I will always love hip-hop. Anyone who listens to hip-hop knows full well that in our music, the term “nigga” is used more negatively than positively. Even Tupac who stated that “NIGGA” meant “Never Ignorant Getting’ Goals Accomplished” rarely used the term “nigga” in an endearing way. Sure there are verses where rappers talk about rollin’ with “my niggas” or bringing their “niggas” through the door once they became successful. In reality however, the overwhelming use of the term “nigga” is negative as in “niggas hatin’” on each other or “killin’ niggas” as well as their kids and other family members. Whenever I hear a term like “brother” being used in rap, it is indeed use positively as it should be. We cannot believe the terms “brother” and “nigga” to be synonymous and anyone who says “nigga” is used as a term of endearment particularly in our mainstream hip-hop music is just wrong. Don’t believe the hype.
Acceptance of the term nigga is not generational
A few years ago, rapper and mogul Jay Z appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and they had an honest debate about the word “nigga.” Jay Z made the argument that many users of the word use. He said that it’s generational and that the overuse of the word has taken the power out of the word. He also said that the intent behind the word is important, a point to which I agree. The fact of the matter however is that many black people younger than Jay Z do not use the term “nigga” and find it deplorable. I am younger than Jay Z and Nas and many rappers who rose to prominence in the 1990s and the 2000s. I work with youth across the country and run into students from kindergarten to college who deplore use of the word. It is also clear by Wilmore’s use of “nigga” that there are people of Oprah’s generation and older who are quite comfortable with the word. To accept, however, that people of my generation and younger have just accepted the term is flat out wrong. I am a Jay Z fan and even wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jay Z but on this point, I couldn’t disagree more with him.
White people still own the word “nigga”
There is always a debate about whether white people can use the word but we cannot reclaim a word we never owned. The argument is a waste of time. Not only can white people use the word, they still own the word. Some believe that Kendrick Lamar’s explanation of “nigga” coming from “negus” in ancient Africa. Please. I doubt Master John was thinking about ancient Africa while whipping his slaves. White people still use the word on a regular basis. I am a professor of cross cultural communication at American University. When I discussed hip-hop and the term “nigga” to my 70 plus majority white students (many wealthy) I asked them if they repeat the word “nigga” when singing their favorite rap songs. They all honestly raised their hands. I was not mad because they were just being honest but it revealed to me that an endless debate over use of the word is pointless because we live in a society where historical context doesn’t matter and all students on college campuses hear the word every day in music or from their black classmates.
At the end of the day, we as black people have lost the ability to make a case for the termination of “nigga.” I’ve heard some gay people refer to each other as “faggot.” I believe that there are Jewish people who may refer to each other as “kikes”, Latinos who refer to each other as “spics” and maybe even some Chinese people who use term “chink.” The difference with these groups is that they have not mainstreamed the most derogatory terms into global lexicon. Rapper Drake is half Jewish but you would never hear him utter the word “kike” in his music. Michael Jackson, probably the most not-racist person in history had his album pulled and was roundly condemned by his “friends” like Steven Spielberg because he used the word “kike” in his anti-racist song “They don’t care about us.” That should have made the message very clear to black people: degrade yourselves all day but as soon as you go beyond the plantation, expect to be whipped back into form.
As KRS-ONE so eloquently put it, “That mic you speak through/goes from here to Mogadishu/and how you represent us is the issue.” Across the globe, from Japan to Israel, we have made it acceptable to use the term “nigga” without providing any context because too many of us don’t know the context. I’ve been called “nigga” in Senegal and South Africa by people who thought they were being cool. I’ve watched Japanese sitcoms where they call each other “nigga.” At the same time the word becomes globalized, the #blacklivesmatter movement and the overall fight for black dignity has not. People want to dress in “our” clothes and play “our” music but take it all off when they go home. They want everything but the burden. All Larry Wilmore did was make the word acceptable for an entire new generation of black and non-black people to get comfortable with the word by referring the first black President in that way. There is nothing funny about that and as Joe Madison said, he tainted the legacy of the first black president and, as Reverend Al Sharpton said, it was at best tasteless. We can and need to do better.