Although Allen Kingdom, a flame thrower, and the heavily censored version of Kanye West’s new song “All Day” were the main attractions at the Brit Awards last week, a bigger issue was resurfacing for the Chicago native and a majority of the hip-hop community. Images and video footage of Lionel Richie at the award ceremony shows him staring in horror and disbelief at the G.O.O.D. Music founder shouting the n-word during his performance. After the ceremony, Richie commented on Kanye’s song, stating that he does not believe anybody should use the racial slur. When asked why, Richie responded “Am I a fan of the N-word? Not coming from the 1960s and 70s.” He is not alone; many Civil Rights activists and older generations of African-Americans also have voiced their opposition towards the word, leading many to wonder if it should still even be used in 21st Century America.
This is not the first time an artist has received flack for using the racial aspersion. In 2008, the NAACP and Def Jam Records attacked New York rapper Nas for titling his album Nigger, forcing him to release the album untitled. Reverend Al Sharpton has stated that “We must not use the word,” after Jesse Jackson, another vocal opponent of the term, used the n-word off-stage as an insult toward then Presidential Candidate Barack Obama. However, hip-hop and politics are not the only areas in American culture where the word is used. Film director Quentin Tarantino, a Caucasian, uses the term in many of his films, such as Django Unchained and Pulp Fiction, leading many other members of the African-American community, most notably fellow director Spike Lee, to despise and boycott his movies. With so many instances of the term being used in popular culture, it has become an increasingly polarizing issue not only in the African-American community, but for the entire country.
Unlike many other controversies today, however, the usage of the racial slur has become a topic that very few Americans choose to discuss. While the LGBT community and the Feminist movement in this country progress, although slowly, anything relating to race hides in the shadows, just waiting for another Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown incident to occur before it gets discussed again for a month at most. This phenomenon stems from the racially charged history that the United States has been dealing with for over 200 years, and is a sad turn of events from the social progressivism of the 1950s and 60s. As African-Americans, we have become either too complacent with the status quo, or are more focused on the political and legal applications of the Civil Rights Movement (see Voter ID laws and Affirmative Action debate) than the social impact it had in this country.
Obviously, the political and legal applications of the Civil Rights Movement are incredibly important, but it is also necessary to look at popular culture and how it shapes our perception of race. In a society that has taken African-American culture (the blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, hip-hop, large jewelry and oversized clothes, breakdancing, step dancing, and cuisine just to name a few), yet shows through its actions and laws that these same people are second-class citizens is destructive to black communities across this country. Add on the fact that racism is rarely discussed in the news (unless a story like Rodney King or O.J. Simpson appears, which would increase the number of TV viewers or magazine subscribers), and the result is a group of lower-class minorities who feel less dignified and proud of their ancestry than their white counterparts. With the appearance of the n-word in popular music and black culture, that all changed. No longer were African-Americans passive victims of a system that placed glass ceilings over their heads, but actively changed the way they and the rest of America viewed and used the term that hung over the heads of blacks like a dark shadow of a vicious past. Now, we as African-Americans can use the n-word on our own terms, changing the way it is used and slowly erasing the negative and racist connotation that it adopted during the time of slavery.
Another important reason why African-Americans should use the word is because it has become an unspoken truth in hip-hop that Caucasians have no right to use the word. White rappers like Macklemore, Iggy Azalea, Eminem, Vanilla Ice, The Beastie Boys, Action Bronson, R.A. the Rugged Man and Mac Miller have never used the racial slur in their songs, and for good reason. Coming from a white person, no matter what the context or intention, the n-word is immediately discriminatory and offensive simply because of the term’s history in context with slavery and white supremacy. So, unlike all the other African-American genres of music that came before, hip-hop has carved out a section solely for African-Americans that want to use the n-word in their music, creating an identifiably black characteristic that will always remind us of our important contributions to hip-hop, a genre that has grown larger than the African-American community itself to become an international and multi-racial phenomenon.
Film is another part of culture that uses the n-word as a form of art. However, there is a difference between musicians using it and movie directors using it. Quentin Tarantino puts his films in a period of America when the n-word was still used frequently as an offensive, racially charged term. His works themselves are not racist or offensive, which shows that he is not using the n-word in a negative light but in a realistic light. In fact, his films are a great reminder of the times when the n-word was only a racial slur, and shows the progress made by America in order to limit or eliminate its usage from the common vernacular of white American society. If the art’s purpose calls for the historical use of the n-word, then there is no reason why anyone, black or white, should not be able to use the term in that regard.
It makes sense that the like of Lionel Richie, Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee and Al Sharpton despise the n-word; they, and many others that saw the civil unrest and blatant white-on-black violence during the period in history they grew up in, saw the term being used only in a derogatory manner. On some level, I agree with them. Non-blacks, including Caucasians, Hispanics and Asians, have no right using a term which, coming from their ethnic backgrounds, give the term a negative and racist connotation. However, African-Americans who want to reclaim the word and use it as a sense of pride should be able to do just that. Every time we as African-Americans use the n-word in a positive light to show solidarity amongst our fellow brethren, we remove some of the offensiveness of the term. This is more than just reappropriating a six-letter word; this is a fight for its power and meaning, something that is severely overlooked in America. Words are not simply defined by their history, but also by the person saying them and the context in which the word is used. It is for this reason why Quentin Tarantino, a white film director depicting America at a certain point in history, should be able to use the n-word in his work, and also why African-American hip-hop artists have a right to use it as well. What Lionel Richie failed to see during Kanye’s performance was that the rapper was not compounding the problems of the black community, but chipping away at a social infrastructure that has haunted and plagued African-Americans for the last two centuries, something that even Richie might be able to get behind.