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The word "nigger" is arguably the most controversial and offensive racial slur ever invented. Racists use it to belittle and dehumanise people of African descent; yet many black youths have appropriated its usage, flipped the context, and reinvented its meaning.

What’s in a word? Those standing in the sticks and stones corner will say not a thing. Words are a bank collection of letters to which meaning is applied depending on how, to, and by whom they are used. See the transmutation of words like wicked, cool, and sick for reference. But while the context theory is a reasonable one, it doesn’t quite work when you try to apply it to a word like, say, nigger.

Ask Nas, he’ll tell you. The 37-year-old rapper from Queensbridge, New York is no stranger to controversy; remember this is the man who burst onto the hip-hop scene with the infamous line, “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus.” But nothing could have prepared him for the furore he met when he tried to name his ninth album “Nigger.” Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Bill Cosby and the NAACP spearheaded a campaign of public condemnation, accusing Nas of ignorance and inflammatory behaviour, forcing Def Jam and Nas to rename the album Untitled.  But Nas didn’t back down completely. The album’s defiant lead single, “Be a Nigger Too,” features the sing-a-long chorus:

“‘I’m a nigger, he’s a nigger, she’s nigger, we some nigger’s
Won’t you like to be a nigger too?
Too all my kike niggers, spic niggers, guinea niggers, chink niggers
That’s right y’all my niggers too
They like to strangle niggers, blame a nigger, shoot a nigger, hang a nigger, still you wanna be a nigger too?”

For those of you unfamiliar with the work of Nasir Jones, oldest son of the jazz musician Olu Dara, you may dismiss this as the crass utterings of another dumb rapper shottin’ ignorance as entertainment. But Nas is no idiot. Straddling the seemingly disparate fields of conscious hip hop and reality rap, he is one of the foremost lyricists of our times. He’s read his history books. He knows what ‘nigger’ means, a word described by American journalist Farai Chideya as “the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.” His gun was fully loaded. Though it would seem Nas has misfired.

Talking to MTV News late last year, Nas responded to the controversy over his album title by saying:

"I wanna make the word easy on muthafuckas' ears. You see how white boys ain't mad at 'cracker' 'cause it don't have the same [sting] as 'nigger'? I want 'nigger' to have less meaning [than] 'cracker.' With all the bullshit that's going on in the world, racism is at its peak. We're taking power [away] from the word."

But how can a word that has been used for the last 400 years to dehumanise one section of the human race, a process which resulted in slavery, colonialism and continued economic, physical, mental and spiritual subjugation suddenly become a catch-all term of endearment for anyone who chooses to use it?  Changing the meaning you give a word does not change its history. Though Saul Williams, a spoken word artist/actor/poet who collaborated with Nas on the track “Black Stacy” seems to think otherwise. Speaking to me during a pre-promotional tour for his Niggy Tardust project, I ask him how he felt about the public use of a very private word. He replied:

“When I used the word ‘nigger’ I essentially mean everybody because I believe that you can’t curse the part without damning the whole. I am a firm believer in the meaning that was used by the European John Lennon when he said ‘women are the niggers of the world.’  It speaks to the idea of being disenfranchised and being overlooked by governments and oppressed, but essentially, especially in relation to the African-American experience, I think of the word ‘nigger’ as a portable hard drive, that if we were to try and streamline our experience and all that we’ve known and been through as a people on this land, we could do away with a lot and simply keep that word and all of the history would be embedded in it.”

Does that make it okay to use? You can change ‘nigger’ to ‘nigga’ but its origins as another word for ‘less than human’ remain. And I don’t think you can ever take away the sting. On researching this article, I went to a library to enquire after a copy of Randall Kennedy’s thought-provoking work, “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” and found myself unable to ask the white librarian for it. The words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth, because I was conscious of the fact that less than 100 years ago someone who looked like him would have been calling someone who looked like me that very word without the slightest hint of humanity. Yet Williams is a firm believer in our ability to infuse the word with a new meaning.

“We have to keep history in its place. Even what we know of history is partially barricaded from us, so what a lot of people don’t talk about is the fact that the Niger River existed as the Niger way before Europeans ever came, and in that Niger Basin there are over 200 languages spoken and in just about every one of those languages there are words that sound exactly as the word ‘nigger,’ meaning anything from God to river to grass. ‘Nigger’ may be the only word in the English lexicon that is of actual African origin. And when I look at a generation of young people that have chosen to reconnect to that word, I wonder what is the subconscious process of healing? What does it take? Perhaps it is something like the way old schoolers would say about the way you heal from a snakebite. Having to spit out the venom again and again until there is no more. Suck it up and spit it out. Perhaps its some sort of process like that. I’m not sure.”

It’s quite clear that Nas hoped to expose the hypocrisy of a racist, white-run music industry which has flaunted the word like a dysfunctional peacock but done nothing to question its meaning, its reception or its history. An industry that deems it acceptable for black artists to tell tales of shooting and killing ‘niggas’ quickly shoots down a man who tries to have an open debate about what the word means. For this I commend Nas, but it’s not a debate we should be having because it’s not a word anyone should be using. It should be confined to history along with the legal lynchings and enslavement from whence it came. Because until the conditions which allow certain people of a darker hue to be treated as sub-human, as ‘niggers,’ disappears, then the word should too. No matter how you spell it, or what you may mean by it, it’s painful past and present always remains.

1st July 2008
By Tamara Gausi