Using the N word in the Arts

Younger generations of hip hop artists are increasingly questioning the use of the “N” word. You know the word. THAT word. Possibly the most emotionally charged word in the English language. The word that stands for centuries of society unfixed. Not a pretty subject. I’m loud and proud about freedom of expression in the arts and also run several hip hop forums. But just because you CAN express something does it mean you SHOULD? It’s an issue, and a good one for up and coming hip hop artists to give serious consideration to.

If you don’t listen to hip hop, let me fill you in on a couple things: The “N” word is everywhere in it. You can say what you want but it doesn’t change the facts, hip hop IS music (in fact it’s very good). It is currently the most active leading edge form of expression for teens. It’s here to stay. Remember the people in the sixties that said the Beatles were rubbish and rock was a fad? If you say that about hip hop today then you will eventually join those ranks.

I’ve heard the word a lot in two venues with two very different connotations. I played Country music for many years in nightclubs when I was younger. Not too often, but every once in a while, I would hear the word. Usually as part of a joke, but every once in a while said to me as if I was part of the inside crowd that appreciated it. I wore a cowboy hat, so I guess the stereotype fit. It always took me a little offguard, like why would they say that word?

The other place I used to hear it a lot was when producing hip hop music (I’ve produced several hundred hip hop demos and soundtracks, which is a little confusing to those that know me from orchestral and sacred projects). It was very rare that a rap artist did NOT use the word in a rap. It was really the expected thing. Every once in a while I’d get a rapper who told me they refused to use the word, but those artists were few and far between.

Times have changed. I think originally the word was overused in the context of comraderie as a way of de-sensitizing it’s history. “Yo my N***” was affectionate when said by the right person TO the right person.

Social consciousness undergoes a paradigm shift when a whole strata of society changes it’s view on something. An example is the current social consciousness about smoking; very different than it was in 1960. Or even drinking, as a society our overall view has changed. The tipping point of these things is a mystery, but one day we wake up and it seems the world has changed. So it is with our increasingly elevated race consciousness and the “N” word.

The arts, rap music, was one of the places the word was cool. A slow change has occured and artists are increasingly evaluating their use of the word. In 2006 when comedian Michael Richards went on his racist rant at the Comedy Club in Los Angeles, he inadvertantly opened a lot of discussions. I saw one interview with another comedian who’s schtick was built largely on using the word, and he announced he was cutting it from his act. He was asked if he would still be funny without it, his response was that he really didn’t care. He was doing his part to do what he thought was right.

I’ve run a hip hop forum since 2000 who’s membership is largely urban youth age 12-19. They’re talking about it now, whether it’s ok to use the word. That’s the reason I’m writing this post. It was never a discussion before, it was just the thing to do. But somewhere the tipping point has turned and even inner-city urban youth are questioning the effects of the word.

Many people accept that the arts are a way of expressing the human condition. If the race consciousness has changed to finally make this word obsolete after hundreds of years, then artists might consider that fact when creating new works. My experience has been that younger artists use the word not fully realizing it’s implications. Increased education and exposure to the struggles that have gone on during the Civil Rights movements has a tendency to dull the charm of the word for many artists.