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The “N-word”: From Malcolm to Minaj

We are pleased to welcome our new hip-hop/R&B writer Deborah Jane.  Check out her debut post below. –Ed.

Nicki. Nicki. Nicki. Most recently, the reigning queen of rap lit up the blogosphere with her use of an iconic photo of Malcolm X to promote her new single, “Lookin’ Ass N***a.” While she meant it as a statement of feminist power, it ultimately sparked outrage.

“Ms. Minaj’s artwork for her single does not depict the truth of Malcolm X’s legacy,” Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz said. In the photo, Malcolm holds a rifle to protect his family from death threats after his home had been firebombed in 1965.

Under siege, Nicki apologized to the family through her Instagram page. The photo has since been removed.

“The word ‘nigga’ causes so much debate in our community while the ‘nigga’ behavior gets praise and worship. Let’s not. Apologies again to his family. I have nothing but respect an adoration for u.” – Nicki Minaj (via Instagram)

She went on to defend her position somewhat in a Hot 97 interview; “I looked at it as this is one of the most memorable people in our history, in black history, who voiced his opinion no matter what.”

The N-word is a powder keg in our society. Either some talk show host is being fired over it, or some rapper is blasting it on the airwaves. It’s also laden in history, multiple meanings, and complexity. Let me break it down.

The N-word was originally invented by white Americans during slavery (yes, 12 Years a Slave slavery) to degrade black Americans. Nowadays, many descendents of those same black Americans use the word either as a pejorative against ratchet behavior or as a term of endearment to each other. Especially in hip-hop culture.

Nicki represents this generational disconnect with the word’s original meaning. In the 60’s, Malcolm X fought to restore African-American’s true identity by eradicating the word. He fought by any means necessary.

“Their worst habit is to call us ‘niggas’… when we end up using this word about ourselves, we now abuse our own.” – Malcolm X

In Nicki’s song, the N-word refers to broke-ass bustas. Different. But like so many today, Nicki speaks as a product of her hip-hop culture – even with a word that would probably make her grandma cringe.

The N-word still carries a particular sting, a discomfort, (usually expressed when a white person says it), because it ultimately originates from its painful predecessor: “Nigger.” THAT is why Malcolm fought so hard, and THAT is why it’s crucial to understand the history of the N-word before using it.

Which brings us to the black/white debate.  Many white youth raised on rap use the N-word freely even on black friends. Meanwhile, black youth who happily throw the N-word around with their brothers are ready to fight when they hear it from a white person. This has left many people scratching their heads. These are the breaks: the N-word is not an equal opportunity word. It is received differently depending on who says it because it is still connected to its dark historical roots.

Today, as a hip-hop femcee and writer, I am as adamant as Malcolm X about re-invention, renaming and standing in the power of one’s true identity. I choose not to use the N-word in my rap lyrics, (and don’t think anyone should), because it takes away my power. I am all too sensitive to the poisonous roots from which it springs. Yet, I do understand what Nicki Minaj was trying to do. I’d just suggest that she do it by any (other) means necessary.


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About the Author


Mic check 1,2,1,2. Not the words you expect to bust out of Orange County, California, but that's where Deborah Jane found her funk. Daughter of Guyanese immigrants, Deborah grew up in an all-white suburb where she was one of the only black kids in her school. (Fun fact: She didn't make her first black friend until attending Stanford University). Hip-hop gave her a voice and helped her discover her roots. Now she is an emcee and writer who both spits raps and writes editorials, TV shows and films - especially hip-hop musicals!

At Stanford, she wrote and produced an award-winning hip-hop musical, Strange Fruit: The Hip-Hopera (www.strangefruithiphopera.com) - now in development as a feature film. Deborah also launched her hip-hip theatre webseries, The HOTT (www.youtube.com/TheHOTTtv), published in Urban Cusp Magazine. Currently, she is penning her first hip-hop album, Do You Love Me Deborah Jane? And do you? She truly hopes you all love her.

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Posted in: Hip Hop Music


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