Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Who gets to use the N word? :: Mark Anthony Neal on Jabari Asim

Yet another great piece today from our man Mark Anthony Neal here in Salon interviewing Jabari Asim about his new book, The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why::

Mark: Were you conflicted at all when the conversation inevitably had to go to hip-hop? I mean, I imagine that there were all kinds of pressures around you as you turned in the manuscript to make it sexier, and sexier at this moment includes an indictment of hip-hop. But you dealt with hip-hop as it presented itself in a logical way. I thought it was interesting that you could take a so-called conscious rapper like Mos Def and so-called gangsta rappers like N.W.A. and acknowledge that there was a very real consciousness, especially in the case of N.W.A., behind how they employed the N-word.

Jabari: I didn’t set out to do that. I’ve never had strong emotions about hip-hop, one way or the other. I’ve never been a hip-hop head, though members of my generation are. I never felt that it spoke to me in particular or told my story. I thought that quite a bit of the criticism of hip-hop — and I say this as an outsider and a resolute non-expert — is superficial, in that it comes from people who perhaps have never sat down to listen to a hip-hop recording. Criticism, if it’s gonna serve any constructive purpose, must be deeply informed. So I had to listen to all that N.W.A. and I had to read those lyrics. And so as I listened to it. There were songs that confirmed what I had heard about these guys — this is some awful stuff. And then there were other songs that seem to meet all the criteria. My hastily assembled yardstick for the use of the N-word is that I think art is sacred and you just don’t respond to it the way you respond to other things. Secondly, if the use of the N-word advances our understanding of the culture in some way, then to me it is valid. N.W.A.’s lyrics easily meet that criteria. People talk about hip-hop spreading the N-word through the culture, but I take pains to point out that popular culture has always spread the N-word. There is serious precedent — in the 1920s and 1930s, you went into a white middle-class home and the N-word was everywhere. It was on the shelves, it was in the cookbooks, the sheet music on the piano, the toys children played with. Let’s not talk about hip-hop introducing this word in some new and unprecedented fashion. The only difference is that hip-hop exists during a period of high technology and spreads these things a lot faster. But let’s not pretend that hip-hop has somehow confused white people regarding the use of the word. I think that’s a very disingenuous argument.

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