“If you having a good time, I want you to say, ‘Hell yeah, niggaaaaaaaaaa!”
“Hell yeah, niggaaaaaaaaaa!” the crowd screamed back at Lil Wayne.
I scanned the stadium of concert goers: a sea of young, white and light faces surrounded me, bopping their heads to the beat, hip-hop hands swaying in the air, phone cameras recording and repeating at Lil Wayne’s command,
Helllllll yeah, niggaaaaaaaaa!!
I looked over at my friend, who, like me, hadn’t joined the crowd.
“What the hell?” I mouthed at her, as my face contorted itself into surprise and disapproval.
This was the situation at a concert I attended in Orange County, California (“OC”) a few years ago. Orange County’s black population is similar to Utah’s in number. That is to say: nearly non-existent. Still, I didn’t expect to be such an obvious minority at a hip-hop concert headlined by black artists. I know white suburban teenagers are now the largest consumers of hip-hop, and Orange County is like one giant suburb, so really I shouldn’t have surprised me. But, there’s what you know and what you actually see for yourself.
Last year while in San Francisco’s Mission district with a friend, we overheard three teenagers shouting in conversation:
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Yeah, that nigga’s cray.”
They all laughed.
My friend and I turned to each other, the same “Did you just hear that?!” looks on our faces. None of the teens were black.
“Huh,” I exhaled. “So, that’s what’s going on now?”
It’s time like these when I feel my age. I resisted the urge to use my budding “kids these days” voice or wag my disapproving finger while giving them an impromptu history lesson on the “n-word.” They weren’t using the word in a hurtful manner. The way the kid said it, the word carried the same weight as someone saying “snow is white.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a teenager cavalierly use the word “nigga.” I’ve heard it from the mouths of black, white, Asian and Latino people. People who no doubt count themselves among a large and diverse group of hip-hop fans.
I’m not sure how to feel about this.
No matter how many times I hear people attempt to explain that using the derivative “nigga” is a way of reclaiming the word, stripping it of its power, I can’t buy into that argument. It is a word based in hate. As long as there are people hatefully hurling the word at black people with intent to wound and stake their superiority, that word is still mighty powerful. Even seeing it written stirs up emotion. If other black people choose to use it, that’s their prerogative. It’s not for me. Honestly, I don’t know that I will ever feel comfortable hearing any form of the word escape the lips of someone not black, outside of an academic discussion, and even then I may involuntarily wince.
It was less than 10 years ago when my youngest sister’s white classmate mean-girled her and nastily declared,
“No one wants to sit next to her because she’s a nigger.”
It hurt me to hear of the incident because I’d hoped, naïvely, that by the time my youngest sister reached the cruelest years of school, that kind of prejudiced language would lose favor with her generation. Just thinking of the experience still angers my sister. The girl made her life “a living hell.” I had hoped she could avoid some of the race-related pain her older sisters and parents endured growing up. Unfortunately, the power of the word persists.
The incident at the Lil Wayne concert forced me, once again, to face the cognitive dissonance of my hip-hop fandom.
I recognize that by listening to certain hip-hop artists, attending their concerts or streaming their music, I’m part of the problem. Just as I wish that magazines would quit covering Kim Kardashian’s every move and cleavage-baring ensemble, yet I’ll still click on a link to see her latest fashion atrocity, thereby reinforcing her (perceived) popularity.
I listen to hip-hop despite the liberal use of “nigga” in many songs and the fact that I have issues with the themes (violence, misogyny, celebration of drug slinging) and language (bitch, ho, THOT) in some songs and videos. Last year, popular rapper Rick Ross came under fire for the lyrics in his song “U.O.E.N.O”:
Put molly all in her champagne / She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that / She ain’t even know it.
– Rick Ross, U.O.E.N.O
His lyrics seem to describe drugging a woman by secretly slipping molly in her drink and then having sex with her. Many felt his lyrics diminished the seriousness of date rape and even glorified it. He claimed his lyrics were “misinterpreted.” The lyrics disgusted, but did not surprise me. This isn’t the first time he’s penned sickening verses. I’m not the biggest Rick Ross fan, or a fan at all really, but I can’t pretend his “Blowin’ Money Fast” doesn’t get me pushing out my lips and nodding my head.
How do you reconcile liking music that at times is regressive, offensive and sexist with your personal values and morals?
It’s easy to take the simplistic view: “Why not just stop listening to it?’
The problem is, I grew up on this stuff. It’s part of my history, it’s part of my culture. Rap and hip-hop evolved from the forms of music my parents exposed me to. Those same soul, funk and R&B songs from the ’60s, 70s’ and 80s’ that P Diddy – and later other hip-hop producers, following his lead – made a career out of samplin, laying rap verses atop and producing hit after danceable hit. Songs released during my formative high school and college years.
Of course, Diddy’s lyrics are practically granny-safe compared to some of today’s artists like Eminem, Juicy J or Schoolboy Q. Jay-Z and Kanye West had to go and release a song titled, “Niggas in Paris,” causing panic and confusion among many when singing it aloud in mixed company.
I can’t help but grin thinking of the self-aggrandizing lyrics rampant in many a verse of today’s rap, that give me a brief feeling of extra bravado. You know what I mean. It’s that extra swag some dudes seem to think they have as they blare T.I. from their cars.
I also appreciate the talent of true lyricists who can write and spit an impressive collection of words strung together in clever ways. If you’ve ever tried rapping, even just karaoke, you know it’s not easy, especially freestyle. It requires talent, confidence and showmanship.
At the core, I listen to hip-hop for its high energy. I just plain enjoy listening to music I can dance to. I’ve had many a solo dance party in my apartment, turning my living room into a club floor, free of groping hands and spilled beer.
There’s also a bit of, “If I have to take a stance against everything in the world that’s morally tainted, what will be left to enjoy?”
Not all hip-hop artists use misogynistic language or praise illegal activity. There’s a long list of “conscious” rappers making music, some of whom struggle to sustain careers if they don’t break into the mainstream – where the real money is. I listen to a handful of these rappers and it’s always a pleasant surprise to discover a hip-hop artist who really has something to say. Even Lil Wayne – for all his rapping about smoking weed, sipping sizzurp and his affinity for lady parts – is actually quite witty.
Every so often we come across art laden with poignancy that moves us. I think that’s a beautiful, but uncommon experience. Just as there are “popcorn flicks”, Oscar-winning films and myriad film categories in between, the same goes for hip-hop. I don’t need profundity from everything I listen to.
Last month I went to a Wiz Khalifa concert with my middle sister. When Wiz shouted to his fans, “Say ‘Dat’s my niggaaaaa.'” My sister glanced at me with a questioning look and a smile. She knows how I feel about this. I rolled my eyes and shook my head.
I asked my sister after the concert, “Is this one of those things where this is just how it’s gonna be? And I can either choose to adapt and accept it or be that annoying grumpy old person?” She shrugged.
It’s complicated being a hip-hop fan.