Thursday, January 19, 2012

Electric Relaxation: A Debate over "Niggas in Paris" and its success

(Disclaimer: I personally don't use nigga in my everyday speech. But since we are adults and I'll be darned if I let mainstream (White) publications say it with no fear, I'm going to say it here because I'm discussing the song and the word in general. This also isn't meant to be my complete opinion on the word because there's more to say.)

I guess this was inevitable. At some point, there’d be a popular hip hop song with nigga in the title that would somehow cross over and be a pop hit. I didn’t think it was possible but as Jay-Z once said “difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week.”

It’s no surprise that America’s favorite rappers were the first to do it. Jay-Z and Kanye made history again as "Niggas in Paris" is the first #1 R&B/rap hit with Nigga in the title as well as the first Top-5 and 10 pop hit.

Let’s get this out of the way. I didn’t like Watch the Throne when I first heard it. Besides a few songs, it was too gaudy, too much focus on excess, Jay-Z’s still on lyrical cruise control (on the surface at least), and not even an inspired Kanye made me enjoy it like I would have in 2005/06. I’ve only liked one Jay album since he came back from retirement so hearing him isn’t exciting anymore.

But “Paris” was a highlight. It sounded like a foreign beat and it felt funky like what you’d expect to play in the background as you visit Paris. Not to mention, I got visuals of my Black heroes who spent significant time in France – Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and more. I liked the song more than just the catchy hook or Kanye’s usual lyrical shine.

Yet like Jon Heder said in the sample, I don’t even know what it means…..that a song has crossed over with Nigga in the title (but only says it four times in the song). Is it all bad, quietly dangerous or even a sign of the further meshing of cultures that there isn’t more outrage? Or is this the final spawn of something that’s been bubbling for three decades?

NWA wasn’t the first act to use nigga in their lyrics. 70’s Black movies and Richard Pryor had already made that word a bit popular in the communities and other cats in the 80’s had done it, especially Ice-T and Schooly D. But Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella made that word part of their identity and Hip-Hop/Black culture would never be the same afterwards.

Their last album “Efil4zaggin” is the first (and to date, only) No. 1 album with nigga in the title and even then, they had to flip it backwards. It was also a sign of hardcore rap making a popular dent following the 3 million seller of Straight Outta Compton.

But as I remember an MTV special showed, Straight Outta Compton and Ice-T’s Power only used Nigga 40-50 times on their album. Cats on average probably use it over 100 times now. Yet NWA’s name and “F--- the Police” gave them a lot of shock value notoriety.

Even as more and more rappers started using nigga in their raps, White fans still knew that word was a no-go. My White peers knew never to say that word when they rapped songs and only the truly smart alecky idiots would dare say it.

Despite the widespread usage, songs like A Tribe Called Quest “Sucka Nigga”, Goodie Mob’s “The Experience” and Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigga” discussed what the word meant and people always got reminded that there was a flipside. Cee-Lo said it best on The Experience - "you ain't a nigger because you're Black, you're a nigger cause of how you act" (meaning it was about ignorance, not skin color). Of course, that got lost among every rapper and their mama using it.

I didn’t grow up using that word. I began saying “brotha” because I realized at some point, it’s better to reinvigorate a term of endearment than recreate one. Like the Last Poets said on Nas’ “Project Roach” - “We should resurrect brothers and sisters instead of trying to kill the word nigger” because that mentality still exists."

(Speaking of Nas, his last album was supposed to be titled Nigger and I would’ve supported it because his album had songs that discussed the word and it’s impact. Of course, it was forced to be changed but it didn’t tone down some of Nas’ songs that looked at how we see ourselves)

Every word we use, it has a capacity

And if you don't understand the words you're using

And understand the capacity of it
You are using words that is creating a destiny for you
That you don't even know, or even conscious of

I once wrote a poem discussing why I didn’t use the word yet at the same time, since my college was so White, I grew to feel comfortable when I heard Black folks use it.  It was a reminder that I could be cool around my people and just be myself instead of always hanging around one group. That may sound hypocritical but it shows how it can be confusing. 

15 years ago, it never would’ve been cool to have a pop hit single with it in the title.  Let’s not forget it was barely 10 years ago when The Source tried to destroy Eminem’s career over 90’s tapes with him saying it.  Times have changed and it’s coincided with the culture becoming far more integrated and younger folks having less awareness of cultural differences/history (and tastemakers being less sensitive about it)

A generation of kids have heard nigga in popular rap and are growing up thinking it’s normal – hence the V-Nasty’s of the world who say it and Black folks who defend them for whatever reason. That offends me more because when we don't check others, we've lost control of a word we tried to empower. Years ago, White people would listen to rap and know much better than say the word. Nowadays, people want to know why they can't say it or what's the harm.

I asked on Facebook how people felt about the song being a hit. Some could care less. Some were concerned over why folks are using that word still. But that small sample showed me why it’s no surprise that in 2011, the right, safe rappers could get away with doing it without most folks raising an eyebrow over it.

A friend of mine made a good point in an email that if 2 of the top Black artists are doing it, it’s troubling because of America’s fascination with violence and hate. Black artists used to uplift the people and now we’ve gotten so comfortable with using that word that it’s regression that it’s become so ingrained in popular music.

Both points are valid and it’s exactly why this song being popular is hardly eyebrow raising yet it also should be. "Niggas in Paris" to me is an ultimate sign of how far we’ve come on culture mixing but a question if it truly is progress – if anything it’s obviously surface progress. Is it cool if Top 40 plays a song with it so kids will have the awkward conversation of requesting it? The way I figure, pop hits have had that word in it for so long that having it in the title is the only logical next step.

It’s a confusing argument for me.  I'm not saying we censor the word cause everyone has the right to do with it as they please but when that word escapes the boundaries of the group trying to reclaim it (similar to other harmful words) - what then? Does it lose it's power and is that a bad thing given the dark history of the word? 

I guess the only thing I’m clear on is who should and shouldn’t use it and the fact that us using so much has created more problems than liberation.


  1. Interesting article. I see you pose more a of a neutral state in this review. So do i. I have white friends who like this song but they go by it as "ball so hard" instead of niggas in Paris. Because I pose a neutral perspective to the word I say it depends in how you use it. There is a difference between nigger and nigga and in the black community nigga is used as a form of friendship... You know the deal. I actually use the word occasionally but I'm always careful who I use it around and what I intentions I use it for. I guess I'm just comfortable with the word becuase of the enviornment I grew up in.


  2. Thanks Penny and I always love your perspective on things. You stated exactly where I could take this for a Part 2 because of how it's used among our community. But you also made a point folks forget which is being careful where you use it and who you use it around. I think the problem is the word has escaped our boundaries and now people just think it's a daily word instead of realizing it's power. Even with Q-Tip made "Sucka Nigga", you can hear how conflicted he is as he explains the history of the word.

  3. When EVERY one stops using it as casual slang..only THEN will NO one use it. Im White & I don't use it any form. I refuse to refer to it as a letter "insert letter here" It's hurtful & that is enough. Peace

    1. That's a great point and ultimately I look at other groups. They don't use certain words all the time. Every group has slang they have. The problem is that word from us has become way too mainstream. It starts with us. We're all swimming unfortunately in this gumbo (no pun intended)