NAS at Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay East), Saturday (May 24), doors 9 pm. $44.50, all ages. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
“Nigger.” That unequivocal, neutrality-neutering, cotton-pickin’ slang/slur curse word is a lot like sex: we all have our own intensely personal relationship to it. Whether it’s uttered with new-school familial intent or old-school venom, there isn’t a more divisive, hate-charged word in the English language. And contrary to popular – ahem, hip-hop, cough – culture, that number-one spot is not cool to occupy.
Can the N-word be redefined, and somehow given a positive shine?
It’s a question I put to “Nasty” Nasir Jones, one of the most revered rap griots of our time, since Nigger (no longer Nigga), is the name of his oft-delayed opus currently set to drop July 1.
But I start with something simple, playful: from blaxploitation movies to racists to rappers, who has the best-sounding “nigger” of all time?
Of course. The original Super Nigger, maybe the best comedian of all time, poured equal amounts of joy and pain into that excruciating epithet.
But all jokes aside, I wonder, does the question of who can use the N-word desensitize everyone to all forms of racialized hatred? If we are all niggers and kikes, spics, gooks, chinks, wops, Pakis, sand niggers (and, hell, why not throw in bitches, dykes, fags and whatever else you like?), then has some form of reverse equality been achieved? Nas’s new street single, Be A Nigger Too, suggests as much.
And in theory he’s right. But practice is so much different.
“Nigger” wasn’t necessarily a hate-dipped slur aimed specifically at African dignity until the middle decades of the 1800s. But envisioning a time when it engenders no negativity whatsoever when spoken seems impossible.
“Our generation grew up on rap groups like N.W.A., Ice Cube – they were the hardest dudes ever,” says Nas. “We had a chance to deal with the word ‘nigger.’ The generation now has been rocked to sleep because they don’t see it on the same level. Every album now has the word on it 70 times. My kid hasn’t seen a gangster-ass rapper give a fuck about the people. We give a fuck about what’s going on out here.
“Society birthed gangsta rap. There’s still so much that has to be cleaned up in the street. That’s what makes me and the topic relevant: even though we’re in our moment of glory when everyone has diamond chains on, we’re still paying attention to the fact that there’s a plan to wipe most of us out.”
At its core, the term “nigger” (and “bitch,” for that matter) is meant to dehumanize, while hip-hop in its purest form seeks to unite. Nas says in his new song, “Eminem is my nigger, wigger, cracker, friend / We all black within, okay?”
But can the word be disempowered to the point where a George Bush or a Bill O’Reilly could learn how to say it in a brotherly hip-hop context?
“At the end of the day, we throw the word around and we play with it, but the history behind the word is nothing to play with. So, no, I don’t think politicians should be cool with saying that shit, ever. And just in the name of hip-hop? Hell, no.”
While the Nigger album has been top secret, one detail has leaked: a potentially controversial song called Fear Of The Black Man’s Dick.
“Making that song, I realized the whole world has an obsession with sexuality and confusion and perversion and all kinds of crazy shit that’s beyond the black man, you know what I mean?” Nas says.
Maybe his lyrics will actually help teach a generation of lost black boys.
“I’m just rapping and boasting and talking that shit you supposed to be talking,” he interrupts me. “Sometimes the shit can come off preachy or like I’m a know-it-all. I don’t know it all. I’m actually making this album to ask a question, like what’s going on?
“If I may say that, this is my What’s Going On? album like Marvin Gaye. It’s really just me saying, ‘If no one is going to help us, we gotta help ourselves.’ And this is not just limited to black people or my people. My people are the human race.”