And Now, Back to Navel-Gazing

(While the rest of the relevant Twittersphere writes about Trayvon Martin’s death, I am going to keep writing about white people saying the N-word. Not because I am not following Martin’s story, or because I’m not heartbroken by it, but because I have nothing to add to the coverage and momentum that are already changing the trajectory of this case.)

And now, back to navel-gazing.

This morning a friend sent me this article from Grantland about Katy Perry covering “Niggas in Paris.” Of course, unlike what I just did there, Alex Pappademas titled the song “N***** in Paris” and focused on Katy Perry’s “tee-hee trangression” of sing-rapping about “ninjas in Paris.” Clever! According to Pappademas, Perry’s cover constitutes

a girl refusing to let this song’s imaginary world of swinging-dick privilege be off-limits to her. But that’s all that’s happening here; she puts the word on like a piece of borrowed jewelry and parades in front of the mirror. Her flimsy white-girl voice doesn’t reveal anything about the song’s construction or its sentiments that Kanye and Jay’s voices were covering up…

Despite Perry’s Yankees cap, despite the deep knee lunges from which she belt-sings Jay and Ye’s lines, despite my congratulatory impulses, I have to agree with Pappademas here: Perry’s shout-out to her ninjas belies a larger unwillingness to take this song seriously, to rap it with her head up, to allow the transgressiveness of her own act to fill up her chest and shoulders so that instead of suggesting (as Pappademas thinks her cover does) that “Being married to Russell Brand was as bad as being married to the legacy of centuries of racism,” Perry’s cover could have embraced genuine empathy for what it means to be a nigga in Paris.

But more important than Pappademas’s story is one he links to, “An Awkward Moment at That Jay-Z Concert,” in which author Rembert Browne reflects on the various audience  responses  when Jay-Z (accidentally?) invited his largely white SXSW crowd to sing along at a touchy moment. Mostly because I agree with him, I’ll quote Browne at length:

The more recent and obvious example of this is last year’s debatable song of the year, interestingly not titled “Ball So Hard,” but instead “N—– in Paris.” As soon as this Jay-Z/Kanye instant hit was released, the way the lyrics of this song were handled by the public could be documented in a very lengthy dissertation. From people referring to it as “Ninjas in Paris” to radio stations simply calling it “Paris” to the fact that the entire song is a buildup to the line “Got my N—– in Paris, and they going gorillas” makes this, again, another case where one of our popular culture’s least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought-about words gives people a very interesting decision to make.

My personal beliefs on the matter are irrelevant, but if you insist, I guess I’ll say that the action by some of our more famous, influential black celebrities to aid in the okayification (or “deconstruction,” if you must) of the word by launching it to the forefront of the pop culture sphere is something I believe to be a good thing. What’s problematic, however, is the process of pretending like the word doesn’t exist. Trust me, it’s real. The decision to say it or not say it is very much up to the person, and I respect that, but it’s real and if you are one who has no issue with it being a part of your own vernacular from time to time, you really haven’t a right to censor anyone else.

That, there: that the word(s) nigga(er) are “one of our popular culture’s least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought about word.” Yes. Yes! This is the thought I kept thinking when the most recent iteration of racist gibberish against Obama made its rounds–that our refusal to say this word preserves its most enshrined space at the blotchy center of our national amnesia.  “Least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought about word”–you know, like white news anchors all across the television-scape faulting Rick Perry for his “N-word-head” ranch. Maybe my willingness to pronounce and inscribe the actual true syllables of nigger or nigga out loud and on the Internet with my identity attached is a willingness to take responsibility for the fact that what I’m doing here is controversial–unlike Katy Perry, who as Pappademus terms it is “somebody get a transgressive thrill out of (basically) saying a forbidden word in public without actually putting her adorkability on the line.” Thank you, Rembert Browne: “What’s problematic…is pretending like the word doesn’t exist. Trust me, it’s real.” I guess that’s what I’m hoping for when I allow this word into our classroom space: a reckoning with the persistence of racist language. How can we fight racism when we pretend it’s gone?

Then again, Katy Perry is a rock star and I’m just a self-involved adjunct lecturer blogging from Michigan.

I have this one student, a freshman, who keeps wanting to talk about what the hell white people are doing in hiphop–as fans, as rappers, as witnesses. Near the beginning of the semester he told me, “I just got into hiphop music last year, and I really like it, but I didn’t know what I was doing because I am just. so. white. Like a small town white guy from Michigan. But then I signed up for this class, thinking it would be kind of weird, but then YOU walked in” (paraphrase). That is, me, TB, white person. White girl, plagued by the same problem of authenticity that he is. So who’s gonna legitimize anyone in this room?

And this student keeps returning to that same question, which I originally answered by saying that the answers I’d heard and read were unsatisfactory, but which after multiple negative definitions still is in need of a positive. See, the question is, Why do white kids love hiphop? And, no disrespect to Bakari Kitwana, but this question has not been answered, it has only been mitigated. White fans and rappers have been derided as imitators, co-opters and thieves; our purchasing power has been termed a necessary evil, a sort of redistribution of wealth from our parents to rappers’ pockets; the statistics have been denounced as misrepresenting actual listens, since The Source is read thirteen times for every purchase, or whatever it is.


But my student asks me again: Why do white kids love hiphop?

And for once, as a white kid, it’s my experience that’s valuable here. Here is the question that I am actually entitled to answer, the instant when my participation in hiphop as a white kid is an experience of value. I love hiphop because the bass drum hits my chest as hard as it hits yours. I love hiphop because I love literature and rap is. I love hiphop because it rode the airwaves into my bedroom radio as a kid, because it featured prominently on the soundtrack to Chicago I grew up with. I love hiphop because I am also angry and proud and filled with curse words and swagger and bitterness and hope. I love hiphop because it’s funny. I love hiphop because it’s true. I love hiphop because it’s critical and because I am trying to be better at being critical every day. I love hiphop because I believe what it articulates about the government, the police, the new world order, the legacy of white supremacy, the persistence of misogyny, the ineffability of spirituality in a materialistic society, the end-all-be-all of a hometown, the importance of community, the subjectivity of the individual. The power of language and a beat.

So what?

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