“The coolest stuff about American culture—be it language, dress, or attitude—comes from the underclass. Always has and always will.” – Russel Simmons
The release of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and my current enrollment in a class on film and cultural politics has inspired me to bring up something that’s been on my mind.
It’s recently come to my attention that I’m supposed to be living in a Post-racial America. Granted, right now I’m studying in England and not living back home in California, but when I was in the U.S.A, I didn’t think too much about what electing Barack Obama meant for race politics in America. Obviously it was a progressive step in a positive direction for a country with a history steeped in racism, but the term “Post-race,” though flaunted by the media after the election, was not something I really thought about. After spending some time studying the topic, I can summarize what it’s about. Basically, the Post-racial philosophy assumes that what the Civil Rights movement strove so hard to achieve when it began fifty-plus years ago – equal opportunities, respect and compassion for all people – has been realized. Since we’ve elected a Black president, issues concerning race have been, for the most part, satisfactorily resolved. Race is no longer a current issue because a Black man is in the White House. Does this make sense to you?
Well, I was thinking about this notion of Post-race America while I was listening to my iPod, when Big Boi shuffled on and a mischievous idea crossed my mind. “Nigga” is arguably the most polarizing word in the English language. It has been used derisively to devalue and oppress Black Americans, and has been re-appropriated by Black America, not only as a “term of endearment,” but also as a harmful term within the community that distinguishes upper-class from lower-class. However, in pop culture it’s part of the poetic vernacular. It is so widespread in hip-hop, which is tantamount to pop culture, that for the latest “hip-hop generation”, specifically the non-Black youth, it is somewhat innocuous. Well, if we are really living in a post-racial America, shouldn’t it be acceptable for everyone to say “nigga” when simply quoting a song? The short answer is no (some will argue that any use of the word is unacceptable), which partially illustrates how bogus Post-race is; however, under the principles of Post-race it should not be an issue. For example, what should we make of artists like Jay-Z and B.o.B, who say “nigga” in there music, playing at Democratic rallies and functions for the President? After all, Obama’s consituency is comprised of all colors.
In the past decade we have seen many examples in pop culture telling us that race no longer matters. A perfect example is Halle Berry’s maudlin acceptance speech at the 2002 Oscars. Not that I want to belittle Halle Berry’s achievement as an actress, but it is important to note that her role in Monster’s Ball was heavily criticized as a harmful portrayal of Black women, but more importantly, an individual winning an Oscar does not change the politics of a nation. This kind of “we won the war” mentality culminates in Barack Obama’s election as president, where in his “A More Perfect Union” speech he addresses his African-American heritage:
“I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas…I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
President Obama does symbolize hope for our nation because of his desire to improve the infrastructure of our country, not just because he is Black. By drawing attention to his race, like Halle Berry in her speech, the point is made that the color of their skin does matter, which refutes the ideology of Post-race. It also leads to hilarious exclamations, like this comment from Tracy Morgan at the Golden Globes. It’s hard to say whether Tracy Morgan really understands Post-racial America, but one time he did pretend to have his leg blown off in Vietnam on a local news show, so his comments can probably be taken lightly.
I think the problem that stems from having a “Post-race” is that today’s youth (myself included) are taught to be colorblind, and that our purchasing power should be the determining factor of our identity. “Colorblind” is an attitude towards race that disregards the social and economic realities of minorities – like poverty and unemployment – and assumes that “we’re all the same”. With good intentions the latest generations have been taught that race is not something that differentiates them from each other. Instead, class and money have become the key factors of our social identity, while race is reduced to an attitude that is obtainable through commerce. As Jason Rodriquez observes, “by consuming hip-hop, members of the scene position themselves as “cool” or hip by its association with African Americans, presenting themselves as confident, progressive whites smoothly moving through a cultural milieu of blackness. Yet their adherence to colorblind ideology leads them down the curious path of consuming hip-hop precisely to indicate the irrelevance of race in their own lives” (Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 2006 35; 645). This is a problematic scene that embraces race-associated styles while ignoring the relevance of race in establishing these trends. It is exacerbated by music, film, and music videos that promote material gain as the way to be “cool”. And if “cool” is code for Black, it’s a strange message.
“Within the current media enviornment, itself a product of a post-civil-rights society, race functions as an ambivalent category in which, on the one hand, race remains an important issue in terms of representation–shown by featuring people of color more prominently and crafting story lines that focus on race and race relations. On the other hand, the plethora of images of urban and cool people of color in advertising, television programs, and music videos (among other popular culture artifacts) implies that representational visibility no longer has the same urgency…the implication is that race itself no longer matters in the same way it once did but is now simply an interesting way to feature the authentic, cool, or urban” Sarah Benet-Weiser, “What’s Your Flava? Race and Postfeminism in Media Culture”
In the quest for accurate representation in the media, race and gender have become marketing tools for corporations who sell a purchasable attitude or style. Examples are everywhere, but I easily recall the McDonald’s commercials of the past five years. Notice how more ads feature Hispanic or African-American families (enjoying a traditional Big Mac or a featured spicy chicken sandwich), and how the signature McDonald’s jingle will be “remixed” with DJ scratches, gospel-style harmonies, or a hip-hop beat. This is not overtly offensive because those musical elements are authentic aspects of culture. What is offensive is that the cultural characteristics that define a group are being evoked not out of sensitivity or understanding, but out of the desire to pick pockets. This is clearly demonstrated by the “I’d hit it” ad slogan, where McDonald’s tried to use slang to appear hip while slinging cheeseburgers. What this commodification process does is desensitize an already cynical generation towards the issue of race. In Post-racial America, race politics like Civil Rights are looked upon as “old fashioned”, something that’s over, and therefore uncool. The power to buy hip-hop records and “urban” (cool) fashions turns race into a simple aesthetic. Because race is simply a style or attitude that is reflected by clothes and music, a culture that was initially created by Black artists who wanted to distinguish themselves from the mainstream, has become mainstream consumer culture in Post-racial America.
Now here’s where I’m cautious. If our identity is established through our purchases, does buying into the culture give consumers a stake in that culture? I’m scared to admit this, but my voluntary consumption of hip-hop does make me feel like I shouldn’t feel bad about not bleeping out “nigga” when I’m singing along. I’d contend that most non-Black people that consistently enjoy listening to mainstream hip-hop say “nigga” guilt free in non-mixed company and in the comforts of their own homes (some more often than others), and if they let it slip in public, they’re looking over there shoulders for an outraged Black person. I’m not defending this behavior, I’m just saying that it’s there. I realize I’m back pedaling a little bit; first, I condemn McDonald’s for using race to broaden their target market, yet I celebrate the commercial power of hip-hop. Where I see the difference is that the “I’d Hit It” ad campaign is about taking away power. It (unsuccessfully) re-appropriates a phrase from popular culture, turning common slang into a tool for making money. In hip-hop, “nigga” is generally about empowerment. There’s either self-promotion as “the realest nigga” or constant disses to “niggas” that are positioned as opponents. With the former, everybody wants to be the “realest nigga” because they have skill, they’re paid, and usually a keen sexual prowess. In the latter case, take “Monster“, one of the highlights off of My Beauitful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West, Jay-Z and Nikki Minaj all say “nigga” when referring to people they accuse of gossiping, being ungrateful, and being distracted. When you break down the uses in the song it almost seems reasonable.
However, there is still so much tension around the word because it has so many different meanings. The main problem with saying “nigga” is that it has no essential definition. In 1999, Mos Def advocated the use of “nigga” by his Black peers and contemporaries as the “term of endearment.” Ten years later, Def and actor Wood Harris banned the word from their movie Rolling Out, as a way “of making a statement that we can express ourselves without using the ‘N’ word.” This adheres to some advice Maya Angelou gave Dave Chappelle in a 2006 episode of Sundance Chennel’s series, Iconoclasts. I have to paraphrase because I could not find a copy of the show online, but essentially Dr. Angelou says that trying to change the meaning of the “n-word” is like peeling the label off of a bottle of poison. The content remains the same. Even though a popular figure like Mos Def repeals his former stance on the issue, his brand of conscientious music does not have the audience of someone like Yeezy, Jigga, or Li’l Wayne who repeatedly say “nigga” on their albums. If cartoonist and creator of the comic strip “The Boondocks”, Aaron McGruder, is right about what it means to be a “nigga,” it’s a wonder why anyone would want to be one, but also curious as to why only Black people are free to say it. In an episode of the animated series “The Boondocks,” Gin Rummy, a white thug (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) explains, “I don’t mean nigga in a disrespectful way; I mean it as a general term for an ignorant mother fucker. Anybody of any race can be an ignorant motherfucker.” “The Boondocks” airs on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of programming, which has a multicultural audience that is distinguished only by their ability to buy a television and cable TV. The several meanings of the word and the increasing popularity of hip-hop in mainstream culture only furthers the complexity of the issue. Is it all right for non-Blacks to quote “The Boondocks”? Is it safe for everyone to sing along?
I don’t think it is. Even though I love listening to Kanye’s music, I recognize that it’s not socially acceptable for me to flippantly say “nigga” because there is a history to the word and an experience that I am far removed from. What I find troubling is that the idea of a Post-race America is being circulated throughout the nation and is reinforced through capitalism. Money has always divided people into class, but the”colorblind” attitude and conflation between hip-hop and mainstream culture, is turning race into a commodity. “Nigga” is on TV and in music that is readily available to all people. Racism isn’t gone, it’s just being circumvented through marketing and sold as an exciting flava. And I don’t think hip-hop is going to stop being cool over night, nor do I really want it to go away. It’s a shame because this is almost a moment for celebration. After years of being ostracized for having Black skin, it is now more than ever cool to be Black. There is this moment of integration going on, but the commericial and materialistic aspects of hip-hop do not reflect what it really means to be Black in America. I don’t think anyone would agree that I have to stop watching reruns of Chappelle’s show or deprive myself of the new Kanye West record. However, I do think that I am asked to police the way I interact with popular culture. Who the hell says race doesn’t matter?
“Anyone who thinks we move in a post-racial society is someone who’s been smoking crack” – Spike Lee, 2009
Tune in for my next rant, “Justin Bieber and the World’s Ongoing Obsession with White Jailbait.”