“Right wing left wing middle of the road
Side winder back swinger backlash whiplash
Race stockings red stockings
Liberation of women liberation of men
everybody carrying a heavy load”

-Nina Simone

To readers, the word “nigga” is not dashed out. I wanted the word in plain sight, where the reader can see it — clearly, used in a song, a debate, at a sorority party. My goal is to confront the hurt, not to sugar-coat the hurt inherent in the central term of this piece.

On August 30th, 2005, I was in Allentown, with my father and my little sister heading towards Best Buy in our family minivan. I would often spend my summers with my dad, leaving Brooklyn behind for the more rural pastures of Pennsylvania. August 30th marked a special day for the 14 year old version of me. I convinced my dad, through incessant nagging, that I needed to listen to Kanye West’s new album. Kanye West was my superhero, a black man, outspoken and confident enough to rap about his vulnerabilities in an era where gangster rap dominated the airwaves. At the time, I was transitioning from my middle school metal phase back into the genre that related more to my experiences: hip-hop.

I remember watching big budget music videos, seeing expensive jewelry, and listening to lyrics that dealt with enjoying the spoils of fame. I couldn’t relate to the world of fame and fortune, or guns and drugs. I just knew I loved hip-hop. The more knowledge I acquired about the world around me, the older I became, the more I grappled with hip-hop and its message, its purpose.  I acknowledge the beauty, but also, the ugliness.

My life experiences were limited back in 2005, but one artist made me scratch my head and observe closer what it meant for me to be black, smart and self-conscious: Kanye. My father, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, never quite understood my fascination with hip-hop, but he encouraged my passions — whether that was writing, playing the drums, watching anime or admiring Kanye’s music. On our car ride home I skipped to track four. The voice of Jamie Foxx doing his best impersonation of Ray Charles rattled through the speakers, and then the now infamous but catchy chorus:

Now I ain’t saying she a gold digger
But she ain’t messing with no broke niggas
Now I ain’t saying she a gold digger
But she ain’t messing wit no broke niggas
Get down girl, go ‘head get down
Get down girl, go ‘head get down
Get down girl, go ‘head get down
Get down girl, go ‘head

My father began to nod his head and my sister began dancing in the backseat. The beat is infectious. The instrumentation made me smile. Yes, I thought, it’s okay to be a hip-hop fan. At the time, the use of the “N” word didn’t cross my mind—it was more about the music. Late Registration went on to sell an upwards of 860,000 copies its first week and “Gold Digger” reigned at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for ten consecutive weeks. Kanye West had arrived.

Twelve years later: I am reminded that being a hip-hop fan has its complications. The limitations and problems of mainstream hip-hop are apparent: objectification of women, superficiality, glorification of violence, the use of ‘nigga,’ among other things. On September 21st of this year, Piers Morgan, a British journalist and TV host tweeted, “Should white girls be allowed to sing ‘niggas’? New column posting very soon.” This sparked the “who’s allowed to say ‘nigga’ debate,” once again. It’s a bad re-run.  Piers Morgan argues that it is Kanye West, his music and use of the word ‘nigga,’ that gives permission to white people, specifically the women of University of New Hampshire’s Alpha Phi Sorority, to use the “N” word.

In reaction to the outcry from the public on the viral video of members of the sorority singing along to ‘nigga,’ The University of New Hampshire claimed they would investigate the situation, but since then detracted their claim. There will be no disciplinary action against the students. A spokesperson for the university sent out this message following the “false” flag sent out reprimanding the students: “The students have apologized and will play an active role in working to improve our campus culture as we move forward. The university has a strong commitment to the First Amendment. We also have an obligation and a role to play in helping students understand how their words and actions might impact other members of our community and we will continue to work to ensure every member of our community feels respected.”

Where is there any mention of offending people of color? It seems like to me that the consequences are nil for lacking respect for other people, other cultures. No consequences for cultural appropriation? Using the First Amendment as defense is a good one considering, in researching UNH, I discovered there have been incidents of explicit racism in the past. But Piers Morgan, I’m here to tell you that the answer to your question is this: Not you. Not the women from the University of New Hampshire’s Alpha Phi Sorority. Not the white supremacist marching across the U.S. — thanks, Trump. Not anyone who does not inhabit a black body — and on closer introspection, neither should I. Piers Morgan decided to defend the women chanting “nigga,” without a care in the world. The word absent from this discussion is “awareness.”

I have never been more aware of my body and the color of my skin inhabiting space in America, yet I can say with confidence: Piers Morgan’s opinion on what black lives should or shouldn’t say is out of his jurisdiction. Blaming Kanye West is the easy way out. Yes, Kanye West told a national audience, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Yes, a drunk Kanye West took the microphone away from Taylor Swift and reminded the world of how great Beyoncé is.

Kanye West can be an easy scapegoat — he is an enigma. In recent months, West has been suspected of having a mental breakdown on stage, sued Tidal streaming services for millions of dollars, and met President Trump in NYC “to discuss multicultural issues.” The media has field days covering Kanye West. That, however, does not excuse Piers Morgan’s reemergence from his pompous, self-righteous bubble, with his Twitter-happy fingers, to blame Kanye West for the white college aged women rapping along to “nigga.”

How about pointing to institutional racism, lack of funding for schools in poor, mostly minority communities? How about remembering and analyzing the effects of slavery, reconstruction, the Tuskegee experiments, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr? No—that would be too hard, so Piers Morgan instead targets a black musician who makes black music, which—surprise, surprise—white listeners consume.

Piers Morgan, in his column for the Daily Mail, goes on to say, “Even by the pathetically easily offended snowflake standards of modern day US campuses, this is ridiculous. How can it possibly be racist to sing along to a song that was No.1 in America for TEN WEEKS? And is the word ‘nigga’ racist anyway?”

The answer again, Piers: YES. It is undoubtedly racist and a hope of mine is that the word becomes eradicated. Piers Morgan has no right talking about a black subject, a black genre, and a word that doesn’t affect him. It is a double-edged sword of reclaiming ownership of a word used to insult our very existence, now regurgitated back at us. It’s easy to demonize hip-hop without considering its cross-cultural influences and power.  Jamal Watson, executive editor for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, quotes black activist and professor Cornel West, who said, “The academy and the street is all one world.” West has written 17 books including the best-selling Race Matters, a collection of essays that examine racial issues in the United States. “A lot of people are trashing hip hop and demonizing our young Black brothers and sisters, but it’s important to bear witness in a variety of contexts and to be multi-contextual,” West wrote. The issue at hand is bigger, and requires more than placing blame on Kanye West, who has every right to express himself.

In my personal life, I do my best to eliminate the “N” word from my vocabulary. I often replace it with “brother,” when I acknowledge another man of color.  Here is where Piers Morgan and I find some common ground: no one should say it. The defense I often hear of saying “nigga” is, “Well, if they can say it? Why can’t we?” There is no badge of honor that comes with saying “nigga,” I don’t win prizes, I don’t feel cooler—I feel like I’m continuing a cycle of oppression, and mental slavery.  It’s up to black people to decide, and it’s their cross to bear—and it is mine whenever I rap along to “Gold Digger” or any hip-hop song. Now more than ever, as Trump leads his followers en masse to reclaim false illusions of grandeur and using hate as its rhetoric, it’s not okay.

Gif by Ashlie Juarbe

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