Whose word is this?

Hip-hop artist Nas making a bold statement with his yet-to-be released album

Salim Muwakki is a senior editor at In These Times.

The rapper Nas has thrust the word “nigger” back into the limelight by making it the title of his new album. Such a move seems improbably provocative given the increased public scrutiny hip-hop has received in the wake of the Michael Richards and Don Imus incidents.

Richards, who played Kramer on TV’s Seinfeld, spewed a “nigger"-laden diatribe at a Los Angeles comedy club in 2006. And in 2007, shock jock Imus infamously called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”

Although both of them are middle-aged white men who are unlikely to be rap fans, it was hip-hop that absorbed the public blame for their remarks. The genre has been on a defensive back step ever since.

To help blunt the rising public media criticism, hip-hop luminaries like Russell Simmons, the co-founder and former CEO of Def Jam Records—the label on which Nas now records—launched a campaign urging radio stations and other media not to air the words “bitch,” “ho” and “nigger.”

The public clamor prompted politicians around the nation to get in on the act. Together with civil rights forces (like the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the NAACP), they launched multifaceted crusades to ban words that denigrate the black community. The NAACP held a widely publicized burial ceremony for the N-word at its national convention in Detroit last July 9.

Word-banning crusaders are also using the municipal arena to raise consciousness. Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York City all have passed nonbinding, symbolic resolutions banning variations of the word nigger. This public clamor has congealed into a censorious campaign to squelch bad words. The rap world is a major target of these efforts, and many hip-hop executives are taking cover.

By choosing Nigger as a title, Nas halts hip-hop’s retreat. Born Nasir Jones, the Queens native has long been considered one of hip-hop’s most imaginative lyricists. His richly detailed narratives are among the most vividly rendered wordscapes of urban America available, and many aficionados of the genre rate him as one of the best rappers ever.

Nas told MTV News that he chose the title to help weaken the word. “We’re taking power from the word,” he said. “You see how white boys ain’t mad at ‘cracker’ cause it don’t have the same sting as ‘nigger?’ I want ‘nigger’ to have less meaning than ‘cracker.’ “

The album was originally slated to be released last December, but was pushed back to February during Black History Month. Now it appears the album won’t be released until April 22. Nas and his wife, Kelis, both appeared on the Grammy Awards Feb. 10 sporting T-shirts with the word, and no doubt raising some eyebrows.

Some have charged that his motive was pure capitalism. Even some of his supporters, like rapper LL Cool J, attribute marketing motives to Nas’ decision. However, it seems more likely that Nas will lose market share because of his controversial album. (He certainly will lose access to major retail outlets.)

There initially were tales of resistance from Nas’ record company, Def Jam (a part of Vivendi’s Universal Music Group), but company officials since have expressed solid support for the album.

Predictably, Jackson and Sharpton have lambasted Nas for his decision, Fox News has denounced him, and New York State Assembly member Hakeem Jeffries is urging the New York Comptroller to pull an $84 million state pension fund invested in Def Jam’s parent company, Vivendi, unless the title of the album is changed.

This enthusiastic campaign against a word is not just a distraction from real issues, it is a debilitating diversion. Words are symbols with no intrinsic value. They derive their meaning from social context. Ascribing inherent qualities to symbols is the very definition of idolatry. Devoting such energy to attacking them is like Cervantes’ Don Quixote tilting vainly at windmills, wasting precious resources.

What’s worse, this animosity against symbols awakens a censorious, book-burning proclivity that lurks in humanity’s lizard brain. It is an atavistic impulse that must be closely monitored lest it manifest as fascist politics.

There is no doubt that the word has an unprecedented history of pain and suppression and that many African Americans were socialized with that sensibility. They question if such a loathsome symbol of racist subordination could ever be transformed into a word of a different color. In fact, many (like those who advocate burying the word) have concluded that the word is indelibly tainted by its racist pedigree.

But no taint is indelible.

In some ways, critics are correct about hip-hop’s culpability in our current cultural dispute about symbols. Among other things, the genre may have performed an act of etymological alchemy by transforming a verbal weapon into a term of endearment. Those who use the word with malicious intent may still be able to inflict pain, but they are brandishing a weakening weapon. The word is being so relentlessly denuded it may one day be effectively defused. Nas’ album continues that process.