Eminem – the biggest-selling rapper in history, and a white man from Detroit – can’t use it in his raps.
Drake – a half-black/ half-white Jewish Canadian – can (and does so regularly). Though he can’t use the anti-Semitic “k-word,” even if the context was self-deprecating, or in some warped, twisted way, suddenly became a Jewish term of endearment.
You know…a term of endearment like the n-word, the one we black folks have used that way for as long as anyone alive can remember – or longer; although I can’t imagine it pre-dating the Civil Rights era, when the term’s use seemingly would have carried more dire consequences than it apparently does now.
One such consequence is being called for by Chance The Rapper, the popular hip-hop artist who hails from Chicago, who is black and whose career is on a fast upward trajectory since his groundbreaking 2016 mixtape album Coloring Book broke chart records, won him much critical acclaim and garnered him many awards in the past year.
Chance has taken issue with the most recent deplorable gaffe by TV personality and political commentator Bill Maher who, in response to a comment about “working in the fields with us” from US Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) who was a guest on his live HBO show, said, “work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n****r.”
Chance wants Maher fired from HBO for using the term, “house n****r.” Yesterday, he tweeted, “please, HBO, do not air another episode of Real Time with Bill Maher.”
There are many people of many races who would agree (it’s since been retweeted 15K times, and liked 45K times), while others say that the issue of context should be fully examined before rendering a judgment.
I’ll attempt to review that fuller context in this article…
First, is the term offensive, historically hateful and inappropriate?
Yes it is. And the image of two white men hamming it up on TV where one of them uses it (even if about himself) couldn’t be more brazen (and stupid). On its face, Chance The Rapper is right, Maher should be banned.
Am I shocked that Maher used the n-word?
No, not really.
He’s made his living being a shock-commentator, and he’s had run-ins with various groups for doing what he does. That doesn’t excuse him, it just is what it is. Incidentally, that he’s a well-known liberal shouldn’t be what gives him a potential pass either – if you wanna call it a pass.
And speaking of his politics, conservative Republicans are eating up this opportunity, their mouths practically salivating as they openly call out the well-known Democrat Maher and “liberals” in general for daring to hold Donald Trump accountable for his unapologetically racist and boldly expressed views on Mexicans, Muslims and blacks – while not being as tough on Maher.
The only thing likely preventing even more faux outrage by conservatives against Maher is the fact that Sen. Sasse, who laughed on camera at Maher’s comment as did many audience members, is one of their own.
By the way, Maher has since owned his mistake and has apologized for it. Sen. Sasse initially defended Maher’s free speech then eventually denounced the word with some obligatory statement. Trump, for his part, has shown he doesn’t believe he’s capable of making mistakes.
Besides, justifying the behavior of a president by comparing him to a famously inappropriate TV personality is ridiculous; elected officials should be held to much higher standards…but that’s a different story for a different day.
Back to the main point…
Here’s the real question at hand:
Is Maher’s mistake a fireable offense? And is the request for his firing a legitimate one when coming from a rapper…one who uses the term so freely in his own music and main source of income?
That’s where this gets complicated, and where the argument tends to swing from one side to the other depending upon which side of the political or social spectrum one falls – and, sadly, whether or not one actually likes the offender in question.
Ask yourself this question: had a black celebrity comedian or TV personality said “I’m a house n****r,” would we have been so up in arms about it?
Based on our track record, I doubt it…although I could envision a few “Uncle Tom” hashtags on Black Twitter the next morning. Even when boxing promoter and buffoon sidekick Don King used the word during a Trump campaign appearance last year, it blew over like a Chicago Sunday morning breeze. The now-president Trump and his followers certainly didn’t denounce it; even we only gave King a proverbial slap on the wrist, blaming his gaffe on his age and his legendary cartoon-like stupidity.
But Chance is calling for Maher’s firing…the same Chance The Rapper who won three Grammys this year for his breakthrough Coloring Book mixtape, including Best New Artist, Best Rap Album for Coloring Book, and Best Rap Performance for “No Problem,” its n-word-infused single featuring fellow rappers Lil Wayne and 2 Chains…two artists whose use of the term is so pervasive it’s almost inextricable from their lyrics.
Don’t get me wrong – although some of you will – this is not a referendum against Chance The Rapper, who happens to be one of the more talented new artists out there. And this is not just a Chance/Maher issue. It’s far bigger than him or any one man at this point.
The issue here is the double-standard/ love-hate relationship we as Africans and African-Americans have had with the n-word for decades.
On the one hand, we want to own the word. We own its casual use in conversations with each other. Many in our community probably don’t go a day without using it as a “term of endearment,” casually dismissing the fact that the word was used with venom by oppressors for hundreds of years while blacks were beaten, sold, denigrated and dehumanized.
Hell, I’m not gonna lie…even I’ve used it as an endearing term with my black friends, although more so in my youth than I have since.
We own the n-word in the music we listen to – particularly hip-hop – which, in the classic chicken-or-egg-first analogy, is either a mirror reflection of our youths’ culture or a driver of it. Hip-hop and all its traits, customs and cadences are ours by default.
Now that I’ve thought about it, I take back what I said earlier about my limited use of the word. I’ve actually used it in my adult life several times, particularly when singing along to hip-hop lyrics. I’ve even gone so far as to half-heartedly dare my white friends to sing those n-word parts when the songs are playing in their presence.
Put simply though, regarding its use as a term of endearment or source of entertainment, it’s safe to say we’ve condoned this mess from the start.
On the other hand, we get to define who else can use it and when we or they should be offended by it. In some ways, we give the n-word its power by merely expressing our offense to it, even when it’s not being directed at one of us.
The Bill Maher example, in which he referred to himself as a “house n****r,” is but one of two high-profile cases this week alone where the term was directed at someone other than a black person.
The other involved a video of a white boy going on a violent rampage against his high school teacher for not raising his grade, ultimately calling him a “whack n****r” (twice!), while overturning and throwing stuff and storming out of the class room. Black Twitter helped make that video go viral, the n-word usage filling nearly every headline attached to Facebook postings and tweets of the shocking tirade.
But, in that case, while social media was amazed by the boy’s violent verbal assault, they were also amused by his use of the n-word, which was not directed at a black man, but an Asian. Some commenters even openly expressed surprise that the term wasn’t reserved for a black man.
This doesn’t mean that African-Americans weren’t spared the more direct n-word hits this past week.
On the eve of Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA’s best player for years, LeBron James – whose only crimes against humanity have been his infamous move from Cleveland to Miami seven years ago…and, of course, winning several championships – had to answer questions about the n-word being painted on the gates to his California home.
Some have played that as just another home team fan being a fan, since Golden State is a California team and the Warriors/Cavaliers rivalry is quickly becoming one for the ages.
But, to me, it was yet another reminder that NBA players – and black sports figures in general, especially superstar ones – who were once thought to be a safe haven and somewhat immune from the racist shit that normal black people deal with, really are not immune at all (see the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick).
It should also have been a reminder of how offensive the term is to blacks – and how it should be offensive to all Americans, regardless of its use and to whom or what race of people it’s directed.
But that is not the world in which we live. Truth is, the n-word should have died with the Confederacy. The reality is the term will never just go away on its own.
Chance The Rapper has the type of talent that suggests he actually doesn’t have to rely on the n-word to get his points across. Several songs on his recent Grammy-winning album prove that point.
Yet he still does use it…frequently. His biggest hit from that album, the aforementioned “No Problem,” uses the n-word five or six times. Another song, “Mixtape,” does it even more. Others on the album also include it.
So it raises questions in my mind when any n-word-using rapper or artist demands Bill Maher be fired for doing the same.
Should Chance be fired from his job for doing it? Should the many other rappers who do it be banned?
What about the (mostly white) record executives and label owners who not only allow the use of the word on recordings bearing their corporate names, but spend billions of dollars promoting it?
Should they be ousted? (To his credit, Chance is not being pimped by any major labels, his 2016 release was an independent one). Many other rappers continue to be exploited by those corporate record labels to this day.
Should we issue a call-to-arms and force hip-hop to start all over with a clean slate and an approach to lyrics that pre-dates the n-word era, say, before the mid-1980s?
Better yet, should you or I be fired if we slip up and use the term in our workplaces (a slip-up that would seem probable given our free use of it away from work)?
The bottom line: as long as we as black people continue to use the word, especially in pop culture, then others will feel it’s okay for them to do the same (even though it’s not).
Or at least they’ll use our double-standard as a defense as to why it’s okay for them to say it.
Maybe it’s time we hold us AND them accountable.
Eminem apparently got the memo; others, not so much.