Ebony and Imus

Cornel West hangs with Prince and challenges—not denounces—hip-hop

Dyson: We have to use the n-word, even if we agree ultimately in it being retired. There is not yet the point in our culture when we can afford to surrender that word. One of the reasons I deploy that term is because I wanna remind white folk and other bourgeoisie negroes who have looked upon me . . . as "that nigger," but refuse to say it to my face: "I know [what] you're saying about me, so I'm gonna put it on front street." We may be using the same term, but we're not using it the same way. We're not giving it the same meaning.

West's response: Take a text likeHuckleberry Finn. The word "nigger" is used over 100 times. It's a work of art. The work wouldn't be the same without that word. You could make the same case for Tupac's art and the use of that word . . .

West believes that the pejorative "nigger" can't ever be completely separated from the hip-hop-friendly "nigga." But if he can't get people to stop using it, he hopes they at least become more aware of how, even with the best intentions, the word can become dangerous or grossly misunderstood.

"There is a rhythmic seduction with the word," West says. "If you want to say 'cat' or 'companion' or 'comrade,' that doesn't have the same rhythmic resonance as the word 'nigga' . . . The rhythmic seduction goes hand in hand with how black people use language . . . you're just not going to get folks to stop using words like that. It just ain't gon' happen. The question is, when these young people use 'nigga' with an 'a,' are there elements of self-hatred—dishonoring each other, disrespecting, distrusting each other, which is part of the history of the word with an '-er'? It's really about, "Show me the love and the respect and the honor and the dignity, and you can basically use any word you want." But if I see these young folk using nigga with an 'a,' and they still disrespecting one another, dishonoring one another, mistreating one another, and player-hating one another—then I know the effect of the 'er' word is still operating in the 'a' word."

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