After I returned the iPod to my young relative, I tried, as delicately as possible, to start a discussion with her about her taste in music. Why, I asked, do you choose to listen to this type of song? Confused, she asked what I meant. I tried to rephrase the question: What was appealing about this music, as opposed to other kinds of music? But she didn’t understand what I was talking about. “Other” kinds of music? As far as she knew, the music on her iPod was simply music; the music that existed. It was the music that “everyone at school” listened to, all her friends, her clique, everyone. She was, it turned out, completely unaware that there was any other kind of music. Well, not completely unaware, but aware enough to know that other kinds of music were designed for other audiences, and had nothing to do with her.
It’s hard to remember what it was like being 14, but one’s grasp of the whole wide world is still very limited. The stuff in one’s immediate vicinity takes on overarching significance; the big picture is not yet in focus. She explained, in her 14-year-old way, that she didn’t “choose” the songs on her iPod; they simply were all the songs that she was cognizant of, and/or that were trendy in her social circle. They were the soundtrack to her life.
Later that day, I asked her mother how the girl was doing, and the mother was quite proud and pleased: The girl was doing well in school, was not hanging out with the wrong crowd, and seemed to have no behavioral or social problems. Nor was she in a gang, nor was she a racist – in fact, you couldn’t ask for a better daughter.
As the reunion broke up, the girl came over to me and offered to let me borrow her iPod for a while if I wanted, since she has the same mp3s loaded on her iPhone too, and she could use that in the interim. I accepted.
And so I embarked on a bizarre masochistic quest: To listen to every single song on her iPod, just to prove to myself that my first impressions were accurate.
That was three weeks ago. I’ve been wearing these damn headphones almost constantly ever since, just starting at the beginning and letting the tracks play one after the other in a continuous stream. Turns out that she had 1,500 mp3s on her iPod, somewhere around 80 hours of music.
And it became 80 hours of pain, far worse than I had feared: Practically every song featured the word “nigger,” from as little as once or twice in the lyrics, to as many as 60 repetitions. I calculated a rough average of about 20 “niggers” per song, which meant that over the last three weeks I’ve heard the N-word 30,000 times.
And having heard all this, I can report back: The experience is soul-deadening.
But I’m an adult; I can take it. Yet I became very concerned for the sanity of not just of my 14-year-old step-cousin-once-removed, but of all children and teenagers raised on a diet of N-word lyrics. What would it do to your brain if you were informed that a certain thing was absolutely forbidden to say or think, and then that very thing was made ubiquitous in your environment? It seems to me like a form of psychic torture, a way to create a worldview based on cognitive dissonance.
Apologists say that the crisis is not nearly as bad as I’m making it out to be: the N-word is only forbidden in certain contexts. Sure, non-black people are never allowed to say it under any circumstances; and even most black people in most circumstances are not really allowed to say it; but if a gun-toting gang member accosts a fellow gun-toting gang member with the N-word, well then it’s perfectly OK. And since many rappers either are or pose as gang members, then they have a societal permission slip to use the word whenever they want. We all understand this, and it doesn’t bother us, the apologists say.
The situation becomes even more complicated when one realizes, as I did after weeks of hearing this stuff, that the word “nigger” is not just one word but serves many different syntactical roles, and has different meanings which can be either positive or negative.
For example, as in the lyrics above, “my niggers” is a term of affection. But “these niggers” or “some niggers” is usually an insult. “A nigger” often means simply “me” — as in the common rap lyric “Talk to a nigger,” which means “Talk to me.” Essentially, in the rap universe, “nigger” has been stripped of any irrevocable negative connotation, and instead just means “a black male,” and can be rendered positive, negative, or neutral, depending on the context.
One could argue that this is an attempt by African-Americans to “reclaim” the one-time insult and defuse its power by adopting it, celebrating it, and redefining it, just as homosexuals did with “gay” and “queer.” But this doesn’t always work; in a well-known recent example, gay sex columnist (and later anti-bullying bully) Dan Savage used to insist that his column’s readers always address written questions to him with the greeting “Hey faggot!”, but he dropped the practice after the conscious attempt to “reclaim” faggot fizzled, and his fans said it was no longer funny or effective.
Yet to be honest I don’t think the omnipresent usage of the N-word in modern “gangsta rap” is a conscious attempt at anything; it’s just people using their daily language in their music. And that daily language is daily seeping into the consciousness of “average” America through a generation of kids who listen to rap as a part of their daily routine. And most adults aren’t really aware of it. They may have some dim consciousness that rap violates taboos, but I think the typical person over, say, 30 years old really has no clue just how extreme and commonplace this taboo-violation has become.