Nas album continues N-word debate

originally published in the Gannet News Journal

Nas is a wordsmith for the ages. The Queensbridge, New York City emcee first debuted in 1994 with the instantly classic record "Illmatic," which was heralded by critics and is still revered as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Nas' career has been peppered with controversy. From his on-wax beef with Jay-Z (now squashed) to last year's album release "Hip-Hop Is Dead," Nas has always grabbed hip-hop headlines with his topical writing.

The firestorm sparked over the title of his forthcoming album, "Nigger" (to be released Dec. 11), has already reached beyond the hip-hop media and has prompted American cultural leaders and local record store owners to weigh in on the topic.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "The title using the 'N' word is morally offensive and socially distasteful. Nas has the right to degrade and denigrate in the name of free speech, but there is no honor in it. Radio and television stations have no obligation to play it, and self-respecting people have no obligation to buy it. I wish he would use his talents to lift up and inspire, not degrade."

A word which has been widely used in the English-speaking world for hundreds of years still seems to sting everyone it touches. The popular Arts & Entertainment Network show "Dog the Bounty Hunter" was recently pulled from the air after Duane "Dog" Chapman was heard on a taped phone conversation using the n-word repeatedly in reference to his son's girlfriend.

Chris Avino, owner of Rainbow Records of Newark, said they will carry the Nas album. The title doesn't faze him. "We're still going to stock it. That's the beauty of being an independent music store. We can do what we like."

Joe Ruthing of Wonderland Music of Newark says they will also be stocking the album. Ruthing already knew about the title, and said it doesn't offend him. "The word is in every other song, so I don't see a problem with it." He notes, "Richard Pryor already made an album with that for a title. The only difference is today we're more pussy."

In 1974, when Nas was just a year old, Richard Pryor won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album with his third official release titled "That N----r's Crazy." But after a visit to Africa in 1979 Pryor vowed to never use the n-word again.

In 1988 the group Niggaz With Attitude saw their 1st and 2nd release both crack the Billboard Top 40.

After all this time is the n-word still relevant to our national discussion?

Last week, the University of Delaware canceled a resident life program on cultural identity and diversity after several students complained that they were pressured into agreeing that white people were oppressors of minorities. During one-on-one discussions with resident assistants, UD students were asked about their racial beliefs.

UD President Patrick Harker issued a statement on the school's Web site, stating, "While I believe that recent press accounts misrepresent the purpose of the residential life program at the University of Delaware, there are questions about its practices that must be addressed, and there are reasons for concern that the actual purpose is not being fulfilled. I have directed that the program be stopped immediately."

The subsequent fallout the university experienced would indicate that even among the youngest American adults, who were born well after the gains won by the American civil rights movement, the topic of racism is still too hot to handle.

National attention focused on the topic of race last weekend when hundreds of people marched through the state capital of West Virginia to urge prosecutors to add hate crimes to charges against six white people accused of kidnapping, torturing and raping Megan Williams, a 20-year-old black woman, over the course of a week.

"They just kept saying, 'This is what we do to n----rs down here,' " Williams told the Associated Press.

It is into this atmosphere that Nas delivers his new album. Nas claims that the content will be more controversial than the title.

Scott Marvel, Coconuts Store Manager in Prices Corner, says, "We are probably not going to stock it. I think it's a bad choice for an artist to use that on the cover because, unless the title is censored, a lot of stores won't carry it."

Though the title may be an attention-grabber, Nas hopes to instill a positive message in the listener. The Rev. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam told, "There's a hunger, there's a thirst, and most of the rappers don't know that there's a vacuum of leadership in the black community. The black people are not listening to their preachers, they're not listening to their politicians, they're listening to their rappers."

Sam Vaughn, owner of Sam's Music connection in Bear, said, "Nas is a conscious rapper, and I'm sure that he is using the word to make a point."

He had already heard of the album release, and it will be in stock in his store on Dec. 11.

"Racism is still an important topic," Vaughn says. "Most of these young cats grow up in a neighborhood that they never left. I've seen the world. Once you get out there and go to other places like New York, West Virginia, or wherever, you are going to encounter some racism."

Nas suggested to MTV that there is a generational gap on the subject of the n-word, and that he plans to take power away from it.

"No disrespect to none of them who were part of the civil-rights movement, but some of my [people] in the streets don't know who [civil-rights activist] Medgar Evers was. I love Medgar Evers, but some of the [people] in the streets don't know Medgar Evers, they know who Nas is. And to my older people who don't know who Nas is and who don't know what a street disciple is, stay outta this conversation. We'll talk to you when we're ready. Right now, we're on a whole new movement. We're taking power [away] from that word."


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