Note: I never intended to publish this. I wrote it the day after Nicki Minaj released “Lookin Ass Nigga” hoping that it would provide me with greater clarity surrounding the song and all the uproar that followed. But after speaking with two friends this week, and much consideration, I decided to publish it because, in the end, I don’t want to play my art false. —jp
Coon. Jungle bunny. Tar baby. Buck. Spook. Monkey. Jiggaboo. Pickaninny. Sambo. Uncle Tom. Spade. Nigger.
The history of black bodies in a white world is long and messy and misunderstood. And to mine its varying degrees, to begin to even try to understand America’s ugly calculus, would be too monumental a task. That is not my intention here. Because I don’t think we’ve ever had an honest discussion surrounding “The Nigga” in popular culture (which is not to say we have never tried). Because now seems like as good a time as any. Because, as a writer, I believe words have power and sting. Because “Lookin Ass Nigga” and Nicki Minaj. Because Tupac and Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Because, just because.
History will try to tell you otherwise, but the nigga of James Baldwin’s 1950s Harlem, of Martin Luther King Jr’s and Malcolm X’s 1960s, of the psychedelic, Soul Train 1970s, of the coked-out 1980s, is not the same nigga of today. The nigga we know today grew alongside rap’s entrance into popular culture, has been molded by Spike Lee’s Brooklyn and John Singleton’s Los Angeles, has been shaped by reality television, and cursed time and again by men and women of all colors and all ages whose tongues betray them daily. This nigga—your brother, cousin, husband, friend, lover—has arrived at a particular point in history with which we now must contend.