Don’t Blame Eva Hoeke. Blame Us
Our use of the N-Word gives anyone else the right to use it
The views expressed in this Op-Ed do not reflect that of Loop 21.
Poor Eva Hoeke!
If you’re just getting up to speed on this, here’s the short version: Dutch magazine Jackie referred to Rihanna in the following way: “She has street cred, she has a ghetto ass and she has a golden throat. Rihanna, the good girl gone bad, is the ultimate niggabitch and displays that gladly. . .” Folks got wind of it and were outraged, Rihanna ripped the magazine a new one via social media, and editor of said magazine resigned soon thereafter.
I found it difficult to get very worked up about this for two reasons. Yes, the Dutch editor’s choice of words were stupid, but I don’t think it was done with malicious intent; she was trying to offer an honorific to an artist she admires. Second, and more importantly, black people, it’s our fault.
It’s been a slippery slope, but over the last 20 years, we’ve allowed, and in many ways enabled, the normalization of the N-word and its variants, particularly through hip hop. Now, it’s true the word has a long and despicable history in and outside our community, a holdover from this country’s overtly racist past. If you’ve never read Jabari Asim’s brilliant book The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, And Why, it’s worth it for the 400-year overview of the word’s evolution.
Not insignificant, as Brown professor Tricia Rose noted in her book The Hip Hop Wars, are the complicated roles of record labels and media companies for whom perpetuating a certain image of blackness and black authenticity means big profits.
But we can’t lay this all at the feet of hip hop. This is a black-people-in-America problem. Hip hop, that global cultural powerhouse, ends up reinforcing and transmitting our changing values and cultural boundaries around the world to hungry audiences who just so badly want to be down.
Mos Def linked the state of hip hop to the state of black people when he said, “Hip hop won’t get better until the people get better.” “The people” are us.
Add to the mix a whole generation of white kids who’ve grown up on hip hop. They love everything about the culture: The graffiti, the breakdancing, the beatboxing, the rhyming. And every black MC they admire—Lil Wayne, Drake, Jay-Z, Kanye, as examples--says the N-word with alarming regularity. The idea of appropriating such a loaded word is titillating.
We’re doing ourselves a disservice. Last year, Cee-Lo Green had everyone humming along to the chorus of “Fuck You”: “She’s just a gold digga/just thought you should know, nigga”. That song has over 64 million YouTube views, and it vaulted Cee-Lo to superstar status.
And let’s not forget Jay-Z and Kanye who’ve reportedly performed “N---as In Paris” 11 times in a single concert. I get that the song is them marveling at how far they’ve come from humble beginnings. But now that song is a global hit. Which means that word is even further out on the tips of the world’s tongues. In fact, on a recent episode of Chelsea Lately, comedian Dan Gleib talked about being at a Watch The Throne concert when Kanye told the audience that they had a one-time pass to say the N-word. Of that moment, Gleib said, “It was so liberating!” I guess, situationally, white people can use the N-word, huh?
Show me another ethnic/racial group that’s worked as hard as we have to either reclaim a word used to dehumanize them or force it into global circulation.
Remember when Michael Jackson said “Jew me” and “kike me” in “They Don’t Care About Us”? That entire album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, was pulled and reissued. Why? Because Jews maintain a morally defensible position: They were not then, nor are they now perpetuating the idea within their community, let alone to a global audience, that either of those words are worth reclaiming.
Scale changes your responsibilities. Nobody cared about Walmart’s environmental and labor practices until they became the biggest retailer in the world. Similarly, it’s probably time for rappers to stop playing “I’m an anti-establishment rebel/voice-of-the-voiceless” role, all the while looking to get paid and ultimately celebrate capitalist consumerism. They do it because we allow them to maintain that fiction. Black people exert an outsized impact on global popular culture.
There’s never any power—cultural or otherwise--without accompanying responsibility, and we ignore this to our own detriment.
Racism isn’t going away, but our being ambivalent about the use of the N-word is, at the very least, confusing. For example, I’d love to see a major artist show some courage and not use the word in their music when casually referring to other black people. If you’re using the word in a caring way (meaning “brotha”) or objectively (meaning “people”), then why not just say that? Plenty of rappers don’t use the N-word casually. But the cumulative effect of those who do creates a sense of normalcy.
It’s time to have a serious conversation about how we present ourselves globally in the 21st century. Change will only happen when enough of us make a concerted effort to stop using the N-word. It will be the result of friends and family talking among themselves about why they’re not going to use it, and holding each other accountable.
We have to come to terms with a simple fact: We can’t have it both ways. Doing so cedes the moral high ground. If you would cuss out or take a swing at a white person for using the word, then maybe it’s not okay to be using in the first place. It can’t be okay for black people to normalize it in the public sphere, but then get upset when white people say it. Either it’s a despicable word, in which case it shouldn’t be in general usage, or it’s not, in which case everyone should feel free to use it without repercussion.
But, until then—even with a black man in the White House--we haven’t really changed the way we think about ourselves. And until we decide, give Eva Hoeke her job back.
She was only taking cues from us.