Darren Bedford comments on the recent NAACP demonstration in Detroit, USA
A recent NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) demonstration has breathed new life into a perpetual debate surrounding offensive language in hip-hop music. It’s a debate that, for socialists, touches on issues of state censorship, racism, homophobia, misogyny, the link between politics and art and of course the power of language itself.
The demonstration itself was a “mock funeral” for “the N-word” – that is, “nigger”. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said that the demonstration was about “saying good riddance to [a] vestige of slavery and racism”, and Kwame Kilpatrick (the Mayor of Detroit, a city that has bred some of America’s most famous rappers) said that “to bury the N-word” it was necessary to bury “all the nonsense that comes with it… the pimps and the hos and the hustlers.”
While not specifically focused on the word’s usage in music, hip-hop has been a focus for the NAACP’s campaign as it remains one of the most accessible and popular forums in which the word is particularly prevalent. Unlike other broadly analogous campaigns (such as LGBT rights group Outrage’s campaign against homophobia in reggae), the NAACP are not calling for official censorship (by the state, the music industry or anyone else) of the use of the word “nigger”. But, through their focus on the use of a word, are they missing the point altogether?
The role of hip-hop in terms of its relationship to the struggles of black Americans has always been contradictory. It has produced both radical and progressive commentary, polemic and propaganda on a whole host of issues as well as defending, apologising for and perpetuating reaction within the black community on issues like women’s and gay rights. Hip-hop has also been guilty of promoting an aggressively pro-capitalist perspective on how black oppression can be defeated. Sometimes these contradictions are embodied by the same artist within the same album and often within the same song. It is not a contradiction that will be resolved if rappers stop using the word “nigger”.
The NAACP’s campaign also fails to address the origin of the word in a hip-hop context and the role it played in the development of conscious, political rap music. Seminal gangster rap group NWA (Niggaz With Attitude) produced some highly articulate responses to issues like police repression; for them, being a “nigger” with attitude meant sticking a very explicit middle finger up to the white establishment and its apparatus. The act of appropriating the racists’ word and turning it into something else was seen as empowering.
This is not to uncritically endorse the perspective of groups like NWA; certainly, their own material was riddled with homophobia, misogyny and advocacy of extreme violence. Neither is it to suggest that if some members of an oppressed group arbitrarily decide to “appropriate” or “reclaim” abusive language, this language automatically loses its reactionary character. But it is to say that it is necessary to analyse and understand what such language represents in a given context.
Seemingly well-intentioned campaigns like this that actually fall wide of the political mark are perhaps to be expected from the NAACP — a political entity that has never been anything other than a bourgeois liberal lobbying group. The oppression of black people and other non-white groups in America does not stem from the prevalence of offensive words but from the position of the majority of non-whites amongst the most vulnerable and exploited sectors of the working-class. To respond to that oppression, polite NAACP campaigns against offensive words are not good enough.