Last July, at an amphitheatre in Holmdel, New Jersey, I watched thousands of people scream “nigga” at the tops of their lungs. The occasion was a Lil Wayne concert, where he’d just given the 17,500-strong crowd an order: “If you came to have a hell of a motherfucking time tonight, say, ‘Hell! Yeah! Nigga!’ ” A lot of people had evidently come to have a hell of a motherfucking time; that many were white didn’t stop them from using Wayne’s exact language to let him know.
Turning my head to see three tanned Jersey girls bellow “Hell yeah nigga!,” I was perplexed. The weight and sting of the word nigger derive from two interconnected levels of context: that which organizes each specific utterance of the word, and that which has accrued and clung to it over centuries of nasty history. At the Lil Wayne show, the first kind of context was dizzyingly hard to parse. During a moment of performed interactivity, a black rapper, on a stage, had commanded an audience including many nonblack fans to repeat a quasi-affectionate corruption (nigga) of a hateful word (nigger), that nonblack people are not supposed to use, much less holler with glee. How did all these twists and turns add up? Were the white fans who yelled “nigga” really speaking the word? Maybe Wayne was speaking through them, like a ventriloquist. Or maybe they were quoting Wayne’s usage, reading aloud from his script from within the borders of a linguistic neutral zone he’d created for them. Or maybe they should have just kept their mouths shut.
I was reminded of that concert last week when a message was published on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Twitter account that included the word “ni**a” (asterisks hers), prompting a small controversy. Paltrow, who is friends with Jay-Z, had attended a concert in Paris given by Jay-Z and Kanye West. The MCs have taken to playing their hit song “Niggas in Paris” over and over to close out their concerts, and in Paris they did it 11 times straight. The part of the Paltrow tweet that scandalized people read: “Ni**as in paris for real.” An attached photograph showed Paltrow on stage at the show with three men, indicated by the rest of the tweet to be R&B singer The-Dream and two Jay-Z affiliates, Ty Ty and Bee-High. After people objected to Paltrow’s wording, she tweeted a protest: “Hold up. It’s the title of the song!” (In a subsequent, and not entirely convincing, development, The-Dream took responsibility for the offending tweet, claiming to have sent it himself from Paltrow’s phone while intoxicated.)
Lawyers for the prosecution, making the case that Paltrow was in the wrong, might point out that the title of the song is actually “Niggas in Paris,” and that, by removing the title from quotation marks and making it a phrase in a sentence, Paltrow had used the word nigga, not merely mentioned it, as her follow-up tweet claimed. In this reading, Paltrow effectively identified the black men pictured with her, along with Jay-Z and Kanye West (and maybe even herself?) as “niggas,” then suggested that this was justified because Jay and Kanye had used the word first. Nigga, ubiquitous in hip-hop, is a relatively softer and bendier word than nigger, but it is precisely this softness that is alarming, because white people risk mistaking the nonhurtful meaning it can carry deployed as an address between black speakers for a license to use it themselves.
Lawyers for the defense might argue that the quotation marks were hanging implicitly over Paltrow’s tweet and, noting their client’s considerate use of asterisks, which is how the song title is often stylized, motion for dismissal. In this view, the correct, and fair, way to interpret Paltrow’s tweet is something like “ ‘Niggas in Paris’ in Paris, for real”—Paltrow’s only crime was attempting a less ungainly construction. It’s a high-stakes game of millimeters. Whichever side you pick, had Paltrow included the quotation marks in her tweet, I suspect it would have lessened, if not wholly mooted, the outcry.
The case is significant because “Niggas in Paris” is the most popular piece of Western culture to ever feature the word nigga so prominently. The song is a huge crossover hit with no combative, polarizing agenda, and this, along with its era, makes it distinct from, say, N.W.A’s Niggaz4Life or 2Pac’s Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. albums, both of which came out right around the time of the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots. The song’s success means that more people than ever are puzzling out the rules of engagement with the word, and you don’t need to claim that we are in (or even nearing) a post-racial moment in order to argue that the meaning and radioactive stature of the word nigga is, to a noticeable degree, in a state of flux. “Niggas in Paris” puts a magnifying glass to this phenomenon.
The song itself touches, crucially, on themes of racial transgression and racial progress. Its title is so pungently evocative because with it, Jay and Kanye proudly place the barbarians (“niggas”) not merely within the palace gates (“Paris”), but high up on the social ladder. “Ball so hard this shit weird: We ain’t even supposed to be here,” Jay-Z raps. This is different from an N.W.A-ish vision of gate-storming and village-pillaging, because the gatekeepers implied in “Niggas in Paris” have flung the barriers welcomingly wide: French Vogue’s Carine Roitfeld and Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci and Colette’s Sarah Lerfel and the concierge at Le Meurice are all happy to have Jay and Kanye move in their rarefied circles. (The jerk from Cristal can suck it.) In Jay-Z’s verse, difference is still marked, and inequality is noted (“I’m supposed to be locked up, too/ If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too”) but both are surmountable.
In a funny and perceptive response to the Paltrow tweet, the video blogger and hip-hop commentator Jay Smooth called “Niggas in Paris” “a resisting-the-n-word endurance test for white people.” Different test-takers have employed different strategies. When Aziz Ansari, who’s friends with both MCs, and a friend posted an Emoji pictogram-transcription of the song online, they represented the word nigga with a smiling brown-haired white guy, perhaps reflecting the way niggas routinely functions in hip-hop as a synonym for people. When Katy Perry covered “Niggas in Paris” during a BBC television performance in March, she replaced the word nigga, which appears several times in the verses, with ninja. When I saw a video of Perry’s cover, I wondered what it would have meant if she had covered the song without this modification. It certainly would have been imprudent from a public-relations standpoint, and it may have run her afoul of broadcasting regulations. But would it have been, in a greater sense, wrong?
It feels strange to simply say no, but it also feels strange to simply say yes, because the rules that structure speech in a cover are knotty. (So are the rules that structure stand-up comedy, for that matter, which isn’t to say that Michael Richards didn’t deserve the censure that attended his onstage “nigger” rant in 2006, but that he did not deserve it a priori).
Some other questions raised by Katy Perry’s performance: How is a white pop star’s cover version of “Niggas in Paris” different from, say, a white nobody rapping along, in full, as the song blasts from her car stereo? What if she is alone, or with white friends, or if a black friend is in the car? Is she wrong then? Wrong is a slippery word in its own right, but, in assessing cases where white people say “nigga,” we acknowledge the utterance’s injurious power, and we stay on the lookout for a troubling blitheness on the part of the speaker that could reflect a broader, ill-considered attitude toward race.
There’s something else to mull in Paltrow’s tweet and Perry’s cover: the nagging sense that those asterisks, and that “ninja,” are a bit weaselly. The late African-American comedian Patrice O’Neal addressed this during an interview last year with Marc Maron, complaining that the phrase the n-word was “invented” so that white people could say the word nigger: a racism-abetting loophole. Louis C.K. has argued something similar in his act: “You say ‘the n-word’ and I go, ‘Oh, she means ‘nigger.’ You’re making me say it in my head!” The ostensible utility of the phrase the n-word, and similar fig leaves, is that a speaker can both avoid mouthing a poisonous phoneme and make clear that he is referring to the word nigger, but not using it. Why not just refer to it, without the proxy, and trust that listeners are sophisticated enough to tell the difference?
Abundant apprehensiveness about white people saying “nigger,” in any variation, regardless of context, is warranted. There is no possible utopian future in which racial injustice has been eradicated and white people can say “nigga” or “nigger” all day without any negative effects. This fantasy is, at root, nightmarish: The word nigger is a living monument to atrocity that we shouldn’t want to ever see eroded. An imaginary future where the word is free of its wounding potential wouldn’t be utopian at all, because it would entail historical amnesia.
At the same time, as C.K.’s bit helps to illustrate, we shouldn’t prohibit interesting engagements with a fraught word in the name of knee-jerk political correctness. Why is it so hard to imagine a (nonblack) musician today titling a song “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” as John Lennon and Yoko Ono did in 1972? The title is incendiary, but it would be silly to accuse Lennon and Ono of racism, at least without doing anything more than pointing at the presence of “nigger” in the title. We recognize the complex, critical way that the word functions in that formulation. Ditto when Todd Solondz, a white filmmaker, writes and shoots a bracing scene, in Storytelling, in which a black creative-writing professor tells a white college student to say “Nigger, fuck me hard” during rough, domineering sex. The scene is an elaborate gizmo of interlocking, contradictory power structures. Both of these cases, however provocative, reflect critical and productive reckonings with the word, and they point to a strange but compelling fact: It can be better for a white person to say “nigger” than not say it.
There are no straightforward answers or blanket truths available in this line of inquiry, except that anyone who purports to have them isn’t to be trusted. The word nigger sits at the center of innumerable tensions, abuses, and traumas, like a diamond perched within a vast latticework of laser beams. Brush up against just one, and the sirens wail. You wonder, in this light, if Jay-Z, Kanye, and “Niggas in Paris” producer Hit-Boy had more in mind than simply amping up listeners when they chose to drop a snippet of Will Ferrell dialogue from Blades of Glory into their song. “Nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative,” Ferrell says. “Gets the people going.”