So I'm the kind of guy that pays attention to the words of songs and a large part of my enjoyment of music is knowing lyrics and singing. So much so that I am practically always on call for Karaoke, particularly when it's Karaoke Apocalypse (greatest thing since the Redskins won the Super Bowl - for the record I own I Want You to Want Me). I can remember all the words to Billy Bragg and Smiths' songs if first heard 25+ years ago. I sing in the car and hum songs to myself to enhance or change my mood.
So after the recent race episode, where once again it was established that white guys cannot appropriate the *n*-word, I was corresponding with Law about hip-hop on Facebook. My main goal was to get some street cred with him, but it occurred to me that my experience of hip-hop has been largely solitary rather than social like my experience with pretty much every other kind of music. I'll happily serenade my friends or family with some REM, Black Sabbath, Cage the Elephant or whatever, but not Busta Rhymes.
Now this reticence is not a function of message, per se. I'm not bringing out the cliche of gangsta rap here. Busta brings some fun and positive messages in his music. And I'm not talking about the entire genre: I'll Shoop it up all day long in any company. The issue is, quite simply, his (the) use of the *n*-word. Take one verse from one of my favorite Busta songs, Break Ya Neck:
Tell me wat'chu really wanna do (Come here ma)
Talk to a nigga, talk with me
You look like you could really give it to a nigga,
from the way you talk and the way ya try to walk for me
The way you really try to put it on a dawg
Threw ya hips like ya never did before for me
The way you break yo' back, and I break yo' neck,
and the way you try to put it on the floor for me
(Come on!) Come on (Come on!) Oh yeah
Tell me where my niggas is at (Ok!!)
Lemme address y'all niggas one time,
while I lock that down, and I hit'cha wit that (YOU GONE!)
That bomb shit, y'all niggas gone all day
Be the nigga in the drop,
Y'all niggas know every time I come through,
this motherfucker, where we always takin the ride
(So let me do this bitch)
Y'all niggas know when we come, we be makin it flop,
the way we makin it hot'll make a nigga wanna stop... [pause]
Get money, then cash that check for me
All my niggas just bust yo' tech for me
Everybody from every hood bang yo' head,
'til you break your motherfuckin head for me!
There is no way for me to sing this, not even to myself, without substituting for that word. Doing so, however, changes the meaning of the song by removing a key part of Busta's voice. He speaks from a certain experience and he is speaking to a particular audience. I do not have that experience and I am not in the intended audience. While not a universal characteristic of hip-hop/rap music, it is extremely common.
Note that there are situations where the word is used and can be elided without hurting the voice or meaning. We all know the acceptable version of Kanye's Gold Digger: "But she ain't messin' with no broke, broke". In this case the song can be 'sanitized' for popular consumption without hurting the voice or meaning of the song. There is, however, at least a sub-genre where the voice of the speaker relies on the heavy use of that appropriated word.
So if I want to Break Ma Neck, what am I to do? I can sing the Misfits in front of a crowd at the Highball but not Master P or Ol Dirty Bastard? It seems so. In the case of this word, it is clear to me that meaning is tied up not only with the historical and sociological factors of its use and appropriation, but also the 'difference' between speakers. Busta and I are not of a kind in some respect - we do not share some essential characteristics or experience that make it OK to say *n*.
During the recent race episode, we discussed how pernicious the view can be that certain kinds of experience are irreducible and incommunicable. Saying that I cannot understand your experience is equivalent to your self-censoring, silencing your own voice. This extends to saying I can only speak to an audience of people like me. One response to this that we discussed was Fanon's poetic/existential writing. Perhaps narrative and not description is the way to overcome the wall of experience.
This unfortunately still doesn't solve my problem. If I treat these songs as texts, to be interpreted but not repeated, experienced, sung, I'm missing out on an essential aspect of what they are: music. Tupac's They don't Give a Fuck 'bout Us isn't the same as an essay by Fanon or DuBois, but I feel constrained to limit my experience of it.
I ran this by Law and we have decided to do a mini-episode debate about this. Not sure when we'll record but sometime in the next couple of weeks. We'll keep you updated.