Theory Teacher's Blog

“Nigger” / “Nigga”: Tribe vs. Mos Def

What does hip hop have to teach us about deconstruction? Quite a lot, in my opinion.

Way back in 1993 (when I was a junior in college, gasp), Tribe Called Quest released their Midnight Maurader album, considered by some to be one of the top hip hop albums of all time. On it, the controversial hit “Sucka Nigga” [lyrics] observed that black youth had taken the racial slur “nigger” and transformed it into a “term of endearment… nigga.” (Is this at all similar to how Hester Prynne transforms the meaning of the scarlet “A” on her chest from adultery to able in The Scarlet Letter?) Tribe’s song provocatively raises many questions about the use and meaning of words, and as the song explains, the black community in the United States was (and still is) deeply conflicted over the use of the word “nigga” by black musicians and comedians.

Then, six years later in 1999, Mos Def released his highly acclaimed album, Black on Both Sides, which included an explicit and direct response to Tribe entitled “Mr. Nigga” [lyrics]. Mos Def’s song suggests that the original, racist meaning continues to subject black people to unfair prejudice. And furthermore, one might go so far as to say that the clownish antics of some hip hop artists and their lyrics may even be perpetuating it, despite whatever intentions or claims to the contrary they may assert.

So, against Tribe’s playful deconstruction of the word “nigga” that attempted to “flip the script” on American racism, Mos Def presents a hard cautionary tale about how the meaning of the word continues to insist in the cultural practices of people not just in America but also around world. In a sense, Tribe seems to exemplify Derrida’s concept of “play,” and against Derrida, Mos Def seems to exemplify Lacan by reminding us of how the symbolic order continues to structure how we imagine ourselves in the world and how we experience the contradictions of reality (a contradictory experience that Lacan calls the Real, with a capital “R”.) Both songs, in my view, are doing deconstruction — contextualizing the cultural production and transformation of meaning and deconstructing the many binary oppositions invoked by the word “nigga.”

So, to put these songs in their historical context, back in the early 1990s, many people and organizations were concerned with “hate speech” — speech acts that give rise to violence and/or prejudicial action against minorities. The political debate concerned itself with two political rights, free speech and universal, personal integrity (since hate speech sometimes led to horrible acts of violence, called “hate crimes,” not to mention systemic discrimination.) Theorist Judith Butler eventually published Excitable Speech about this issue in 1997. Rather than engage directly in these legal debates, hip hop artists waged an artistic, performative battle against American racism.

In a sense, what we have now are two words. One word is the derogatory “nigger,” originally articulated by the “white man,” whose mouth, in Tribe’s splendidly poetic imagery, reminds us of the dome of a capital building — the very political structure that legitimated racism for so many years. The other word is “nigga” whose meaning is not so much positive as it is a historical reminder of the “adversity” that black Americans overcame as a community. In other words, as everyone knows, white people can not use this word (and any white person who does deserves to get his or her ass kicked) because they did not experience that adversity, but black people can because it reflects a commonly shared, historical identity.

Mos Def, however, reveals how the author of a text does not control its meaning (just as Roland Barthes showed in his famous essay, “Death of an Author“) because of how the signifier circulates in different social contexts. In fact, just as Michel Foucault argued in “What is an Author?” so too does Mos Def seem to argue in “Mr. Nigga” — that authors and hip hop artists are products of legal and socio-economic systems. Hip hop has been appropriated by white suburban youth who (as Lacan suggests in his argument about how we construct our identity in relation to spectral others) enjoy the thrill of transgression by imitating gangsta rap culture and by pretentiously disavowing their own white privilege. And in a way, hip hop artists never had full control over their medium, having to respond to a marketplace dominated by white consumer culture and powerful corporations.

What artists, comedians, novelists, and hip hop artists have realized is that it’s not enough to simply demystify racism, because our culture and our language continues to reflect racist biases long after we as a nation realized that racism is a false ideology. And so, their project to deconstruct the language of American culture (which includes its racist language) is a project begun centuries ago, in the memoir of Olaudah Equiano and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, well before commedian Richard Pryor first made it a central issue in his stand-up routine back in the 1970s.


March 19, 2009 - Posted by | music, race



    Comment by thescoop | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thanks! 🙂

    Comment by Amy VH | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  3. I find Wale’s 2008 song “The Kramer” tries to show that the difference between the -a and -er really doesn’t matter. Hope you enjoy.

    Comment by Donut City | March 20, 2012 | Reply

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