The late aughts saw a debate in the hip-hop community about the use of the n-word, sparked in part by Nas' plan to name his 2008 album Nigger (he ended up calling it Untitled), as well as Russell Simmons' call for industry self-censorship of the word. In 2007 the city of Detroit even hosted a "symbolic funeral" for the epithet.
In the ensuing years, however, the word's use in hip-hop has not waned. In fact, the debate seems to have shifted slightly, from whether black rappers should use it to whether any white rappers can use it. Though almost nobody will say publicly that this is a good idea, the issue keeps cropping up. Last year Oakland-bred rapper V-Nasty dropped n-bombs repeatedly on her debut mixtape Don't Bite Just Taste. Though in her interview with us she noted that the word is more commonly used by white people in the Bay Area, and that she's the mother of half-black children, she nonetheless drew widespread scorn. Still, influential Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane said he would not "judge" her, and officially co-signed her by collaborating on a mixtape.
Was this an example of the "hood pass," the quasi-mythical exemption supposedly given to some Caucasians? (It's also sometimes called a "hall pass.") If the hood pass is real, then plenty of other white cultural denizens seem to believe they have one too -- from Chappelle's Show co-creator Neal Brennan to John Mayer to that girl with grills in the A$ap Rocky video. (For what it's worth, cultural curiosity Riff Raff believes all this to be just fine.) After Gwyneth Paltrow captioned a photo of herself onstage in France with Jay-Z and Kanye West this summer as "n***as in paris for real!" meanwhile, Russell Simmons defended her, and Nas went so far as to insist, "Gwyneth gets a pass."
Of course, in multi-racial pockets of the country many white kids are using the word with relative impunity. And Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-bait Django Unchained has some 110 utterances. So could it be that it's now considered ok for some white people to say it in mixed company?
Absolutely not, says Los Angeles rapper Open Mike Eagle. To him, you can spin it any way you want -- white folks shouldn't be saying it. "People just want the freedom to do it, so they'll [justify it] however they can. They say it in secret, and they want to be able to say it in public," he says. "In my personal experience, I've never known anybody that was white to have that kind of license."
Eagle's Hellfyre Club labelmate, rapper Nocando, sees a few shades of gray in the discussion, however. He notes that when he was a Culver City High School student ten years ago it was an "unspoken rule" that his white friends wouldn't say it: "Everyone knew better." In fact, even he and his black friends were careful about using it when white students were nearby. "We didn't throw it around, because we [didn't want it] rubbing off on people."
For his younger cousins, however, different rules apply, he adds, noting that their white friends say it and it's more-or-less accepted. He cautions, however, that a local pass isn't the same as a universal one. "If you're a white guy who grew up in Inglewood, you might have a pass to say it around your friends," Nocando says, "but if you go say it in Long Beach, you might get in trouble."
For some white rappers it also seems to be situational, he goes on, at least in the case of V-Nasty. "That shit works around people [in the Bay Area] that she knows, or maybe a fan. But it doesn't work for all black people in general."