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.”
Slightly different rules seem to apply in different regions of the country, agree both MCs. Nocando says use of the word seems more accepted in Northern California and New York City. “The first time I went to New York for hip-hop I was in a battle with this Puerto Rican guy — he was as white as Cameron Diaz — and we were on the streets surrounded by black, Latino, and white people, and he said something like 'Niggas don't understand.' No one batted an eyelash. I never understood New York.”
Eagle notes that folks in Chicago, where he's from originally, tend to be less permissive. “It's a way more segregated city,” he says. “There's more of a hard line than out here.”
The fact that many Latino people in Southern California use the word (which parallels the more-or-less accepted usage of it by Hispanic and even some Middle Eastern hip-hop artists) is something he has not grown comfortable with. Still, he concedes: “I guess that would be the 'hall pass' out here.”
While not pardoning any white rappers' use of the n-word, Nocando nonetheless respects Riff Raff for his non-PC stance. “Saying no one can use it would have been more political, but for him to condemn the white kids who say it and buy his records would have been stupid, business-wise. It confirms what I've thought — that he's smarter than he lets on.”
Below, Nocando offers his specific thoughts on a host of white musicians and pop culture figures who seem to believe — or have once seemed to believe — that they have a pass.
V-Nasty: “Black people that have been through the prison system and black people that are very well educated are both unlikely to keep their mouths shut when V-Nasty says [the n-word], although it's cute from a distance. There's also an entertainment aspect; seeing it on TV or the internet, it doesn't evoke the same emotions as hearing it up close and personal. V-Nasty doing it is just a piece of media.”
Eminem: “His intent was more harmful than V-Nasty's. But he admitted that it was wrong, that he was brokenhearted or whatever. Nothing makes it ok, at least in my book, but it seems like once he grew up he never made that mistake again. Maybe V-Nasty never grew up.”
John Mayer: “He shouldn't talk so much. He's put his foot in his mouth more than any other guitarist in history. Still, his penis quote [“My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I've got a Benetton heart and a fuckin' David Duke cock”], I didn't think was offensive at all. It was funny. If a black entertainer was like, 'Yeah, my dick's racist. I like white girls but my dick doesn't,' that would get praise.”
The girl in the A$ap Rocky video: “What it boils down to is that someone shot that because they knew people would talk about it, knowing that it's immediate attention. You don't even need a PR agent. Black people are gonna wanna check in and see what's the hoopla.”
Louis C.K.: “The way he references the n-word, it's like, 'I'm going to say it because you know what the word means and I'm quoting something,' and that usually gets a pass. But it still makes the old school part of me feel uncomfortable.”
Neal Brennan: “That's like the V-Nasty thing, like this dude's an entertainer and that's his shtick. But believe me, every white person that grows up around black people knows that word is touchy. And using it on a podcast is for a certain outcome: to get attention. Does he get a pass because he knows Chappelle? Really, the pass is how bold you are. At the end of the day, as a white guy, you can say 'What up nigga' and be as bold as you want, but if the guy you're talking to is a super pro-black dude, a college guy, he's gonna say 'You can't say that.' Same with someone who's been educated by the streets, who's really been through the struggle.”
Paris Hilton: “That never came by my radar…If a pass is a real thing, she definitely can't get one, [because of] everything she stands for.”
Gwyneth Paltrow: “She was referencing a song, and at the end of the day, I'm not offended, because it wasn't meant to be harmful in any way. Still, I assure you that a young, up-and-coming actress would not be bold enough to say it, for fear of getting blacklisted.”