Rodney King died Sunday, June 17, after what someone fond of understatement would call a “troubled life.” He leaves behind a complicated legacy, but mostly he’s a symbol of what can happen when authority is taken too far.
I was too young to understand how his beating and O.J. Simpson’s trial affected the conversation on race in America. And the nation itself was too young to understand the effects of the simultaneously occurring Golden Age of Hip Hop, but these questions are questions we’re still grappling with today.
Birtherism and Trayvon Martin’s murder aside, it seems that the most pressing racial question is whether or not white people should ever say “nigga,” a popular subversion of the slur “nigger.” For aliens reading this in 2366 who don’t understand the difference, “nigga” is a term some black people use in a friendly way, to mean brother, friend, or associate. “Nigger” is a term racists use when forcing black people out of white schools or thinking of them as property. Aliens, be advised: some white people desperately want to say this word for some reason. Maybe because rappers make it sound cool. So they try to get away with saying it. Unfortunately, there is no “getting away with” saying the n-word. You either say it or you don’t.
So when is it okay for white people to say “nigger” or “nigga”? Probably never, unless they’re reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The former is a term far too loaded with a history of discrimination, injustice, and murder. The latter is a reclamation project that’s not going away any time soon. Hip-hop is too big for it to be erased from public consciousness.
Jay-Z and Kanye West knew this when they titled one of the catchiest song of 2011 “Niggas in Paris.” By using a perversion of a racial slur and one of the cities most often associated with Old World Romanticism, the world’s most popular rappers blurred the lines of “high” and “low” culture and asserted a reality that can’t be ignored anymore. It’s possible that white hegemony is slowing dying (a good thing), but there’s still a long way to go and a lot of growing pains.
One such growing pain is famous rich person Gwyneth Paltrow—who is friends with Jay and Yeezy—attending a concert and tweeting “ni**as in Paris, for real,” followed by a photo of her with the two rappers. Being Twitter, this sparked a controversy, and Paltrow shakily defended herself by tweeting, “hold up. It’s the title of the song!”
It’s a tricky situation, and I’m not going to defend or condemn Paltrow. It is the title of a song, after all. It’s also not necessarily combative, as Slate’s Jonah Weiner notes, which makes it different from two Rodney King-inspired albums, N.W.A’s Niggaz4Life or 2Pac’s Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. But as Jay Smooth correctly points out, the right to say “nigga” is not something you should necessarily fight tooth and nail over.
What’s worse is Katy Perry’s cover of the song.
I mean, just watch that video—that is, if your eyes and ears aren’t bleeding. She starts by saying, “This is about to get real embarrassing,” like she’s doing the video because she lost a bet, or she’s having second thoughts. But she proceeds to perform with the highest confidence. She dons a Jay-Z-style Yankees flat bill, a cap I’m willing to bet she never wears otherwise. She bounces around and throws her hands up just like a real gangsta, you guys. She even tosses Jay’s trademark Rocafella gesture. The worst, though, is how she spends the video self-censoring any swear word—“mother effs” or “mofo” instead of “muthafucka,” “nuh” instead of “nigga,” “ish” instead of “shit,” “trick” instead of “bitch.”
Louis CK has a bit about white people saying “the n-word.” It’s a testament to the power of words, especially how unsettling it is to hear CK actually say the word in question. It boils down to the idea that, “When you say ‘the n-word,’ you put the word ‘nigger’ in the listener’s head.”
This is exactly what Perry is doing, and with relative impunity. Honestly, though, “trick” should be no less offensive than calling a woman a “bitch”—one implies the woman isn’t human, one implies that she exists solely for sexual purposes. “Mother effs wanna fine me” is so disruptive that you have to think the word “motherfucker.” Aside from disturbing the flow of the song (for instances of artists cleverly changing lyrics in ways that aren’t offensive, click here, here, and here), it’s a more subtle form of racism. Essentially, Perry is permitting herself to say whatever she wants by not saying it.
Most egregiously, she climaxes the song not with “Got my niggas in Paris, and they going gorillas,” but with “Got my ninjas in London, and they going gorillas.” (Note: she is performing in London). I mean, damn. It’s cool to toss around an ancient Japanese art when you really want the listener to think about a black racial slur? Okay. Try it next time a Tupac song comes on when you’re at a party full of people you don’t know.
How does this relate to Rodney King? Twenty one years after his beating, most cities still have a stop-and-frisk policy. A self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer can shoot a seventeen-year-old because he “looks suspicious.” And rather than consider what Jay-Z could possibly be talking about when he says, “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too,” Katy Perry performs a crude caricature.
When are people going to stop thinking that this sort of thing is funny? It’s not like Karmin’s Amy Heidemann, who also looks like a pinup girl and has monster swag, because Heidemann can really rap. Anyone without a speech impediment can rap “Niggas in Paris,” so Perry’s not impressing anyone. Then what’s her angle here? It’s an irresponsible performance that isn’t funny, interesting, or innovative. It’s cheap.
Rodney King was a rough dude. On the night of his beating, he was driving with a .19 BAC. He led police on an eighty MPH car chase because he didn’t want to get pulled over—drunk driving is
fatally dangerous a violation of his parole. He resisted when officers tried to subdue him.
But don’t forget that what the officers did was much more than excessive force. That he had a fractured facial bone, a broken right ankle, and more cuts and bruises than anyone should have from one beating. That at the hospital, the officers joked and bragged about how many times he’d been hit. That then-mayor Tom Bradley and President George H.W. Bush came out condemning the officers, with Bradley declaring they “Do not deserve to wear the uniform of the L.A.P.D.”
That’s the environment that partially birthed hip hop. When N.W.A talks about coming straight out of Compton, that means something. There’s a reason Public Enemy wrote “911 Is a Joke.” It’s irresponsible to co-opt that style and vocabulary for a few YouTube hits. I’m not saying Katy Perry is as horrible as the cops who beat up Rodney King. Far from it. But this sort of thing needs deeper examination and thought and less wide-eyed, ironic covers.