Aminé’s take on the word nigga

IMG_E0912I first became a fan of Aminé when he responded to my comment under his Instagram post. The caption asked his followers for movie recommendations to watch on a very long flight. I suggested that he watch “Terms of Endearment” followed by the “Jimmy Neutron Movie”, and he wrote back, “you the goat for this”. I am an avid social media user and have been for the last five or six years, and still this was my first time ever feeling that it brought me closer to someone that I did not already know. Following our exchange, if you can even call it that, I listened to Aminé’s album from start to finish and realized that there is far more to him than the penetratingly catchy “Caroline”.

Since my foray into his debut album, “Good for You”, I have seen Aminé’s fan base grow with every new tweet that he uses to commemorate a milestone in views on his “Spice Girls” music video. I also witnessed his ability to go viral following a performance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. He devoted a portion of his five minutes or fewer on national television to shine a light on the hatred and racism that pervades American national identity, and is progressively less reserved since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. When I saw the notification for Aminé’s recent Tiny Desk Concert on NPR, I should have known to expect another moment like the one on Fallon, time taken out to say something meaningful and delivered to a soothing melody, as is his style.

This time Aminé brought attention to non-black people saying “nigga”, and I’m really glad he did. I was reminded of the Ta-Nehisi Coates clip that circulated on social media throughout last week and the week before. In the video, a white Northwestern student asks him how to explain to other white people why they aren’t allowed to say “nigga”. In short, Coates answers that words exist in specific contexts, and it is due to certain present and historical contexts that white people cannot use the word, as there is nothing in its meaning or history for them to reclaim. He goes on to say that white people believe they can and should be able to say “nigga” in song lyrics because they have access to everything else in America, and more broadly in the world. Coates says it would be a good practice in trying to understand the black experience if a white person would refrain from singing the word because to be black is to be denied experiences, time and time again.

I thought a lot about Coates’ response, which is undoubtedly astute, and decided that I would have gone further if I were to answer the Northwestern student’s question. I think Aminé knows where we should start, not simply with white people but with anyone who is not black. A headline on an article profiling the Tiny Desk Concert shows exactly why we must be deliberate in outlining who can and cannot use the word, because despite the fact that Aminé raps “if you’re not black don’t say it”, somehow the publication heard an address to only “white fans”.

In trying to explain non-black people’s continued “nigga” use to one of my best friends who is white, I drew on the popular feminist theory that women’s work is undervalued and under compensated in the public sphere because it was first devalued in domestic settings. Women’s work at home is an obligation associated with womanhood, so ascribed that it has long been forgotten as anything other than a woman’s responsibility. This labor has become core to women’s existence, and its performance is to the benefit of others. So then, non-women receive women’s labor as a right rather than a privilege.

Much like discussions of the word “nigga”, dialogue surrounding black labor and product in America must begin at slavery. Black labor, black bodies, and black product all began in the American domestic sphere as property belonging to everyone who was not black. As the country has grown, black people remain the most denigrated, and I would maintain that our labor, bodies, and product have been taken up as every American’s property.

This is the problem in diluting Aminé’s message: it isn’t just white people who think that they can take up black culture at their own convenience. All non-black people are at fault to a certain degree. So I ask that when we have these conversations concerning black product- because at the end of the day, “nigga”, with all of its cultural appeal, is a product of the hard labor that is “black cool”- we are careful not to forget nuance. We must hold everyone who is not black accountable for their role in black people’s exploitation.

A poem:

I think he hopes they hear all of his words. Yellow can be too loud. You get stuck on happy and forget all that lies beneath it. Caroline, don’t you see that… if you’re not black don’t say it. I think he’s just trying to be a whole person. And when you’re a whole black person, it’s hard to hear them, see them say it.

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