Prior to Nas’s recent attempts to spark a public discussion of the merits and pitfalls of the reappropriated “n-word,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka Nigga” (from their multiplatinum 1993 release Midnight Marauders) comes quickly to mind as the most popular examination of the topic. In the song, Q-Tip’s argues that the word’s brutal past is nullified by the subversive genius of black youth who elect (in conjunction with rappers, those eternal purveyors and guardians of cool) to employ it, with a new spelling and pronunciation, “as a term of endearment.” Ever the slick rhetorician, he delivers the same verse twice, as if trying to convince us that artful brevity must somehow signify infallibility.
“Sucka Nigga” is clever and powerful, and one is inclined to allow its manipulations to slide unprotested, mostly out of a fear of being lumped together with Jim Crow-cognizant elders and overmannered Bourgois establishment types. But while “Sucka Nigga” presents a lucid argument that is paraphrased to this day, it is neither the most daring nor most trenchant take on this topic. Its very pretension — and simplistic catchiness –distracts from its inadequacy as a piece of analysis. It is a protest song that protests nothing in the end, opting to wearily accept the word as the inevitably attractive byproduct of a mutually influential interaction between rap artists and their core audience (“now the lil’ shorties say it all of the time/ and a whole bunch a niggas throw the word in they rhyme”).
Q-Tip’s observations are surely astute but his performed submission to the will of youthful contrariness (“I start to flinch as I try not to say it/ but my lips are like an oo-wop as I start to spray it”) only lends credence to the type of critique he claims to refute. Q-Tip’s narrator just knows the word is toxic but refuses to examine why, defusing the possibility of articulating how the newly self-aware and assertive “neo-nigga for the nineties” represents a departure from the subordinate “nigger” of the past. Which would have been a necessary move towards swaying the opinions of people on the other side of the argument, especially those who lived through the reality of the word’s most insidious usage.
“Sucka Nigga” briefly hints at the need to imagine, once again, a fresh forward-thinking black consciousness and the kind of man who might embody it, but leaves most of the hard work to the audience. Other rap songs have been less reluctant to spell out the terms of subversion. Goldmoney’s hilarious “Mnniggaah” stands out for its brash insistence that an engaged confrontational adoption of the word and its entire spectrum of meanings could drain its impact as a hurtful slur. Others have gone even further, sketching out a plausible relationship between a new connotation and a new line of thought. Jeru The Damaja’s “The Frustrated Nigga” for example, echoes the attempts of Harlem Renaissance era thinkers to declare a defiantly intellectual “new negro” in contradistinction to the shuffling caricature of old. Unfortunately, Jeru’s narrative is too heady and surreal for its own good. For all of its poetic imagery, there is little acknowledgement of the contemporary context in which black youth find themselves at odds with a legacy of defamation.
Which brings us, finally, to today’s song – “New Niggas.” Mostly remembered for being Black Sheep’s “weed carriers,” and for their singles “Jingle Jangle” and “Legion Groove,” The Legion (Cee-Low, Chucky Smash, Molecules) have been left out of any scholarly discussions concerning meaningful or even provocative rap lyrics. Truth be told, their only album Theme + Echo = Krill consists mostly of banal posturing. But lo and behold, towards the end of the bloated LP is “New Niggas,” an eerie, lumbering, bassy monster of a song. The rhymes are recited with conviction, as befits a declaration of a new paradigm, and from the very outset the word “nigga” is subjected to the brutal interrogation that Q-Tip eschews.
Chucky Smash begins by expounding upon previous arguments in favor of the word’s use, alternating between a denunciation of the “blind, deaf, and dumb” and the assertion of a self that is a work in progress – “history forgotten … the first draft pick but I ain’t picking no more cotton.” While acknowledging his indebtedness to the Nation Of Islam’s message of self-determination, he is careful not to aim above the heads of his audience. He explains that in some ways he also takes on the persona of “emcee moolie,” liable to utter the ugly word for provocation’s sake or to proudly describe himself and his way of being.
Molecules builds on Chucky Smash’s sense that a “new nigga” can be represented by a range of personas and stances. He suggests that both the group and the collective should strive towards a balance between authenticity and versatility, as realness is swiftly and unceremoniously tested on the street. For black youths the social and the political world are never truly separate. The “fake nigga” who brags about a gun but runs from a fight is just as toxic as the one who claims to be “pro-black” but opts out of taking a definitive stand on behalf of his people in a crisis. Thus the collective must respect the “many different forms” of the new nigga, who must act as an autonomous individual to emancipate himself from his past condition. And more importantly, survive until tomorrow.
Cee-Low picks up the baton from Molecules, but shifts the focus of discussion from authenticity to the concept of originality. While Q-Tip’s “Sucka Nigga” narrator passively approves of the potential of black youth to generate ideas and influence culture, Cee-Low adamantly and persuasively links original thought to black political power. Newness in itself becomes a form of resistance against repression and the looming threat of a reversion to “old nigga” behavior. Only a calculating hyper-militant, “new nigga” in possession of a functioning intellect and a sincere concern for the plight of the collective can unravel the lies of history and direct a movement towards social equality. For the “new nigga” a tacit conformity to nihilistic street life or happy-go-lucky oblivion simply will not do — one cannot simply decry the “sucka nigga” that “fronts” or throw the word around without further analysis.
And that’s one to grow on.