I've always had a somewhat fraught relationship with hip-hop. Its inventiveness can be breathtaking, its rapid-fire and often eloquent lyrics can cut get to the bottom of things in a way that traditional music just can't. The storytelling extends a black oral tradition that stretches from the African continent to the slavery era to blues to this very moment. On the other hand, I've never acclimated to the profligate use of 'nigger' employed in a lot hip-hop, including but not limited to gangsta rap. Such use started out controversial back in the '90s, with home-grown groups like N.W.A., but the relentless commercialization of hip-hop since then is such that 'nigger' and other epithets have now become merely elements of American pop. That might be all right if blacks as a group had largely risen above the effects of racism, if they were no longer disproportionately poor or incarcerated or underemployed, if they could look back on their history from the safe distance of success and muse about the ironies of 'nigger' in a song. But they can't do that. Not yet. In the meantime, black music is more mainstreamed than black people -- a very long American tradition -- which means that many Americans assume that the high profiles of stars like Jay-Z or Beyonce mean that we as a society are integrated.
We aren't of course. I'm reminded of that every time I make my way from Inglewood to another part of town where black people are few and far between, places where I feel like a set piece. That's become so common a circumstance that it feels mainstreamed, too, in its own way; segregation is so routine that I don't even think about it. That was the case when I was shopping at a boutique recently in Larchmont Village. I was there happily poking through piles of half-off merchandise, fantasizing that I could maybe afford to live here if the houses were half off, too, or better yet, 75 percent off...and then I heard the music.
I stopped. Nigga, bitch, ho, et al, playing indifferently over the store speakers like elevator muzak. I'd probably heard it all before in this store, but this time, sensitized by Ferguson and the collapse of the key Voting Rights Act provision last year, and many other things that have been building up since Obama's been president, I really heard it. I looked around quickly. I was first annoyed, then angered, and then finally embarrassed that this entirely white crowd (except for me) was listening to this stuff, not just listening (it's a free country, of course) but thinking it was okay. Thinking that it was cool and cutting-edge and even liberating to hear 'nigger' being tossed around, that it wasn't racist or even racially questionable but the hippest thing that an insufferably hip boutique like this one could do. One of the very chicly dressed salesgirls, a blonde who was folding clothes, was actually humming along, like this was her favorite song. I glared at her. I don't think she got it.
Ridiculous? Yes and no. Yes, because as I said, hip-hop that invokes the once-taboo 'nigger' has practically become cultural wallpaper these days. White people say it because the music says it; some of them argue that black artists largely making that music are leading us all in saying it, and have been doing so for years. And not ridiculous, because I don't care how much 'nigger' is mainstreamed in music, as long as black folks are an endangered group -- profiled by police but profiled, really, by everybody -- the word stings. It stings because the fear and loathing embedded in the word stretch back generations to slavery. And it still has currency.
I complained about the music to the manager, saying that as an African American, I didn't want to be subjected to such language as I shopped at the store (which, by the way, is cozy and intimate -- it's not like I was shopping at Target). She nodded immediately, said she understood, and changed the selection. I was relieved. I finished my excursion in peace. When she rang me up, I thanked her for hearing me out and taking some action. She smiled somewhat condescendingly and said, "Yes, I hope you appreciate it."
I was indignant anew. I knew what she meant: other customers had no complaints at all, and she was obliging me in a way she had likely never obliged anyone before. But there was something unnecessarily superior in her remark, something that told me that she didn't think that hearing 'nigger' in her store, or anywhere, was any big deal. Or it shouldn't be to anyone, not even to black folks like me. The way this girl saw it, even in the context of my own experience -- the black experience if you will -- I was out of step.
There's way too much there to leave hanging; I'll be back to that place to finish what I started. But not until winter and another half-off event. Sales are the only times I really belong there.