"That's that crack music, n----
that real black music, n----"
- KANYE WEST
WHEN I LISTEN to lyrics in certain hip-hop songs, they not only give me pause but they get me thinking about the backgrounds of the entertainers themselves.
Who raised - or didn't bother raising - the mike-toting superstars who spout the n-word and other profanities? Considering just how prevalent this is, maybe I should be numb to it by now. Maybe I need to stop quibbling and dance already.
But despite attempts by well-meaning friends to school me on the matter, I haven't gotten used to how such a derogatory slur - one that has been used for centuries to subjugate African-Americans - has become such a choice term for multimillionaire, wannabe-hard types. Want to be "real"? Say the n-word over and over, preferrably with an infectious beat behind it.
I understand how for many it has become an insider term of affection, particularly when it ends with an "a." It's a way to show defiance and also take the sting away. But talk about being overused. Can't we move on?
Recently, I caught up with the mother of one of hip-hop's biggest stars, Kanye West. While chairing the English department at the University of Chicago, she testified about the damaging impact the word has on a person's psyche. So I asked her straight up how she feels about her son's use of the n-word.
Donda West said she has come almost full circle on the subject. Instead of feeling that it should be banned as hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons has proposed in the aftermath of the Don Imus affair, she has made her peace with it."I'm not thrilled with it," said Donda.
But speaking by phone from an ocean-view home in California that Kanye purchased for her, Donda admitted, "It doesn't bother me in the way it used, too . . . I've had a shift in paradigm that I never thought I would have.
"I just have a different attitude about it. It's not one that I'll advocate. It's my own personal view," she continued. "I don't want to give that word more power than it already has. It's not what you call me. It's what I answer to."
In her new book, "Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar" (Pocket Books, 2007), West likened it to someone's calling her mother a bitch.
"I wouldn't like it. But I know that my mother's not a bitch, so it wouldn't bother me. They can say it all day and it still will not make it true," Donda writes.
She's among those who believes in a double standard in regard to the use of the word.
"I don't apologize for it," Donda told me. "It is not OK for white people to ever use it because of how it came to be and what it meant historically.
"Until we can come to a place in this country and in the world that not only is racism gone . . . then that's the day that white people can say it," she added. "There's definitely a double standard. I say in the book, 'It's an earned double standard.' "
Donda knows there are plenty - present company included - who don't share her newfound acceptance. In fact, she initially withdrew for publication her chapter called "nigga vs. nigger," but Kanye persuaded her to reinstate it. " 'Mom, I'm almost ashamed of you. If this is how you feel . . . why would you not take this opportunity?' " Donda said he told her.
"Admittedly, this is not a word that comes off my tongue loosely. I've rarely used the n-word," she said. "I'm no longer offended by somebody saying the word in a certain context.
"This time last year, I probably wouldn't have been able to say it. [But] I looked at what it is instead of how I want it to be. This word is just a word.
"If we don't cut out what is behind the word, then what have we gained?" Donda said.
She's right about it being just a word. But, frankly, it's one that is overused and not cool, no matter who says it or how good the beat behind it is. *