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Album title sparks controversy

One story has been causing controversy in the music world for the past couple of months. At the center of the debate is rapper Nas’ willingness to name his forthcoming album after a term that has been used to disparage black people for centuries.

The term, which is commonly referred to as the n-word, will be spelled out in full as the title of Nas’ next album. It is scheduled to be released Dec. 11, 2007.

There is always the question of the term of endearment versus the term of disparagement. That argument is wiped out in the mere spelling of the word. Anyone who studies rap music could tell you the so-called term of endearment ends in “gga” and the term of disparagement, which is the title of the album, ends in a “gger.”

Nas was given a chance to explain why he chose to name his album the n-word in an interview with MTV.com.

“I wanna make the word easy on mutha—-as’ ears,” he said. “You see how white boys ain’t mad at ‘cracker’ ’cause it don’t have the same (sting) as ‘n—–‘? I want ‘n—–‘ to have less meaning (than) ‘cracker.'”

This explanation doesn’t work for me for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that the word has been used to degrade black people for centuries. It has been a symbol of the racism and hatred that was perpetrated against black people all over the world and still exists in some places. The word carries the weight of American racism, and I don’t see how it could ever be “easy” on people’s ears.

There are only a few types of people for whom that term would be “easy on the ears”: those who are uneducated or lacking knowledge of the word’s history. Others may use the term knowing the emotional weight attached to it but not care.

I also don’t see how Nas could say, from his vantage point, how white people feel about being called a cracker. The word “cracker” doesn’t carry the same weight as the n-word in terms of its historical use, but when it’s used in a racially charged manner, who is he to say whether someone white would be offended?

I recognize that racially charged terms in any spelling or connotation will probably always be used in private conversations. I don’t believe that is acceptable, but when you place the word on the front of an album cover for whole world to see, it is much more inflammatory. It serves as an unnecessary reminder of inappropriate language that should never be used in the public forum.

I must say that I’m personally disappointed in Nas, who has been labeled by many one of the more intelligent and enlightened rappers in history. Even more disappointing is the apparent support the title is receiving. Hip-hop veterans such as

LL Cool J have condoned the use of the word in the title as a cheap marketing ploy.

I don’t know his true intentions, but I think this is an unnecessary title for an album. Nas has sold millions of records worldwide. He already has an established fan base. I agree with Def Jam Records president Jay-Z, who said that this title, whatever the meaning behind it, will not change the problems of racism that linger in American society.

If it isn’t going to fix any problems of racism and, by Nas’ own admission, it is not an educational tool, then the title is merely a method of desensitization. What could result from it other than the extra record sales that the shock value may generate?

As far as I’m concerned, this album title is only going to give people another excuse to use racially charged language; that’s not something we need in America. Let’s hope the management of Def Jam will do something to prevent this album title from being used.

Ryan Watson is a graduate student majoring in mass communications