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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

If the concert offends you… it’s meant to

Published: September 19, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

Before I begin with my usual style of intellectual banter I would love to quickly address a small matter of business concerning a nasty rumor about one of my favorite rappers. Nasir Jones’ glory days are far from behind him. In the last 7 years Mr. Nasir Jones was part of what’s considered one of the greatest Hip-hop feuds in history with Sean Carter, also known as Jay-Z. After following the “beef” by keeping the rap world on its ear with commercially and critically successful hits like “One Mic,” “Made You Look,” and “Virgo,” Nas went on to, release the album “Hip-Hop is Dead” which, aside from reminding us that Iron Butterfly kicks ass with its eponymous album single , went on to sell 356,000 units in the first week, debut at Billboard 200 #1 slot, and take the #1 in the United World Chart. Furthermore, Nas is enjoying no less success with his album “Untitled”. Long story short, Nas is a living legend. Brandeis wins.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s address the controversy. What is Nas’ latest Untitled album, formerly called Nigger, really about? Nas is far from you average artist. With his work always comes an agenda; a purpose, something he wants us as fans to come away with and the world at large to digest. “Untitled” is Nas’s participation in a dialogue that has been conducted between artists and scholars, college professors and students for years: What does the N-word mean in today’s society and how has the word’s meaning developed in the presence of different ethnic and racial demographics? One of the overarching themes of his work is to make people realize that—while the N-word itself might not have been used—people of all races have been discriminated against and restricted to social roles unbefitting of them. He takes it further in tracks like the poignantly titled “Be a N_____ Too”. Aside from literally going through what I’m sure was every pejorative term he could think of, he acknowledges the irony that for all the different people in the world, hate takes a similar form against each and every one of us. He goes on to make the assertion that, in reclaiming these words that were once hurtful, all races and creeds, not just African Americans, can share in the fraternity that the N-word (I admit arguably) has proliferated in popular culture today.

Of course I’m only scratching the surface. There is a lot to the album and it’s lyrics that you only get after a second or third listen. Aside from direct racism issues, Nas addresses the social double standard that, as comedian Paul Mooney puts it, “everyone wants to be a N_____ but no one wants to be an N______”. That is to say that as much as popular culture is driven by African and Caribbean American influences, racist attitudes towards those same influences remain unchanged. The result is a social construction in which it is cool to act “gangster,” but as soon as you are genuinely associated with the affected aesthetic, you are looked down upon by society. Nas also refuses to limit himself to race issues. He spits, “Y’all don’t treat women fair/She read about herself in the bible/Believing she the reason sin is here/You played her, with an apron/Like bring me my dinner, dear/She the nigger here”. As is evident in this excerpt from the song “America”, Nas has not lost a bit of his knack for piercing prose and haunting poeticism. Furthermore what those few bars also make clear is that the dialogue Nas wishes to bring about is even bigger than race but is one regarding America’s history of marginalization of different peoples, black from white, Jewish from Christian, women from men. The Untitled album challenges us to discuss when and in which ways different people have been made to serve the role of, or have been seen as society’s N-words. It then takes us further into pondering what unification and empowerment of these groups could mean for our collective future as Americans.

Granted, I am aware that even after my efforts to defend and illuminate Nas’ artistic drive in producing Untitled there will still be some skeptics, otherwise known to the Hip-hop world as “haters.” To the haters I would just like to say that Hip-hop isn’t just music, it is a safe haven for those who need an outlet for their creativity, a fortress built upon the arrogance of artists like Kanye, a library with rhyme-books of wisdom from conscious artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. It’s a place where one can be as brash and as bold as one desires, while at the same time being as introspective and as ruminative as is necessary. It’s where one can channel life’s transgressions into art while removed, in body but not in mind from the pain that is the impetus behind one’s lyrical voice. Hip-Hop is a home where all are welcome, but not If they want to come in and act like strangers. If you want to talk Hip-hop, respect Hip-hop, know Hip-hop and don’t start throwing dirt on people’s names without discretion.

Nas, you are a living legend, and if you get to read this (somehow) before or after the performance on Saturday, you are more than welcome at Brandeis. I haven’t spoken to a person yet who isn’t excited to have you coming to our school. One Love.