When the 'N' Word Is Part of a Routine Michael Richards aside, many comics, musicians and artists make use of the 'N' word in their work. Now the Rev. Jesse Jackson wants to ban its use. How do performers decide when it's appropriate? Hip-hop icon KRS-ONE and comedy legend Paul Mooney offer their thoughts.

When the 'N' Word Is Part of a Routine

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

If you've been listening to the news or watching or downloading video from the Internet, you have probably heard the N-word recently. And this week, the Reverend Jesse Jackson called for a complete ban on it. His plea came after a comedy club rant by comedian Michael Richards, who later apologized. The back and forth has sparked a national conversation. Now, we'll take it a step further.

How are artists responding to the proposed ban on the N-word? Some say using it is offensive, others say it's simply free speech. We spoke earlier with rapper KRS-One and comedian Paul Mooney. KRS-One led the seminal rap group Boogie Down Productions or BDP whose 1988 album contained the track “Stop the Violence.”

KRS-One whose name is Chris Parker is also the founder of The Temple of Hip-Hop, an organization preserving hip-hop history. And comedian Paul Mooney has entertained audiences for more than 30 years. He's played on the Chappelle Show and on stages around the world.

Before we start, an important advisory, in our conversation about the N-word, we will actually use the word. We started out with a 24 year old comedy routine that could have come out of today's headlines.

It's Richard Pryor from 1982 and he explains why after years of using the N-word in his comedy, he suddenly put it off limits.

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR (Comedian): And a voice said to me said look around, what do you see? And I said, I see all colors of people doing everything, you know. And a voice said do you see any niggers? I said no. And I said, you know why? Because there aren't any. And it hit me like a shot. Man, I started crying (bleep). While sitting, I said yeah, I've been here three weeks. I haven't even said it. I haven't even thought it. And it made me say oh, my God, I've been wrong. I said, I ain't going never call another black man - nigger.

(Soundbite of applause)

You know, because we never was no niggers. That's a word that's used to describe our own wretchedness. And we perpetuate it now because it's dead. We come from the first people on the earth. We're the first ones to say, where (bleep) am I? And how do you get to Detroit?

CHIDEYA: Now, Paul, you, I'm sure, know those words well because you helped write Richard Pryor's material on that Live from the Sunset Strip tour. So did you guys talked about this as, you know, jointly about the decision not to use the N-word?

Mr. PAUL MOONEY (Comedian): Yeah, we did and it was quite dramatic because we had made money of the word, we had got famous off the word. And we had a romance with the word and we were married to it. And Richard came out - this came out of nowhere and it was such fun, and Richard came back from Africa, very serious about it and talked to me. And at that time, I was so caught up in it. I couldn't see the forest for the N-word. I said -

CHIDEYA: But you thought he was wrong?

Mr. MOONEY: I said that's for you, that ain't for me. And I - because he got up on stage and announced it at The Comedy Store, and I said - and Robin Williams was there - a lot of people were there. And I got up and I followed them, I said, well, all of you are N-words to me, all of you are.

To him, that's his decision because he is his own person and I'm my own person. And that was real. And the times and the situation that it was not - I told him, I said Richard, how could you give that up, you know, we - it was such a tool.

So Richard did that and Richard's career changed, and so at the time I was thinking I was saying, you know what? How them white folks sit Richard down. I bet they didn't even no Africa, you know, this has been on my mind and told him don't say that will do this because his whole career changed. I said that's what this is about - economics, I thought. But I ended up - I was wrong and he was totally right.

And seeing the Michael Richards tape, I had an out-of-body experience because I've never been outside of myself. And I saw the weapon that it was. It was like a nuclear bomb and it just came from - it just hit me. I mean, he was actually my Dr. Phil, he cured me with the word.

It wasn't a stand-up performance, it was actually - and I'm not being funny, a nervous breakdown. He's not in denial about it, he knows he has that in him and he's very sorry for it. I've known man over 20 years and I was in a private room with that man.

He grabbed a hold of me like, he was so glad I was there, and he was so glad I didn't jump on him. And he was so apologetic and he really, at least he knows that. People suppressed and hide it because we live in a racist society and society has taken responsibility for it, too.

CHIDEYA: All right. Let me go to KRS-One. You really have pushed the concept of entertainment, really using hip-hop in a conscious way. But you had one of your songs with BDP that was called “House Niggers”.

KRS-ONE (Rapper): Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Do you - what was your intent in using the word, do you regret it?

KRS-ONE: I would start with who has the power to decide. This is what hip-hop deals with because even the word, hip-hop, is a made-up word. And when you look at our entire language, it's not just nigga, N-I-G-G-A that we used or transform, I should say.

It is fly and dope and hoe, H-O-E is - that word doesn't exist. It's either whore or hoe as in a garden tool. Hip-hop is taken that and created new words and new terms to match our intelligence.

Yes, N-I-G-G-E-R is offensive, no doubt about it. Any hip-hopper will tell you straight up, if you don't speak to me in the entire hip-hop language, meaning, you're coming at me with all the transformed words and then you use the word nigger.

Now, I understand where you're coming from. You part of the family. You got with us. But if you are going to use straight up, you know, correct English or CNN English and then slip the word nigger, no, you violated right there.

CHIDEYA: So what you're saying, if I understand correctly, is that you can use the word if you're in-house but not if you're out-of-house. But, you know, I mean -

KRS-ONE: According to hip-hop, in our rules, yes. Nigger to me is not offensive at all. To me, in hip-hop, if somebody said something like they're like for instance, if Eminem had of called us niggers, which he does, and himself, by the way, there would have been another rapper who would have stepped up and challenged him in rap.

Meaning that, to me, if you're a comedian and you're using the word nigger and you use it out of context, where other comedians are then saying, wait a minute, you cross the line here on this issue.

Then I think the battle should start. May the best orator of the word win because that's what words are. They are - its linguistic poetry - I describe the world; the world does not a described me, that's hip-hop.

CHIDEYA: Paul, words do have a certain power. I mean -

Mr. MOONEY: No, well, he doesn't see. His generation doesn't come from a lynching generation. And hasn't seen what we've seen and what Emmett Till went through. And they're defining their own existence and the Nazis did that, Hitler did that. They hailed Hitler, they had their own private little thing that keep the world away and to dislike a thing.

And this is America and it's your decision, but this is a word for me - I mean, it's just for me. I'm just a recovering N-word-aholic, been there, done that.

So I realize a drunk when I see one. I understand all of it. And our society is really to blame for all of this. It creates these monsters. It's the Doctor Frankenstein of our world. See as a black people, whether you use hip-hop or not hip-hop or punk rock or whatever it is.

If they bring back slavery and start picking up black people again to make them slaves, they'll pick the hip-hoppers, me, and everybody else. And they'll pick up Mariah Carey, they'll pick up everybody.

It's to keep us divided. It's to keep us from Willie Lynch syndrome - it's the young not respecting the old. And I don't want that. I want that now us - we come from the land of kings and queens. And we got to pick ourselves up, we can't let anyone else do it, as a black race and I want to be celebrated, not tolerated and to come together and unite. And we got to get this out - we got to destroy that word. We got to bury it. We really do have to do that and, seriously, on whatever level.

CHIDEYA: Well, okay. Let me go back to Kris, KRS-ONE.

KRS-ONE: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: What do you think about these calls in and among certain folks of profile in the community to say, you know what? We just need to drop it.

KRS-ONE: Yeah. I would follow something like that but only if - well, should I say with conditions. The condition is this, if you respect my intelligence, I'll respect yours. So if you want the N-word to stop, for rappers to stop saying the N-word, then we're going to have to sit down and we're going to have to discuss what that word means to you and what that word means to us.

Mr. MOONEY: And you know what? I agree with you and I'm going to tell you something funny. And I know you - because you have a sense of humor. I already know that. You are very bright and I'm not dumb. I've discussed this with Whoopi Goldberg, and you know what she said to me?

KRS-ONE: What?

Mr. MOONEY: She said give me an N-pass because I got to curse somebody out Friday. After that, I'll stop saying it.

KRS-ONE: That is funny. That is funny.

Mr. MOONEY: She wanted a pass.

KRS-ONE: That's how I would approach it. Representing hip-hop is - what if we did ask NAACP and so on for a pass? When we did our concerts, we put a pass forward and how would you get approved? Well, based on your conduct for the year. How did you add to the collective vision of African-Americans in the country or just black people in the country? How did you add to that? Here is your pass.

But I'll tell you this, there is something - the reason I bring intelligence into this is because I think that's what's really lacking. Does freedom of speech have anything to do with this or are we beyond that?

Mr. MOONEY: No. We're beyond this. This has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

KRS-ONE: Okay. Okay.

CHIDEYA: Oh, but a lot of folks say it is freedom of speech.

Mr. MOONEY: Based - that's a trap.

KRS-ONE: Okay. But wait a minute, well, even if it -

Mr. MOONEY: Wait a minute. A lot of people say, oh, I'm Spanish. No, you speak Spanish. Don't get trapped in that. You have to be smarter than that.

CHIDEYA: All right.

KRS-ONE: Well, here is - wait - this is the point right here, is that we're not thinking about the word, we're emotionalizing the word because if you think about the word…

Mr. MOONEY: Well, sir…

KRS-ONE: We're…

Mr. MOONEY: Listen, we're going to get together as a people and we're going to discuss this intelligently. We're going to have a conference on this. We're going to do this and…

CHIDEYA: Well, you're starting out, Paul, by having your first N-word free show in D.C.

Mr. MOONEY: Yeah, in Washington, D.C. at the Lincoln Theater. It's myself and Dick Gregory. And it's this Saturday and we're doing two shows and we want everybody to come out. And we're going to try to straighten this thing out. And even if they have taken the word - from the N-word to riggers and I'm glad…

CHIDEYA: When you say they, who do you mean?

Mr. MOONEY: They - you. When I say they, you figure it out. Okay. They. Anyway, yeah, that's such a (unintelligible). White people have - very clever with words. That's why they say the race card that came from O.J. And I'm not interested in the race card. I'm interested in how do they get in the deck. That's what I want to know.

CHIDEYA: Okay. Well, on that note, I am sure we are going to get a lot of letters. I've been talking to comedy great, Paul Mooney, who has worked with everyone from Richard Pryor to Red Fox, Dave Chappelle who was here with us at NPR West giving me grief. And also KRS-ONE, hip-hop artist, philosopher and founder of the Temple of Hip-hop. Thanks to both of you.

Mr. MOONEY: Thanks, Farai.

KRS-ONE: Okay. Bye-bye.

(Soundbite of song)

Oh, black y'all. And I'm black, y'all. And I'm blacker than black, you know(ph), black y'all. And I'm black, y'all. And I'm blickety(ph) black, black, black, blacker than black, black, I'm blackety(ph) black, yo. Because I'm black and I'm back.

CHIDEYA: Coming up, our panel weighs in on this discussion of the N-word, plus, more on our Roundtable, next.

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