‘N****s’ in Grammys: Watch The Throne and the 2013 Awards ‘race’

LOS ANGELES — Nothing elicited more self-conscious laughter from a live audience at the 2013 Grammy Awards than during the pre-telecast ceremony, when Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne won two honors for the song “Niggas in Paris.” As is his custom at the Grammys, West was absent. But so was another element to this winner’s circle: the full name of the song itself.

As it was announced, the term “Niggas” was bleeped out, as the censors would “f*ck” or “sh*t,” and it sounded awkwardly funny, especially considering the accolade.

On Watch the Throne’s release materials, like the tracklist, the title uses “Niggas.” On the VEVO and YouTube video pages, “Ni**as.” On the Grammy.com and to the night’s attendees, “N*****.”

To the Grammy voter, there may be more than just that term that remains unspoken.

As I mentioned in HitFix’s Best and Worst tally, there’s still residual racial underpinnings to the Grammys’ top prizes. Song, Record and Album of the Year went to white artists (though Janelle Monae was the guest artist on fun.’s “We Are Young”); Best New Artist went to a white artist. Acts like Miguel and Frank Ocean were nominated for their turns at R&B crossover tracks and albums, but hip-hop went unrecognized in these lauded categories in 2013.

And despite earning nominations for these most-prestigious categories before, West has never won one, though he’s collected 18 Grammys outside of Song/Record/Album Of The Year, mostly in the rap categories. To the producer, songwriter and rhymer, it’s a matter of black and white (music), which is why in part he chose not to attend the ceremony this year.

“Eighteen Grammys, all in the black categories, though,” West said during a solo concert in December. “I love Maroon 5, but when I lost Best New Artist to Maroon 5 … y’know what I mean? Or when ‘Watch the Throne’ and ‘[My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy],’ neither of them got nominated for Album of the Year, y’know what I mean? Or when ‘Niggas in Paris’ didn’t get nominated for Record of the Year, y’know what I mean? So don’t expect to see me at the Grammys this year, you know what I mean?”

Kanye West doesn’t bleep out the name of his own song when he says it aloud. And it’s worth discussing that this is the first time in Grammys history that the term “n***a” has shown up for a nomination.

Of course, there were mountains of other hip-hop songs and albums worthy of top prizes, many of which don’t use the term “n***a” in their title or otherwise. But the word is still popular and frequent in hip-hop vernacular with an implied “restricted usage.” It’s been adopted or “reclaimed” by some African-Americans, refused by others, and problematic overall within other races, classes and even between genders.

“Despite the false idea that we now live in a color blind society, racism still exists. And when Black rappers use the word they are like Beyoncé at the last Inauguration, lip syncing what many white folks in this country wish they could say out loud,” wrote AllHipHop’s TRUTH Minista Paul Scott last week on the term’s Grammy appearance. “Perhaps most disturbing is that by rewarding such ignorance, it helps to legitimize the usage of the work in the eyes of White Americans.”

Maya Angelou was publicly at-odds with Common a couple years ago over his use of the word “n***a” for the track “The Dreamer,” on which the famed poet was featured. The rapper said the two agreed to disagree, that not only was the term “a part of me,” but that the song’s accomplishment was generational. “I wanted young people to hear this and feel like they could really accomplish their dreams.”

The “acceptable usage” of “black” terminology and the hip-hop artform was the center of discussions this winter, as year-end lists were released and “violent rap” albums like Chief Keef’s “Finally Rich” impressed “white” outlets like Pitchfork and Spin. Rap Radar’s Brian “B.Dot” Miller shot back through Tweets like “please stop writing about MY culture,” and compared white critics’ high marks of black music as promoting minstrelsy. He expounded further on his position during a recent New York Times popcast, which you should enjoy here.

The “otherness” of the term “n***a” and rap as a “black” artform is absolutely deserving of a similar conversation, as hip-hop’s predominant influence on popular music for the last two decades obviously hasn’t relieved the creative tensions in the ranks of informed voters at the Recording Academy.  The conflict of colorization is the reason why this website and others can’t (and, to some, absolutely shouldn’t) spell the complete term “Niggas” in a headline, nor allow the word spoken at the Grammy Awards by a professional announcer, or give greater pause to white journalists and music lovers like myself as I urge voters to reconsider any bias that puts a higher value on “white” music than black music.

The control and fear of a single word can sometimes overpower the clout of great artists like Jay-Z and West, and not just because of any over-intellectual hand-wringing. The subtle and (literally) unspoken lines of inclusion/exclusion are how the art from people of color is quietly, frequently and wrongly shuffled into the “safe” racial categories to stay. If the Grammys neuters power — positive or negative — from terms like “n****”, then it’s more than just a laughing matter.