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11.20.08

'What Up, My Obama?'

Rapper Jim Jones talks to The Daily Beast's Touré about how the new president-elect inspired him to clean up the language in his music.

Jim Jones is a Harlem rapper with lots of stubble and sleepy eyes. While he’s not a gangster rapper, he’s far from what you’d call a “conscious” rapper. In other words, he’s not the type of person you’d expect to see embedding himself in a sweeping societal change, but sometimes flowers grow up through the concrete. Jimmy recently co-wrote and starred in an off-off-off-Broadway play called Hip-Hop Monologues: Inside the Life and Mind of Jim Jones, in which he’s almost killed during an impromptu dice game. (I hate it when that happens.)

I recently interviewed Jimmy about the play while sitting on the lip of the stage, and toward the end of our talk, I asked him how he felt about Obama’s victory. Since Election Day, every conversation I have eventually turns to Barack Obama and our emotional reactions to this American epiphany. Jim confessed that the election inspired him to drop the word “nigga” from his vocabulary—where it was a nearly ubiquitous presence—and replace it with “Obama.” He gave me a few examples: “What up, my Obama?” “Yo, did you see them Obamas last night?” “Now that’s a real Obama.”

“Now that’s a real Obama.”

I was blown away. Black men have used nigga for more than three decades as a way of expressing a certain gallows humor. It is a way of saying, “Hey, if America thinks we’re the national boogie monsters, then fine, we are. Boo!” It stems from a peculiarly black sense of the macabre. But the election has done more than just usher in a black president. It’s begun creating a new America where black people feel like the country perhaps doesn’t hate us the way it once did, and black men no longer feel a need to identify ourselves as America’s monsters.

If words have power, and the slang we use says something about the people we are, then Jimmy’s linguistic U-turn indicates a very powerful shift: away from self-describing as niggas (rebellious, angry, ignorant, hunted), and toward self-describing as Obamas (cool, intelligent, humble, powerful). Away from a self-appellation that reminds us of how America has wronged us, and toward a self-appellation suggesting that we are all reflections of, and extensions of, a shining example of black excellence.

Change is on the way.

Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once . He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid , Soul City , and The Portable Promised Land . He was a Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN’s first Pop Culture Correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times.