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N-word is still spoken in N.Y.

The City Council banned the epithet. But young people say its meaning has changed.

March 05, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Inside Harlem's Uptown Jeans clothing store, a 50 Cent rap song recited the n-word over the loudspeakers: "N---- you front you gone get it, OK now maybe I said it."

According to the New York City Council, no one in the city should say the n-word, not even the Queens-born rapper whose songs include titles such as "To All My N-----."

On Wednesday, the council approved a symbolic resolution banning the epithet. Yet across the city, emcees still used it in rap battles, poets spoke it in slams, deejays played it in clubs and kids used the word in conversations.

"We're still gonna keep saying it," said Kevin Johnson, a 17-year-old from Queens who was browsing T-shirts in the Harlem store. "There's a million kids that use it. They're not going to stop just because one person says so."

The resolution was the idea of Councilman Leroy Comrie, a Democrat from Queens. Comrie, who is black, said he introduced it during Black History Month as a statement against a word he considered offensive.

The ban is part of a larger backlash against casual use of the n-word, whether pronounced ending in an "a" or an "er."

Similar bans have been adopted in Westchester County and Nyack, N.Y., and in Paterson and Irvington, N.J. The historically black Stillman College in Alabama recently dedicated a four-day conference to the topic.

"It's just wrong," Comrie said. "It's a word that grates on people's souls."

But in Harlem last week, most shoppers and vendors called the ban a pointless public relations scheme that failed to address real problems.

"What difference does it make if they ban the n-word?" said Yaya, 29, who did not give a last name because of its historical connections to slavery. He sells books on 125th Street about black oppression and lynchings. "Ban police brutality. Ban racial profiling. Ban that. Forget the n-word."

He said politicians should put more energy toward issues such as gentrification, joblessness and the recent killing of Sean Bell, a black man who was shot by New York Police Department officers on his wedding day.

Comrie said he could not stand hearing young people use the word in subway stations in his neighborhood.

He started researching such sites as AbolishtheNWord.com and BantheNWord.org, which launched campaigns against the word. The sites offer historical information about the slur and post such statements as "Every black person who was murdered by lynching was probably called the n-word first."

Comrie, who has two children, ages 9 and 12, said the ban had gained support from churches, youth groups, and teachers who were tired of hearing the word in their classrooms.

"I've heard kids abusing it, misusing it, just totally using it in an unconscious way," Comrie said.

Tieka Smiley, 27, a saleswoman at Uptown Jeans, said she liked hip-hop music with references to the n-word and didn't mind young people who used it.

"Everybody has freedom of speech," she said. "It depends on the way you use it."

Smiley said people of all races used it as a form of endearment and even respect. She said people had transformed its meaning into something positive.

"It is different saying it now than from saying the word back in the day," she said. "That was when there was segregation and slavery. But now the younger kids say it just to say that's my homeboy."

Johnson, who is Salvadoran, said he used it among friends of different races.

"If you say it to older people, they're gonna find it disrespectful," he said. "For us kids, we're used to it."

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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