"That's our word now, and you can’t have it back."
A simple sentence, but with it, Ice Cube managed to do three things.
He shut down Bill Maher, who had come under fire for casually employing a racial epithet on his previous week's show.
He signified his own return as a powerful voice in hip-hop, just in time for the 25th anniversary reissue of his scathing, game-changing indictment of institutionalized racism, "Death Certificate."
And he also set the barometer for what contemporary hip-hop needs to be about. Authentic, uncensored reporting , which has always been a major factor in hip-hop's significance, is more necessary than ever.
Ice Cube is one of the most impactful artists in hip-hop history, going back to his seminal work with Compton's N.W.A., and including his now legendary solo albums "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" and "Death Certificate." However, an entire generation is now more familiar with Cube as an actor, be it as Kevin Hart's cranky foil in "Ride Along," or as the seriously annoyed driver in "Are We There Yet," affable takes on the "buddy film" formula. Missing from this image is the rapper who made high art out of calling out bigotry and racial bias in this country, whose anger became a weapon against systemic oppression.
But that image is moving back to the fore.
The more widely-seen example came after the Maher's use of a racial epithet on his weekly HBO show, "Real Time." Cube was the right man to explain to a Caucasian why that word needs to be off limits.
Cube is one of the first artists to reclaim the slur from White America, in the process, pushing it into the mainstream through his work with N.W.A. and in his post-N.W.A. solo career. The results of that shift have been complex and at times problematic, precisely because hip-hop has a large white male following. If these white fans wanted to rap along with "Death Certificate," for example, they would have to say words they have no business saying.
Maher's argument seems to be that the introduction of this slur into mainstream culture somehow nullifies it and makes it "everyone's." Cube's response is that white people don’t get to decide when we can all "get over" the word's use. He's right. And he's also adept at reminding us what this genre of music, appropriated by all, was initially about. This was the voice – in so many ways, the only voice – of an oppressed people. It was real reporting of real news from the all-too-real streets.
That Cube is including three new tunes with the anniversary reissue - "Good Cop, Bad Cop," "Only One Me" and "Dominate the Weak" - offers further evidence of his attempt to reclaim his spot as rap's leading voice of protest. “Sadly, our community is dealing with many of the same issues,” Ice Cube said of the anniversary release in a press release. “I only hope that young millennials feeling powerless in the ’hood can channel their own anger and frustration by listening to this record.”
The sort of hip-hop that fills "Death Certificate" is hugely important in a country and culture for which racism remains pervasive.
The music belongs to everyone. The word in question, however, does not.