Ninja: A Short History of a Less Troublesome Word

Here is Katy Perry karaoke-rapping Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “N****s in Paris,” because, I don’t know, a search engine became sentient and demanded it, maybe? Anyway: It is, like this needs to be said, shit of the cray variety. The first time you watch it, it’s actually suspenseful — what is Katy Perry, a German/Portuguese/Irish person, going to say when she gets to the two points in the song where the word “n****” appears in the lyrics? Will she say “n****”? Will she say nothing? Did she think she’d get away with this because she did it in England? Or because five years ago she put out a song called “Ur So Gay” and barely anybody got mad? Why is she doing this? What’s Gucci, my killa? What’s the message, my sender? What’s that sweater-dress, Aunt Linda?

We have been over this: It’s weird when songs have that word in them, especially songs that are really fun to rap along to. When I interviewed Jay-Z last year, I asked him if he felt creeped out by how many white people seemed to like “N***** in Paris,” and if he’d ever had white people use the word to his face in the course of talking to him about the song, and if he thought maybe the reason white people liked it so much was that they liked having an excuse to say “n****.” This was one of several questions he answered by chuckling and suddenly seeming super-interested in the flavor profile of what he was eating — which in this case was fine, because I was just trying to orchestrate an amusing-post-racial-yuks moment I could use in a story and he could tell and wasn’t going to make it that easy for me. But then after a second he told me white people should just call it “Paris.” Then he ate some fish. (Original reporting! There is no substitute.)

Perry, though, uses the word “ninjas.” I’m not sure who first came up with this as an N-word work-around, but credit for popularizing it goes to the writers behind the Ego Trip family of media products; at an Experience Music Project panel discussion in Seattle in 2003, they suggested it as a substitute for any white people in the audience who wanted to participate in the Missy Elliott sing-along they were about to lead from the dais. Ego Trip’s fictional white owner/pimp Ted Bawno drops “ninja” on Twitter a lot. It’s also the preferred alternate N-word of Juggalo Nation, both because they need a non-racist word that means basically the same brotherhood-born-of-oppression thing and because they think ninjas are fuckin’ awesome. Which they totally are. Just ask anyone wearing this shirt, unless they are too busy being basically the funniest person who has ever lived or gone to a party.

There was something almost admirable about the way Kreayshawn’s little hood-rat friend V-Nasty said the real word and continued to say it. I believe she really did think she had the right to, that even though she’s obviously kind of an idiot she earnestly did not believe she was being racist by saying it, because she’s from wherever she’s from. She thought it was a word people like her were allowed to use; she may have used it without fear of the consequences because she didn’t think there would be consequences, but she didn’t try to insulate herself from those consequences. She owned her stupid use of the word. And there’s obviously a sub-argument to be had, but not right now in this space, about how much of a difference there is between “n****” and N-Word Classic. Would John Mayer have come in for quite as much grief for using That Word in his Playboy interview if he had used the first option?

But look, as Grand Wizard Napalmdick himself put it, why are you pulling a punch and calling it a “hood pass” if you really have a hood pass? The fact that Katy Perry says “ninja” means she knows full well that “n****” is not for her to use, and that by covering this song she’s basically saying it without saying it, and that she probably shouldn’t be covering this song at all. Saying “ninja” is basically just a cooler way to say “the ‘N’ word”; review if necessary the Louis C.K. joke about that phrase, and how saying “the ‘N’ word” is just “white people gettin’ away with saying ‘n*****,’” because all you’re doing by saying it is making other people think the actual word. “You’re making me say it, in my head! Why don’t you fuckin’ say it instead, and take responsibility?” What you’re watching when you watch this clip is Katy Perry not doing that; you’re watching somebody get a transgressive thrill out of (basically) saying a forbidden word in public without actually putting her adorkability on the line.

You’re also watching somebody open up a song that, pretty much by definition, she should not be able to make her own. The dumb, tee-hee transgression of saying the edited-for-television version sort of obscures what’s interesting and daring about this performance, which is that under the guise of tribute/ironic cover tune (it feels about half-and-half) it’s a girl refusing to let this song’s imaginary world of swinging-dick privilege be off-limits to her. But that’s all that’s happening here; she puts the word on like a piece of borrowed jewelry and parades in front of the mirror. Her flimsy white-girl voice doesn’t reveal anything about the song’s construction or its sentiments that Kanye and Jay’s voices were covering up, and there’s nothing really subversive about the fact that it’s a woman saying these things, because the woman is Katy Perry, she’s sold 11 billion records, she probably does actually in real life ball kinda hard. Compare and contrast with this, and especially this, as opposed to this, which is way more the lane that Perry’s in.

The thing about “N***** in Paris” is that, more so than, like, “Made in America,” or even “No Church in the Wild,” it’s Watch the Throne’s real moral center. When Jay says “If you escaped what I’ve escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too,” he’s not just asserting an earned right to blast Young Jeezy while getting drunk inside nice French hotels — he’s also putting the titanic mission-accomplished Louis XIV blowhardery of the rest of the album in perspective. It’s the one moment where he and Kanye admit that the universe has granted them a degree of freedom and comfort that in the context of their own lives and the context of general human life on the planet is absolutely absurd. That to some extent they’ve stepped off the wheel of suffering and they know they’re incredibly fortunate. But there’s a reason the song is called “N***** in Paris” and not “Super-Fortunate Dudes in Paris,” y’know? Because racism! They’re saying “n*****” because they know it still contains the actual N-word, and throws it like a shadow across the song; the fact that they have beaten odds that existed before they were born is what the song is about. Katy Perry has escaped nothing except the prison of marriage to the guy from the shitty Arthur remake, and I guess maybe that’s what Katy Perry is trying to tell us here: Being married to Russell Brand was as bad as being married to the legacy of centuries of racism.

Filed Under: Jay Z, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Watch the Throne, We Found It On Youtube

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.