Jigga what? Jigga who?: Points of (In)equivalence between Black history and rap music

One of the ways to look at how equivalence has been forced in rap music is through this idea of censorship. What this forces most of them to do is to come up with phrases or other words that equate the word that has to be removed for its “vulgarity”/ “violence.” In this process, equivalence begins to resonate in the minds of those who listen to both versions. For instance, with Jay-Z’s classic song “Jigga what? Jigga who?”, I was fascinated to learn the original version was “Nigga what? Nigga who?” First of all, they are not the same. I took this as an important moment to really explore how similarity is not equal to sameness. Similarity implies a logical juxtaposition- it implies that the replacement is close to the original, or the next best option. However, to say something is the same assumes a perfect replication. It’s not a frame that slightly extends the original margins, it’s a frame that covers the original seamlessly enough so that we don’t care that it’s not the original and more importantly, so we do not notice: An eclipse. Especially in this case, where “jigga” is used as a replacement for “Nigga,” it becomes more difficult to understand why and how a slur should be replaced by another slur. I thought: Why should Jigga be acceptable if Nigga is not? I mean Jigga is the shortened version of the term Jiggaboo…right?

One of 47 results of #jigaboo found on iFunny.co

I have never really been able to figure out the definition of that word- jigaboo. In Spike Lee’s joint, “School Daze,” the feud between the Wannabe’s and the jigaboos seemed implicit in their naming. For instance, in the step scene, the short songs they sing to insult each other are punctuated with the words “Wannabe” and “jigaboo.” As for “Wannabe,” I could tell how much that could hurt: The word “Wannabe” is explicitly hurtful in that it clearly plays on the idea that a person wants to be something other than what we receive the person to be. That is, it implies that what someone believes to be their ideal representation of self, is not authentic. It’s like a badly acted play…a failed effort of sorts. In the way that the Js use “Wannabe,” they assume that the “success” of being is all in the perception. Therefore, they get to judge whether the person really is or whether the person is just “trying to be what they want to be (but can never be).”

Without a doubt, if my expression of self is proclaimed a failed effort, that would hurt me- deeply. But as for the word jigaboo, I could not quite place my finger on it. What is up with that word? When the “Ws” would say it to the “js,” I figured it was insulting- not because of the word itself- but because of how it was spoken and the contexts where the word was thrown as a comeback, equally as violent as “Wannabe.”

Plantation Dance, South Carolina circa 1790 featuring banjo and calabash. Image #NW0159 courtesy of the Virgina Foundation for the Humanities.

In the movie Gangs of New York, there is a scene that shows black people dancing to the Irish jig. In a blogpost on the link between African and Irish music, the author makes several links to the connection between what we know as Irish music to the trade of African slaves from Portugal and even the migration of Romans and their African slaves to the British Isles. Also, there is the striking resemblance of the Irish fiddle to the single string Northern Nigerian instrument called the Goje. However, in the scene in Gangs of New York where the black men are dancing to the irish music, it’s not the music that’s named jigaboo, it’s the black people dancing that are called jigaboos.

From an interview with the author of the book (Taylor Anbinder), Five Points: The 19th-century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became The World’ s Most Notorious Slum: “When the Irish got to Five Points, they found a neighborhood already teeming with African Americans. The two groups often found themselves in the same dance halls in the neighborhood, and the Irish dancing their jigs and reels combined with the African-Americans dancing American dances such as the “Shuffle” to make a new dance form, tap dance.”

In fact, the word itself- jigaboo- originates from something many of these white people participated in, which is the Irish jig music. So jig is not the problem. It’s the fact that the performance of the dance or the music by-specifically- black bodies needed to be named and categorized as an idea that was different from the idea of white bodies making and moving to the same music (that has come to be known as their own music). A word was needed to racialize black being and separate it from white being even if they were doing the exact same thing.

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“What’s my muthafucking name?- JIGGA!!”: Jigga is not short for jigaboo

“Back in the day i used to rap really fast..and they’d be like jiggadjayz [Jigga the Jay-Z]. so, they was just like “Yo Jigga!”

In an interview with MTV, jay-Z basically explains that Jigga is a title he won for his rap excellence. The MTV clip below opens with Jay-Z answering a question we never heard or saw the interviewer ask. Because of the response Jay-Z gives, I’m curious to know if the interviewer asked him “What’s your name?” or “Who are you?” or “Who is Jay-Z?” For several reasons, these are three different questions about the identity of a public black figure, who knows he has a white audience and a black self that probably exists outside the frame that the media will agree to accept. Apart from the trend of wearing headbands, what really caught my attention was hearing Jay-Z say “Jay Z” probably existed before Shawn Carter, his birth name. I found this to be an extremely complex interpretation of self because I had assumed that he would be his birth self (= his birth name= Shawn Carter). But, no. Instead, the name given to him by the OGs on the block was the self he remembers living the most, his truest of selves (=JayZ= stage name).



The fact that he felt he had to work into the ownership of his birth name is an interesting perspective that trumps what I thought I knew about names and naming. It really is quite difficult to reconcile how he admits to being his “stage name” before the fame, and then, becoming his birth name once he had the “fancy stuff”.

So, what in fact is the stage? Who is the real Jigga? Jay-Z or Shawn Carter? Does a person have to be “real” and off stage to be valid and authentic? Why does original have to be synonymous with “natural” (=beginning=unaltered) Are we stuck with the first versions of ourselves we were allowed to become? How do we grow (=move forward) if people believe our real selves exist within our past places (=natural place=first place=authentic place)?

How can Jigga exist simply as “JiggadjayZ” who raps fast without inheriting the history of Jigga the jigaboo. This question can stand in for so much about the liminal space of the stage, especially for black bodies who want- so desperately- to separate the realities they live within and the realities they perform within. To take it a step further, I’d say there is a way in which our lived selves are performed. Though I have often been tempted to switch the equation and say ” if our lived selves are performed off stage, then we perform our lived selves whenever we have reason to be on stage,” I don’t know if it’s true. I’m an actor and i’ve had to become characters that are so different from me. Still I have to use parts of my own memories and experiences to activate the character. So my off stage life is never fully abandoned when I’m on stage.

What is a performance of self and how is it different from an expression of self? Why is it that when off stage self seems to be performed, it seems untrue?

Considering those questions, having Jay Z want to hold on to jigga as = jiggadjayz= JayZ as the rap god “JayHOVA”= Shawn Carter, becomes so complicated because it seems like it’s not just up to him to be what he wants, it’s also up to his audience to believe him when he says he is not jigaboo. It’s unfortunate that a name Jay-Z associates with his genius can still- by phonetic resemblance- evoke traumatic memories of racial violence.


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