Nas, the conscious rapper, tries to make reason out of rhyme when he talks about Barack Obama, Robert Mugabe and what it really means to be a n*gg*r on his new album. With intentions to name his ninth album N*gg*r, Nas was looking to make more than a musical statement. Ahead of his exclusive performance in SA last weekend, the US rapper spoke to Helen Herimbi about his music, history and Robert Mugabe.

When Nasir “Nas” Jones was just a teenager he released Illmatic, an album that changed the face of hip-hop and gained classic status. No small feat considering that this was the young Queensbridge emcee’s debut offering.

It’s lauded for its poetic style and realistic look at his society. Fourteen years later – and not without straying to the bragging bling rhetoric a little – Nas is still the conscious rapper who has become a household name.

So when I heard Nasty Nas would be in the country for a one-night only performance at a secret location in Durban last week Saturday, I had to pin the living legend down for a one-on-one.

And with a controversial proposed title for his forthcoming album (due in mid-July), this was the perfect time to quiz Escobar on his ever intensifying guerrilla warfare outlook.

“My album will no longer be titled N*gg*r,” he tells me a few hours before his performance.

“It’s now going to be called Untitled. I settled for that name, because I needed it to get to the stores. And there’s no other title fit for it other than the original title. I’d rather have no title than change the name of the album.”

Although he admits that “it’s definitely in my DNA or nature to be someone who questions things and if that’s me pushing the envelope, then yeah, that’s what I do,” n*gg*r does seem to be a rather loaded word under which to name his art.

But his reasons for the derogatory moniker are warranted. He explains: “In the hip-hop generation and just with black culture and movies and stuff, a lot of words where the original meaning was horrible, have been changed around. Like n*gg*r has a horrible meaning, but what black American culture has done with the word is that we’ve taken the evil out of it and made it a plaything to just throw around.”

“Whether good or bad, that’s what it’s become. So I think that when people see a lot of actors use the word, and even now in rap music, it becomes a word that people outside of the African-American community think lightly of.”

As a result, it appears that everyone, irrespective of race, “assumes that they are niggers. White n*gg*rs. Wiggers. Even Latinos.”

His black cap threatens to cover his sunglasses and he tugs at his white tee as he reclines on a plush couch. He smiles, “And in a way they became n*gg*rs without even knowing it.”

“Because, if you think about the way that the world works and all the wars going on, they don’t have a clue to the reality of being a n*gg*r at all. Someone told me before that the only reality that there is is the reality we can’t see. This is my way of saying, ‘alright you want to be a n*gg*r? You want to sing the rap songs? Well let’s see how you’ll really feel about it if you really experience what we go through on a daily basis.’”

This is the experience that the One Mic rapper tries to convey within his energetic – albeit nostalgic – performance later that night and through Untitled with songs like Hero and Black President. The latter was inspired by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

“On Black President I’m speaking from the standpoint of someone who doesn’t really trust politics,” he shares. “I come from a place where politics have always been this scary beast.”

And Nas feels that since “politicians and presidents just don’t care about the inner cities,” he should show that he cares through his music.

This is how the rhymes for a scathing attack on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in Damian Marley’s Road to Zion came about. Nas lifts his cap, “Mugabe being re-elected as president is almost like Bush being re-elected. I feel like there just needs to be a change throughout the world. Not just in America, where we have Barack Obama.”

During his super-charged performance, Nas asks the crowd whether they like Obama, but it seems their state of euphoria cannot be altered by the mention of politics. They’ve waited too long to witness God’s Son in the flesh, so for over an hour nothing else matters.

One night. One mic. One Nas.

This article appeared in Tonight on 9 July 2008.