Latina superstar Jennifer Lopez has found herself in the middle of a controversy surrounding her use of a racial epithet in a song.

A new remix version of "I'm Real," from her multiplatinum "J.Lo" album, contains the lines "People be screamin' what's the deal with you and so-and-so / I tell them niggas mind their biz but they don't hear me, though."

The lyrics, written by rapper Ja Rule and his producer, Irv Gotti, are ostensibly about Lopez's much-publicized breakup with hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. But for some listeners, the line is also about something else.

"Her using that word shows you that she doesn't care about black people," says Stephanie Eccles, 22, a Queens college student who is black. "She has no right to use it. Children look up to her. She's saying it's okay to use it. It's not okay and it will never be okay. Eminem is the top rapper in the world, and he has never used that word. He has respect for black people."

Star and Buckwild, a pair of morning radio deejays on Hot 97 (WQHT-FM), alerted New York listeners to the remix's new lyrics several weeks ago and have been railing against Lopez ever since. Star, who is black, reportedly called the Puerto Rican Lopez a "rice-and-bean-eating [expletive]" on the air. The deejays have encouraged listeners to fax in their objections to the song. A station representative says they've received 3,000 -- which they plan to forward to Epic, Lopez's label.

Epic did not return calls for this story. Lopez's publicist would not comment. Ja Rule, the African American rapper whose own albums make liberal use of the epithet, also would not comment. But the tempest over Lopez is clearly an illustration of how public reaction to the word continues to depend very much on who utters it.

This morning, thousands of fans turned out to hear Lopez perform a free mini-concert for the "Today" show at Rockefeller Center's outdoor plaza. Star, who had been threatening to show up and throw rice and beans at Lopez, failed to appear. The handful of protesters who did were led by Edward Hopkins, a writer for the radio show who goes by the sobriquet Crossover Negro Reese.

"We want an apology to every African American that's within earshot of her music," said Hopkins. "When your music is geared toward . . . suburbanites, there's a certain way you should carry yourself. Using a word like that when less than a third of her audience is African American or Latino is inappropriate.

"Maybe her people are thinking this is going to pass and people will forget about it," he added. "But I'll bet [Rep. Gary] Condit thought the same thing."

Hopkins stood behind a police barricade surrounded by protest posters. One of them read "P.R. Stands for Pretty Rotten."

Twenty-two-year-old Iasia Anderson, who is African American, didn't care for that sign -- "It's hypocritical and unnecessary," she said -- but she did think it was important to make her views on the epithet known. "People need to open their eyes to the negativity of that word," said the Harlem college student. "I personally find the word very derogatory and offensive. People have died for this word."

In the middle of Lopez's three-song set on "Today," show co-host Matt Lauer interviewed her about the controversy. "For anyone to think or suggest or say that I'm racist is really absurd and hurtful to me," she said. Lopez did not apologize but she did explain: "The use of the word in the song, which was actually written by Ja Rule, was never meant to be hurtful in any way to anybody."

When Lauer came back with a follow-up question, Lopez demurred. "I don't want to get into it," she said. "I don't want to give it too much energy. I'm here to perform for the fans, and that's what I want to do."

Later during the program, Harvard professor Randall Kennedy explained why the epithet is so complicated and provocative. "The n-word is the atomic bomb of racial epithets in the American language," he said. "It's an interesting word. It can be a hateful word; it can be a term of affection. It has a lot of range."

And perhaps that ambiguity is what fueled the sidewalk debates that lasted long after Lopez was whisked away. Increasingly in recent years, rappers and other performers -- nearly all of them black -- have appropriated the epithet and thereby, some say, robbed it of its once-devastating power. "Now, really, the word is a term of endearment used by people of African descent," said Darwin St. Louis, a 22-year-old Brooklyn student. "But I think she's doing this to stir controversy because controversy sells . . . and to compensate for her lack of talent. She can't sing. She can't write songs."

October, a 25-year-old graphic artist who brought a J-Lo T-shirt doctored to read "J-No," confessed that the issue confuses him. "I'm Colombian, and I was born in Brooklyn. My son is black. His mother's from St. Thomas. I'll call my son 'my little nigga.' I'm using the meaning of the word as it has evolved. But I'm going to try not to use it anymore."

Walking by on his first day of summer vacation, law clerk Pedro Cruz, 42, got caught up in the debate. "My father was a black-skinned Puerto Rican, so I can see both sides. But I think there's a double standard at work here. Dr. Dre uses it. Snoop Dogg uses it. What are they going to do? They should come up with a list of who can say it and who can't." Jennifer Lopez, appearing on "Today," said the word "was never meant to be hurtful."