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  • Cassie-Philomena Smyth

The N-word And Me

Director Yonatan Tiruneh explores his personal relationship with the N-word in this companion piece for the upcoming film N-Juice

Who can use it? When are we allowed to use it? Is it fair for artists to use it within their work if they are white? The N-word has been a big source of debate and controversy in these recent years I’m not by any means writing this to answer these questions; If you are looking for those answers, you should look through the works of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou. I am writing this to explain my perspective based on my personal experience and the knowledge (however limited it may be) that I have gathered in my years. People around me have been asking me these questions for quite a while now, and I have come to the conclusion that I don’t like anyone saying the word around me.

Growing up my mother made me aware that the word was never to be used in any means because of the history that it carries. The disgusting nature of the word was made vividly clear to me when I watched Roots (1977) at the age of eight; after that, any remarks of the N-word made my body shrink in disgust and reminded me of the experience of Kunta Kinte. This feeling would carry on with me until I was introduced to rap in my early teens, by a friend. At home, my mum would always play Bob Marley, Nina Simon, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and various other Ethiopian artists. Because of that my music at an early age was more into the souls, blues, and rock. I never really listened to rap or hip hop other than in passing.

So, the first time I heard Straight out of Compton and saw the corresponding video; I was surprised that the use of the N-word felt empowering. I related to the anger these Compton boys had toward the establishment that abuses and kills our people. I started to feel more comfortable toward the word when it came to art. This was further strengthened when I discovered Good Kid M.A.A.D City by Kendrick Lamar and it became apparent that to him, using the word was part of his vocabulary.

Photo by Aresa Foster

My passion for film then turned me to Reservoir Dogs, which is littered with the N-word being said by white actors. To add to that it was written by two white males, with lines such as “You guys act like a bunch of fuckin niggers. You ever work a job with a bunch of niggers? They're just like you two, always fighting, always saying they're gonna kill one another”. In recent years this has provided me with many sleepless nights as I am a big fan of Quentin Tarantino's style and he has influenced my style greatly. As I started writing scripts I realized how much of a personal process it is, you tend to live with the characters you have created throughout the process. And I couldn’t wrap my head around Tarantino writing this lines of dialogue. Filled with such hate and prejudices.

This moves us to my recent project Nigger Juice written by Mia Carmen and directed by me. I was very much against taking on this project because of the raw nature of it. This was until I heard Mia’s reason for writing this project. It was her way of dealing with the facts of being called the N-word in the 21st century England. At first, it surprised me that someone could still be using this word maliciously in 21st century England. It further drove my anger and frustration when I found out these were young people our age, especially considering the open-minded nature of the people around me, it came as a shock to realise that our generation wasn’t as accepting as I had assumed.

At the end of this journey, I am glad I took this project as it was very cathartic. Working with all the young multicultural creatives provided me with the spark of light I needed to keep on working within the arts to express our lived experience. I still do not have the answers to those questions, but I am okay with that. Undeniably, the word carries a long history with it. But before using the word there should be that thinking process behind it, as educational or artistic uses are seemingly justifiable.

To end with I would like to thank Cassie, Lisa, Aresa, Mia, Rajab, Ivana, Ruth, Destiny, Joel, Elilta, Efrata, Layla, the team at Beatfreaks and everyone else who was involved for making this possible.


Register for the online Black Words Matter premiere here

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