Two Valencia High School students are exploring how the use of the n-word in popular culture has blurred the lines between the word’s denotative and connotative meanings.
Students Ayannah Settle and Gillian McFerren are investigating the history, usage and meaning of the word through their co-directed documentary titled “The ‘In’ Word.”
The film’s title is a play on words itself, highlighting the premise of the film which explores how it is “in” or current to use the word through hip-hop, rap and pop music.
“Due to recent local and national incidents, it got us thinking how culture comes into play… especially in hip-hop and rap music,” Settle said. “How do we go from using it in hatred to using it in popular culture?”
— The In Word (@theinworddocu) November 2, 2016
Blurring the line
McFerren said the documentary will address the issue as a whole to explore what different generations translate the n-word to mean within their age groups.
“It caused us to question what we have done as a society… and how mainstream culture has appropriated that word,” she said. “It is a tough subject and is so prevalent.”
Kim Forbes, Valencia High School film teacher and adviser on the documentary, said the 18-to-22-minute film will explore the etymology of the word and how it changed from being rooted in a history of pain to becoming an accepted form of artistic expression.
“The kids and this generation are having a hard time… when did the switch flip on this?” Forbes said. “I’m hoping through the discussion and interviews we can see how and if things change.”
The two students said they will be interviewing students, community members, parents and individuals from the music industry and television industry.
“We’re showing all different sides, not just students and parents,” Settle said. “We’re giving a variety and wide range of perspectives so we are not being biased.”
Now, the students are looking for parent volunteers of all backgrounds to be interviewed on-camera on the topic.
McFerren and Settle already have commitments for on-camera interviews with Valencia High School students involved with the school’s diversity club.
Music Industry Pros
They also have tentative interviews with music industry professionals including The Jackson 5 member Jermaine Jackson, record producer and songwriter Berry Gordy, radio personality Ryan Seacrest, rapper Xzibit, The Five Satins member Wes Forbes and more.
The main focus of the documentary is the influence of the music industry and its choices to use the n-word when other words that could connotatively mean the same thing are available.
“There are nearly 1,500 words to describe man, human, boy,” Settle said. “Why do you have to use a word that is rooted in hatred?”
“Why is it put into so many songs when there are so many other words that would mean the same thing and be OK?” McFerren followed.
Forbes expressed her confusion on why industry professionals would record and produce different versions of songs with and without the n-word, citing Usher’s two versions of “No Limit” as an example.
“Why would someone take the time and money to do that? When does that discussion take place? That’s where the message gets mixed,” Forbes said.
The two students already conducted an off-camera interview with Xzibit, who said that he did not know the negative meaning of the word until he left the neighborhood he grew up in.
“Where he came from it was common,” Settle said. “He wasn’t in a community where it was used in a bad way.”
He made it clear to the students that when he does use the n-word it connotatively means “friend” instead of the word’s derogatory translation.
The idea of a generational switch of the meaning of the word is pertinent to Settle, whose grandfather was Grammy-winner Barry White, and Forbes, whose father-in-law was a member of The Five Satins.
“He [White] never used the n-word in his songs so growing up listening to his music and this new music is very different to me,” Settle said. “Every word meant something then.”
McFerran said this generational change in the n-word’s use and meaning is an element they are highlighting through “The ‘In’ Word.”
“That’s our main focus, to get the divide of generations… how over a majority of our songs in the Top 20 are explicit,” McFerren said. “Why does that one word make it [a song] more popular?”
The film will also explore how labeling a song as “explicit” – much like rating a movie for Adults – impacts its meaning in society.
“Does the explicit-E erase the pain that comes with the n-word?” Settle said.
When the documentary is finished, Forbes said it will be submitted to film festivals that take high school level work. She also hopes it could be used in the classroom for discussions about diversity and tolerance and that it will cause industry professional to reevaluate what they’re marketing to teens.
“Bringing up the discussion is enough in itself,” Settle said. “We want it to be educational. We want people to learn from it.”
The students said the documentary will allow those who watch it to form their own opinions about the usage of the n-word and its impact in today’s culture.
“Our hope is that it sheds light on the issue and makes people conscious of what they’re doing and has them make informed choices on what they’re saying,” McFerren said.
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_