The staff at Jones Brothers BBQ in Encanto go about their business serving up ample helpings of pork ribs, beef brisket and other smoked meats and sides. Mulemvo Nianda is hanging up a handmade poster board with the word "NIGGER" written boldly above a blown-up, black-and-white photo of a lynching of a black man, with other blatantly racist imagery peppered below. The poster keeps slipping off the barbecue joint's sweaty walls, though, so Nianda settles for placing it on a table.
A crowd of about a dozen finish their meals and look toward the slightly nervous young man at the front of the room.
"I'm a spoken-word artist and a documentary filmmaker," Nianda says. "I'm here to present to you today a project, but before we get to the documentary, I just want to give you a quick spoken-word piece, which is what I do—it's my specialty."
Nianda, who goes by Inside Nianda Speaks when it comes to his creative work, clasps his hands and takes a deep breath, launching into a piece that includes lofty lines like, "One nation, one anthem, one people, one color; we're all equal" and "I have to learn to be a man and stand for one thing; live for something."
After the piece, he switches on his documentary, The Nigga Project Experience—a rudimentary video he shot with his smart phone—and folks begin shifting uncomfortably in their seats. The film features man-on-the-street interviews asking people what they think about the word "nigga," spliced with shocking, historical photos of lynchings and other civil-rights-movement imagery, plus a few clips from mainstream hip-hop videos, like rapper YG's 2013 hit, "My Nigga."
After it's over, he gives people a survey, asking for their thoughts on the n-word. Then he opens things up for discussion.
"I don't really get offended by that word," says a young black woman in the audience. "I just feel like, as long as we understand that the people who are using it are ignorant; honestly, it mostly just makes me feel embarrassed for the people using it."
An older gentleman speaks up.
"Well, I'm from a different generation than a lot of you young folks here today, and the word is highly offensive to me," he says. "The word has become so white-washed now; we use it so much. Nobody is offended by it—it's just another word to young folks, but it's still an offensive word to a generation that endured a whole lot more than this generation has."
Eventually, an uncomfortable disagreement breaks out between a white woman and a black man, and the charged, racist feelings forever linked to the word "nigga" are unleashed.
"Yeah, I definitely remember that moment," says Nianda of the argument that broke out at the summer screening he hosted at Jones Brothers. He's sitting in a study room at the Malcolm X Library in Emerald Hills with his girlfriend and collaborator, Juanita Boyer. "That was intense."
Nianda and Boyer have been screening The Nigga Project Experience and hosting community discussions at barbecue restaurants, hair salons, libraries and community centers throughout southeastern San Diego since the beginning of 2014. They try to incorporate spoken-word, music and art into the events, and they always conduct surveys so they can continue collecting and analyzing people's thoughts and feelings about the word.
This year in particular has been monumental in exposing the nation's festering racial tensions. Earlier in 2014, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's and former Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist comments made the rounds. More recently, the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in Missouri and New York made the issue of race in America impossible to ignore. Nianda and Boyer have used the momentum and renewed focus on race relations to help engage the local black community in their discussions about the n-word. They want people to think about why it's become so pervasive, especially among the younger generation, which uses "nigga" almost as a replacement for "brother"—a term of endearment.
The project "started with a spoken-word piece and just carried on from there," says Nianda, a former Marine who's studying sociology at San Diego City College, where he regularly does flash-poetry performances by standing on top of tables or chairs to deliver his original compositions to crowds of unsuspecting passersby. "I asked some one from class how he felt about the word one day and just decided to make a documentary and interview him. Then I started asking different people, walking up to them and asking, How do you feel about the n-word?'"
The Nigga Project Experience is broken into three short parts. Nianda and Boyer are currently wrapping up Part 3, which focuses on interviews with young black men. The project has inspired Boyer to create another DIY documentary, My Community, which tells her story of growing up in a Los Angeles ghetto and attempts to show a different, more dynamic side of southeastern San Diego. She believes that negative portrayals of the black community dominate in mainstream media, and she wants to offer an alternative. The couple will debut that documentary at an event at the Malcolm X Library at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 25 (follow facebook.com/thenggaproject for updates on future screenings).
All of the couples' videos are scrappy. The sound and video quality is bad in parts, and the two are completely self-taught with limited resources.
"But we work with what we have," Nianda says. "We would love to have the better equipment, but, at the end of the day, it's not going to stop us from the goal we want to accomplish."
The goal, Boyer and Nianda say, isn't to eradicate the n-word; they think it's too ingrained in black culture. Instead, they want to make their peers more aware of its original intent by making graphic visual connections to the word's hateful history and opening up a dialogue. Ultimately, they'd like to see more people use more discretion when unleashing "nigga."
"We might think we're taking the power away by reclaiming it but, at the same time, it's still perpetuating the same cycle of racism and portraying a negative image and we don't really seem to see that," Nianda says. "We don't see that it's a huge detriment to our culture."