Tuning In: Nicki Minaj
Today I focus on Nicki Minaj, a female rapper who is part of Lil Wayne's Young Money crew and has recently gone solo She's been on my radar for some time. Jonah Weiner recently wrote a Slate column about her. Jay Smooth and Maura Johnston had in an interesting exchange about her for NPR. Apparently this Web site gets several searches for her as well, so she's clearly someone we should be talking about.
In all candor, I've avoided talking about Minaj because her music doesn't interest me. I also find her sexualized, glamorous image more boring than scandalous. However, I could make similar arguments against several female pop stars, as many capitalize on post-feminist notions of material wealth and (hetero)sexual desirability, which feminists like Susan Douglas believe perpetuate enlightened sexism.
That said, there's plenty to talk about. What first comes to mind is Minaj's relationship with Barbie. Her deep identification with Mattel's blond icon is intrinsic to the rapper's identity that her fans even refer to themselves as Barbies. Johnston points out that there may be something celebratory about Minaj's appropriation of an eminent symbol of white femininity, which Smooth contests as complying with these standards.
For me, I wonder if the aspiration results from some black girls wanting to find dolls with whom they can identify, yet constantly being reminded by toy makers that they haven't figured out how to cater to a
group that still doesn't appear to be their ideal market. This was recently made clear when Wal-Mart sold Ballerina Teresa at a cheaper retail price instead of placing the same value on the doll and Ballerina Barbie because Teresa was reportedly not as high a seller. Ty also had a difficult time creating dolls of color. This was evident with the reaction garnered from the Sasha and Malia dolls, whose hair and facial features aligned with white post-adolescent beauty standards. As a result, the company later claimed the dolls were not modeled after the first daughters.
The racial politics of hair factor prominently into this discussion as well. Amidst the discourse around the maintenance of Zahara Jolie-Pitt's tresses and the pathologizing of black women in Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair, several issues around Eurocentric beauty standards and the cultural ignorance many people have around black people's hair came to the surface. This necessitated the intervention of many cultural critics, including my friend Kristen at Dear Black Woman.
When I think of Minaj's image, two female solo artists come to mind: Lil Kim and Lady Gaga. Both represent extremes of sexual and material excess. Furthermore, fellow rapper Kim got her start as a member of Notorious B.I.G.'s Junior M.A.F.I.A. crew and packaged herself as a living doll in the music video for "How Many Licks." In the clips that accompany "Massive Attack," "Bed Rock," and Ludacris's "My Chick," Minaj likewise revels in the possibilities of empowerment that luxury, sexual agency, and aligning with powerful men may offer.
As with Kim and Gaga, Minaj's moneyed feminine excess does lend itself toward camp, which may have feminist potential. So I find it interesting that Minaj has been noted for her potentially subversive fashion sense and her visual identification with figures like Wonder Woman.
But much of this is still connected -- regardless of Minaj's own sexual orientation -- to heterosexist iterations of female power. Minaj doesn't barge into nail salons and bridal shops and grinding with female customers like Yo! Majesty did in the music video for "Don't Let Go."
Perhaps the main issue regarding Minaj's image has less to do with her than the dearth of female MCs in mainstream hip hop. Artists like Lil Mama, Estelle, Ke$ha, and Kid Sister get some recognition, but not on the level that kingpins Jay-Z, Kanye West, T.I., and Lil Wayne receive. Older female rappers have either become less culturally relevant, like Missy Elliott, or have branched into a variety of creative and merchandising opportunities outside of hip hop, as Queen Latifah has done.
There have been some interesting female voices who have emerged from underground hip hop. Considerable interest gathered around Lady Sovereign and Northern State during the last decade. Veterans Bahamadia and Jean Grae are getting recognition. Several queer MCs are visible, including Jen Ro, Invincible, and sissy bounce mainstays Katey Red and Big Freedia. Dessa, Rye Rye, Speech Debelle, and Psalm One have received critical praise.
As Minaj is often cast as the lone female in a man's crew or the guest star on a male rapper's single, I do like that she plays with accent and dialect. Minaj's flow is distinctive in part because she floats in and out of a variety of voices and characters. As a feminist who came of age during the third wave, I'm inclined to read this stylistic choice as an indication of the fragmented nature of female identities.
However, I have to wonder if part of this has to do with Minaj trying to create multiple women within herself so she can have another female rapper to talk to. Thus, while I bristle at the Barbie femininity on display in the music video for Mariah Carey's "Up Out My Face," I'm happy Minaj can at least find one kindred spirit. But let's also remember that Psalm One believes in her too.
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