The Orientalism of Nicki Minaj

By Guest Contributor Jenn, cross-posted from Reappropriate

Nicki Minaj is hip hop’s newest “it” girl — so why does it seem like her schtick has been done before? Oh, that’s right, because it has.

Minaj is a caricature of Lil’ Kim, taken even farther to the extreme than even Kim would find comfortable. After ditching the rainbow-coloured wigs of her early days, Minaj has fully adopted the hypersexualized, “poseable Black Barbie” look that Kim made famous. Like Kim, Minaj bares skin to sell shitty music to kids who can’t remember the good stuff: a close listen to her music reveals the uninspired, nonsensical lyrics, pedestrian sing-song hooks, and excessive reliance on Auto-tune that has come to characterize hip hop music today — something I like to call “The Drake Effect”. No wonder Kim is furious: Kim was actually a talented lyricist who, for better or for worse, found a way to sell her music to a sexist music industry. To her credit, Kim was a (perverse) representation of sex-positive feminism, which becomes clear when one juxtaposes her hypersexualized style with her lyrics. Minaj, on the other hand, is the Barbie doll who, in one song, craves the love of a man she compares to Eminem.

And I think I love him like Eminem call us Shady
When he call me mama, lil mama, I call him baby

That would be a sweet thing to say, too — if Eminem weren’t the poster-child for recovering drug addicts and domestic abusers right now.

The feminist in me is practically climbing the walls: are we really okay with the idea that two of the most popular female hip hop artists of the last several years — Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj — are glorifying themselves as life-sized Barbie dolls? I mean, the bimbo and body image issues alone are enough to make anyone shudder — and we haven’t even scratched the surface of the icky, RealDoll factor. Someone pass me my Queen Latifah.

Okay, so to be fair, Minaj isn’t totally biting Kim’s style. She has put her own unique spin on Lil’ Kim’s Barbie persona — except, it’s really not unique at all. Unlike Kim, who was satisfied with latex body-paint, Minaj is drawing from Asian cultures to exoticize her look. Call her Orientalist Black Barbie, because Minaj has egregiously stolen from various Asian cultures in two of her last music videos.

First up, Minaj teamed up with Michael Jai White in this “Memoirs of a Geisha“-inspired music video directed by Hype Williams, for “Your Love”:

The plot of the video: Michael Jai White is a samurai who runs an all-girls martial arts school. One of the girls has lusty, lusty thoughts for White. But, White only has eyes for Nicki Minaj who, I-shit-you-not, simultaneously breaks some cement blocks with a karate chop while giving Michael Jai White a completely doe-eyed, I-don’t-have-two-working-neurons-to-rub-together look, all at the same time. Because guys dig women who can simultaneously kick your ass while not knowing how to form a multi-faceted thought.

So then, stalker girl challenges Minaj to a slow-motion ninja fight which was clearly choreographed by a five-year-old. Minaj is killed, and Michael Jai White screams “NooooooOOOOOOO!!!!” as the camera pans away. Because apparently guys only dig women who have the appearance of being able to kick ass, not women who actually can kick ass.

The Orientalism of the video is so obvious as to not really warrant much further commentary: the Yellowface eye makeup to give the appearance of slanty eyes; the excessive use of silk in every goddamned scene; the terrible ninja-inspired sword fight; the Daisy Duke kimonos that would cause an oba-san to suffer epileptic convulsions — the whole video is like an Asiaphile wet dream.

Not content, apparently, to just appropriate Japanese culture, Minaj just released a second music video that appropriates a wholly different Asian culture. In her collaboration with will.i.am., both artists star in a very weird K-Pop-inspired music video for their song “Check It Out”:

This one has a gregarious K-Pop TV show host, lots of CGI Korean words popping out at you from the background (Angry Asian Man notes that they are a “crude” translation of the song lyrics), and — most bizarrely — an audience of Asian Stepford Wives in the studio audience. These women all wear sunglasses and short black dresses, and move in unison as they robotically watch Minaj and will.i.am. drop some acid on the soundstage; at the end, they methodically clap, as if all their brains have melted out their ears after being subjected to three minutes of this inanity. Is the audience an intentional (or unintentional) reference to Asian conformism, or to more of Minaj’s I-don’t-think-for-myself Barbie shitck?

What annoys me the most about these videos isn’t how they have ruined two favourite songs of my childhood — Annie Lennox’s “No More ‘I Love You’s” and The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star.” No, what annoys me the most is how we’ve seen female pop stars do Minaj’s Orientalist bullshit before: Gwen Stefani, and Madonna before her, have borrowed heavily from Asian culture, with little regard for the authenticity or appropriateness of their actions. It sucked then, and it sucks even more now that Minaj thinks she’s stumbled upon something unique and clever. Asian cultures have a rich and varied history, but in these videos, they are appropriated with as much depth as the Auto-Tune of the songs themselves, and regurgitated onto each scene as little more than a superficial, stylized, exoticized patina.

With Minaj apparently in the middle of an East Asian cultural tour, one wonders how her Orientalist ADD will manifest itself next. Next stop: Chinese opera? Indian Bollywood? Thai weddings? I should start a pool.

And, how long is it going to take for someone to make the Nicki Minaj version of “Aren’t Asians Great”?