Nicki Ménages Urban Black and Latina Sexual Identities

by Guest Contributor Sabia McCoy-Torres

Nicki Minaj got media circuits buzzing after performing alongside Madonna at the Super Bowl 2012 halftime show and then commanding the stage a week later at the Grammy Awards in a Catholic themed extravaganza. As usual, Minaj got people talking about sex(uality). After the halftime show, viewers jokingly wondered why a sensual kiss between Madonna and Minaj never transpired.

Meanwhile, Minaj’s Grammy performance included a mini-film depicting a priest making a house call to exorcise the demon possessing a child named Roman. Roman was referred to many times as “he” but when the child was revealed, rather than a boy we saw a tormented and psychotic Minaj with long blonde hair applying pink lipstick singing “I Feel Pretty.” Does the possessed boy become Nicki Minajwhen dressed in drag? Is Minaj possessed by Roman, a boy who likes pink lipstick and Broadway songs, or is she just trying to be as quirky as possible? Regardless of where Minaj was leading her audience, it was clear she was toying with gender presentation and interpretation, a hallmark of her persona that has an impact on her community of listeners.

I most recently noticed the impact that the openness of artists like Nicki Minaj to sexual ambiguity is having when I returned to my neighborhood in the Bronx after a two year stint living in Costa Rica. In that brief period away I realized much had changed: men in the hood were wearing tight jeans, 80s style had come back in full effect, and there was a growing visibility of what I dubbed “neo-soul Black hipsters.” I also noticed an abundance of pretty teenage girls on the 4, 6, and D trains to the Bronx with their equally handsome boyfriends who on second glance, and sometimes fourth and fifth, I realized were actually two beautiful girls unabashedly holding hands, in the midst of quiet embraces, or giving voyeuristic displays passionate kissing.

A friend recently asked me: “Remember back in the day when there were no gay youth?” And I had to agree that I shared that memory. Of course it wasn’t that there were no gay youth, rather it was that they weren’t as visible, especially in our predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods. It was clear to me that a shift had occurred while I was away. Gay openness was becoming not only a thing of adult men and women in the West Village but also of urban Black and Latina youth in inner-city New York.

My seventeen year old sister, who identifies as a straight, mixed Black and Puerto Rican female, also reflects this new shift in urban communities. She recently broke down to me the many terms for the varying types of young lesbians and was shocked by my ignorance of them. There were AG’s, Femmes, Studs, and many more, each label describing a specific style and gender persona characterized by different degrees of masculinity, femininity, or a complex melding of the two. To my sister this was common knowledge, whereas when I was a teen such title distinctions were strictly “gay knowledge” and the rest of us chilled in our heteronormative worlds not really concerned with our gay classmates. Additionally, only “certain” people had gay friends, in other words, gay and straight teen social worlds did not mix much. There is a stark contrast today that is demonstrated by my younger sister’s knowledge and the comparative lack of heteronormativity in her social world.

All in the same moment of my return, Nicki Minaj hit the scene hard. It may seem a little late to bring up Nicki Minaj and sexuality; however, I am not concerned with questions of Minaj’s own sexuality rather the way in which she reflects the openness towards diverse sexual orientations, ambiguity, gender play, and androgyny that I see around me, and growing, on inner New York City streets.

While Nicki Minaj’s visual representation is hyperfeminine (as well as uber-weird), her image often contrasts with her vocal style and lyrics. Minaj has voices for her many facades, which are often connected to a gender persona or sexual orientation–a deep baritone androgynous voice, and a gruff, aggressive male one, that she might juxtapose with a feminine “girly-girl” voice. All can be heard in a single verse on Kanye West’s “Monster.”

Along with her many voices, Minaj’s lyrics are full of gender play and homo/bisexual innuendo. She roles up in her whip not with her fellas or a team of ride or die girls, but rather, “with a bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka,” i.e. a fine chick by her side (M.I.A. perhaps?). Furthermore, if she is not referring to herself as one of the scariest (“Freddy Kruger I’m a rap bitch nightmare”) or most threatening (“It’s Friday the 13th and guess who’s playin’ Jason”) male figures to hit 1980s theaters, then she’s likening herself to other men, even David, a Biblical favorite saying: “In this very moment I’m King, in this very moment I slay Goliath with the sling…Clap for the heavy weight champ…me.” She embodies these men, but she is also a woman with a “pink wig thick ass” that gives men “whip lash” when they stop to check her rollin’ up in a “Barbie Bentley,” and ain’t afraid to let a girl know: “’Scuse me little mama…I’m lookin’ for a cutie a real big ole ghetto booty. I really like your kitty cat and if you let me touch her, I know you’re not a bluffer I’ll take you to go see Usher.”

With her approach to lyricism Nicki Minaj has distanced herself from finding power in the raw sexual expression alone of say, Lil Kim, and turned to claiming male, androgynous, and multisexual identities to locate her power, agency, and rootedness in the hip-hop game. Some scholars and “conventional” feminists might say that finding power in masculinity is a reproduction of the same oppressive system that sees the feminine as weak and undeserving of power or leadership. In response, I would point out that Nicki Minaj has adjusted to and used to her advantage the masculinity that oozes from hip-hop culture and urban representations, cleverly flipping it upside-down on its head, and using the master’s (hip hop industry) tools (hypermasculinity) against him in his own house in an almost mocking way.

At the same time, Minaj is reflecting the transforming approach to gender and sexuality of the new generation of inner-city New York youth, the growing community of urban gay teenagers and their absorption into hip-hop cultural understanding. Speaking to Bronx natives Yuri, 17, China, 16, who both identify as straight teenage girls of color, and Jamilia, 18, who identifies as a young Black lesbian gave me insight into this.

According to all three girls, there is a certain shock value that comes along with “the gay stuff” that even though not necessarily expressing Minaj’s true sexual identity (Minaj has publically denied being gay or bisexual), still makes her likeable to an array of urban youth. China and Yuri add that gay youth like Minaj for promoting their community, straight guys for the sexual appeal of her lesbian fancies, and straight girls because she’s badass. Minaj’s lyrics, voices, and personas both attract and address different sexually oriented communities, even though it is for lyrical play and not for truth. However, more than simply reflecting, is Nicki Minaj also impacting the youth perspective?

Jamilia explains that Nicki Minaj is making the gay community larger. Fresh from middle school, incoming freshmen at Jamilia’s high school are identifying as gay at the tender age of 14. Returning to my friend’s comment about there being no gay youth back in the day, Jamilia sees their growing visibility as attributable to the music of artists like Nicki Minaj who bring bisexuality, mixed gender identities, gender play, and homosexuality to the forefront allowing kids to identify with it, in turn, as she points out: “Nicki Minaj is making it cool to be that way,” as well as acceptable.

Essentially, there seems to be an earlier awareness of the possibility of gay identity, whether certain or not, an awareness that Jamilia attributes to the exposure that artists like Nicki Minaj give to alternative sexual identities and her embracing them.

I’m basing my discussion largely on women because it is almost exclusively young lesbians that are increasingly visible in urban spaces. China thinks the openness of lesbian teens has to do with young girls coming of age surrounded by other girls in Catholic schools with the idea in mind that being attracted to and intimate with girls is accepted, partly because it is glamorized. I would add that, on the other hand, the relative invisibility of gay teen men is in part due to the glorification of heterosexual masculinity in urban communities, which is also reflected in hip-hop music and its surrounding culture. Even masculine lesbians fit within the urban and hip-hop ethos more than gay man. So while it may be cool, sexy, or at least acceptable to be a lesbian, the hypermasculinity that defines “the streets” might discourage gay male openness, for which there is also no rap promoter.

What is the relevance of Nicki Minaj’s lyrics and representation, and the simultaneous absorption of the gay community into hip-hop cultural understanding to the changes happening in New York City?

On a small level, at least as I have witnessed, it seems there is a growing community of gay allies who are found in teens like Yuri and China. Demonstrating their appreciation of gender and sexual diversity, Yuri and China discuss shows they watch on Logo, a LGBT television network. They explain that they are particularly “open” and that is why they watch Logo, but that other allies show their acceptance through more run-of-the-mill (implying faddish) activity like going to gay parties and the gay pride parade. Minaj has also designated herself an ally saying in Vibe magazine that she embraces “all people of all lifestyles” adding in Out magazine, clearly referring to sexual identities, that “everyone is not black and white. There are so many in the middle, and you’ve got to let people feel comfortable…”

Of course there are many obstacles and much ignorance that must still be overcome on the journey towards NYC and the world embracing the diversity of sexual orientations. Dancehall artist Mr. Vegas, for example, recently lashed out on Twitter against the media and artists like Nicki Minaj for contributing to child molestation through their “publicizing of the gay lifestyle.” However, it is my hope that space continue to be carved out in unlikely places, like the South Bronx, like in hip-hop, for youth of color to think about and embrace their own sexual identities and be respected. Jamilia says that in her BX hood she feels accepted and like she doesn’t need to pretend to be anyone else–and I most definitely say cheers to that.

  • Oneluva

    LOVE this article.. I think you nailed it and I find that it is so important to keep this type of discussion alive. There may be some people not totally feeling everything in it but it sure has generated alot of thoughtful discussion. I aint gonna add anymore than is already written and commented on.. just a thanks.. peace

  • Jason

    Well Knightgee, I agree with Val, seems like Nicki Minaj is cultivating a body of work  of “problematic
    lyrics” so miss me with that. Nicki Minaj is not above scrutiny and I think to conflate critiquing her image or her lyrics to “declaring what Nicki can and can’t be for young women” (which is not the same thing) misses the point.

    -personally I find Nicki Minaj to be so repulsively
    colour-struck and anti-black. She disgusts me, actually, but that’s not
    the point. This is not the first time she’s used the phrase “nappy
    headed hoes” in another song (Did It On ‘Em) the lyric goes “these
    little nappy headed hoes need a perminator”

    Oh it gets better then there’s “Chimpanzee’s is hatin’ but I take it all
    in stride/Put her in a jungle with bananas on the side ” in that
    Britney Spears song she’s featured in with Ke$ha

    The notion that “Minaj is reflecting the transforming approach to
    gender and sexuality of the new generation of inner-city New York youth”
    or even urban youth in other communities I think is debatable. Oh well,
    she certainly ISN’T reflecting nor taking a transformative approach to
    colourism well , she does call herself “the female weezy” and it’s no secret
    what he thinks about (dark-skinned) black women.

    Even if I agreed that she “plays with gender and sexual/identity”, the
    idea that her drawing on traditionally hyper-masculine, hyper-feminine,
    “gender-queer”, and  other non-normative or traditionally marginalized
    identities somehow is bringing them to the forefront is still limiting.
    Especially if it assumes that the “target audience” (if that even
    includes non mainstream youth) will have equal access to these
    representations.

    • Anonymous

      No one said she was above scrutiny, so you and Val miss me with this out of nowhere insistence that someone is suggesting we not critically analyze her flaws just because someone suggested we not reduce her sole impact to her flaws. And I am not conflating anything. In a piece where the voices of several young women of color were represented, Val stated outright that Nicki does not empower young women. I guess Yuri, China and Jamilia just don’t have any clue what they’re talking about with regard to their own lives and the communities they frequent but you and Val have the 411 on how people and young women in particular *really* feel about her, huh? If Val doesn’t feel particularly empowered, that’s perfectly fine, no one is saying she has to feel the momentum or anything, but that’s not really Val or anyone elses call to make for others, hence me saying that statements like that try to say what Nicki can or can’t be for young women.

      Your colourism point is also so completely out of left-field. Right, she said she’s the female Weezy. *Clearly* that means she’s talking about her dislike for darker-skinned women, rather than being her way of asserting her status as a prominent and noteworthy rapper on the level of acclaim and success as her labelmate, right? You have to be trying to draw that connection in order to make it. What is this, like colourism by the transitive property? “You compared yourself Weezy and Weezy has said bad things about darker-skinned women therefore you have issues with colourism” What? Seriously? I’d be more than willing to believe you if you offered something she actually said, rather than trying to hold her accountable to Weezy’s opinions.

      As to your last point about equal access, that’s a very interesting point, one that actually has a lot to do with stuff  like say what cultural shifts and privileges enable these kids to have an environment for access and the freedom to emulate and explore this type of expression that other queer youth don’t have access to. That would be an interesting conversation. But that doesn’t seem to be the one you want to have.

    • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Donovan

      This sound like some really destructive stuff… Perminator? I thought the whole perm issue was easing up… I guess it makes sense though, my students are desperate for me to ‘fix’ my hair. They are quite funny about it really.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Donovan

    I do not feel that the availability of a lesbian persona especially a butch lesbian persona for young, especially black women of color is quite as new as it may seem. It is more visible, yes, but there were always women who were known for “not liking men.” I remember several older unmarried black women in my church who lived together. They were never called gay, and as far as the community was concerned their sex lives did not exist, but behind closed doors … In retrospect it all seems very transparent. I would love to talk to such women since I think this kind of gayness in the black community has been and still is very invisible.

    I do think it’s good that there are more out black youth, and you are right they are mostly women at this stage. I live in the south Bronx and it’s very alive on the streets, but I do think there are some things we need to talk about.

    I have always found the masculinization of black women by majority culture deeply degrading and disturbing. Not to personalize this too much but when I think of the most hurtful words ever spoken to me they all involved attempts to strip away my femininity because of my race. I can’t help but think that the thriving of this trend in pop culture is in part fed by this. For white women who identify and glorify femininity seeing black women masculinized in media affirms the superiority of white femininity. You see a similar pattern with the feminizing of Asian men, and the hypermascunalization of black males in media. Most of the super bowl audience is white, a large, perhaps majority portion of these songs and images are sold to white people, do they help young white gay girls find a persona where they can express their masculine side (if they happen to have one, not all gay girls do…) ?

    In addition when teaching in my neighborhood I had a disturbing number of female students who suffered various forms of sexual abuse. On more than one occasion I had a young woman tell me that she was going to be gay to get away from men. Now there is a stereotype that all gay women are just trying to escape men, or could be “cured” if only they met a guy who treated them right, so, I’m bringing this up gingerly, still having heard it no less than three times I can’t ignore it. Gayness for at least some of these women is a way of putting their bodies out of reach and hopefully out of danger. ( not that it works all the time ). Let me be clear here what I find disturbing is the high rate of sexual abuse not the gayness, there are likely a whole host of biological and environmental reasons why people are gay or straight or anywhere in-between. But in the bronx sexuality like being “hard” can be ways that women defend themselves. It’s worth noting that the masculinization of black women makes “being pure” or simply being very feminine an ineffective tool for avoiding unwanted sexual attention and violence for black women. The only options seem to be to embrace sex, by being very sexually open while being called a “ho” or to be masculine, and being gay isn’t really distinguished from being masculine in these contexts.

    Lastly, and this isn’t limited to black and Latino subcultures, lesbianism is sometimes framed as a defrost for men. I have seen young girls who would kiss each other to get attention from guys. There is nothing wrong with this by itself, but think of what it must be like for a young woman who is truly gay, not bisexual, for a young black or latino woman who sees herself as very feminine, and who is earnestly romantically attracted to women… Are any of these things really helping her?

    She isn’t abused, she isn’t hard, she isn’t trying to provide fantasy material for men… This type of young woman is likely very common and she remains invisible.

    Seeing girls hold hands on the triangle is just so sweet and makes me think of how far we have come, but these things are complex. I think being a woman of color places many stresses on our journey to find a sexual identity. It was very hard for me as a straight teen, and I don’t think much has changed in 15 years, for gay teens it is undoubtedly even harder.

    To me these images while fun, just further unbalance the pallet of black sexuality seen in media. Where are the sexually cautious pure black women? Where are the shy black lesbians? All I ever see are images of black women as gratuitously available, pushy, mean, masculine and filled with ‘tude… For Latinas call it “spice” maybe it’s gay spice now, but is that really anything new?

    • S. Mandisa Moore

      YES!!!

      I really took issue with the writer asserting that the visibility of queer black youth is new or that its even queer black girls. While visibility has definitely increased, lets not act like the house culture of the late 80s/early 90s (you know-where Madonna stole her “vogue” song and video from) didnt exist or that AGs are somehow new.

      I also want to affirm the couples of all genders in church, in the neighborhood, around the way who we all knew were “like that” who are invisible and hyper visible at the same time. 

    • Jason

      What a wonderful well-written piece -to your last point do you think these images could be viable to dark-skinned black women? I ask because I don’t think Minaj just reinforces a Euro or white aesthetic but “light vs. dark” aesthetic so I wonder what are these images supposed to mean when turned inward on black communities?

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

     You’re saying that I should ignore “Stupid Hoe” because Nicki has done positive songs in the past? So if Rick Santorum has voted for legislation in the past that was beneficial to Black people does that mean we should ignore his racist rants today? Sure Nicki has done positive songs but we are what we do as well as what we’ve done. And I really don’t think you can justify the lyrics of “Stupid Hoe” with the lyrics of another rap song she’s done. Using phrases like “nappy headed hoes” and “I piss on b*tches” is pretty extreme and hard to ignore or justify.

    • Anonymous

       I didn’t say you should ignore anything. I’m pretty sure that point was clear, given that I admit outright that it’s problematic, say that she can be both problematic and interesting and that we should look at the full picture, a picture which by default would include all aspects of her, including ones that are problematic.

  • http://izumibayanippp.blogspot.com/ BayanIzumi

    I’m wondering if the increased visibility and acceptability of women to have a wider range of sexuality reinforces our society’s heteronormativity since “doing it” with lesbians is a heterosexual fantasy.

  • http://izumibayanippp.blogspot.com/ BayanIzumi

    I’m wondering if the increased visibility and acceptability of women to have a wider range of sexuality reinforces our society’s heteronormativity since “doing it” with lesbians is a heterosexual fantasy.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    I really liked your post. But, saying that Nicki Minaj has used gender play in her music to empower herself which has had a positive influence on young women is a stretch, I think. Have you heard Nicki’s song “Stupid Hoe”? There is nothing empowering about that song. In fact it’s regressive, racist and astoundingly sexist.

    Here are a couple of choruses from “Stupid Hoe”

     Look bubbles go back to your habitat

    MJ gone and I ain’t having that

    How you gon’ be the stunt double to the nigga monkey

    Top of that I’m in the Phantom looking hella chonky

    Ice my wrists and I piss on bitches

    You can suck my diznik if you take this jizz-is
    You don’t like them disses, give my ass some kisses

    Yeah they know what this is, givin this the business

    There’s a lot more. At one point she actually uses the phrase “nappy headed hoes”.  So as I said, Nicki isn’t empowering anyone with her lyrics or her sexually ambiguous rap persona, certainly not young women.

     

  • http://helpmyseo.com/ David Amerland

    This is an interesting piece not least for its observation “…Regardless of where Minaj was leading her audience, it was clear she was
    toying with gender presentation and interpretation, a hallmark of her
    persona that has an impact on her community of listeners.” The power fo social media is to generate a conversation that takes place at many different levels, this being one of them. By talking about the subject in question as well as its associated aspects we, by degrees, begin to move towards a better understanding of what we discuss and, by extension, ourselves.

  • Brandon

    This is exceptionally well written and very thoughtful.  There’s something here.

    But I don’t know.  I am definitely uncomfortable with an artist adopting a sexual orientation for the sake of performance.  It makes gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, genderqueer identity seem like a lifestyle… as opposed to someone’s life.

    Not everyone has the luxury of trying on a sexual orientation or identity like Ms. Minaj does in her performance.  And the idea that gay identity is somehow cool… fine for her.  But as long as homophobia exists in our society, this seems borderline insulting to anyone who suffers from that oppression. 

    • Anonymous

       I don’t think it’s fair to say she’s “trying on” sexual orientations. That she appeals to so many queer youth of color seems to be less the result of her trying to pretend to be queer and more a byproduct of her approach to her place in hip-hop as a woman who is as tough as any man, can go as hard as any man, can get girls as easily as any man, and can be as monstrous as any man, but also isn’t afraid to embrace the feminine and have a laugh at the absurdity of hypermasculinity.

      And while I can’t speak for any other queer people of color besides myself, I don’t have a problem with that and don’t see how it’s any worse than actors playing gay characters in movies.

    • Anonymous

       I don’t think it’s fair to say she’s “trying on” sexual orientations. That she appeals to so many queer youth of color seems to be less the result of her trying to pretend to be queer and more a byproduct of her approach to her place in hip-hop as a woman who is as tough as any man, can go as hard as any man, can get girls as easily as any man, and can be as monstrous as any man, but also isn’t afraid to embrace the feminine and have a laugh at the absurdity of hypermasculinity.

      And while I can’t speak for any other queer people of color besides myself, I don’t have a problem with that and don’t see how it’s any worse than actors playing gay characters in movies.

      • Brandon

        OK.  On your last point, though… not seeing how it’s any worse than actors playing gay characters in movies. 

        You are right.  For some reason many people (including me) have a hard time accepting that musical performance is more than just the music.  We tend to think that lyrics are truth and that they represent the performer’s true self; never an act.

        For me, it feels like there’s an agreement with film… where we KNOW that it’s performance and there’s no in-between.  Music feels different to me, even though on an intellectual level I know that it’s performance. 

        But back to actors playing gay characters in movies…

        There is some controversy there.  Christopher Plummer is probably going to win an Oscar this weekend for playing a gay character.  I don’t want to look specifically at his performance, but some people have a problem with the fact that heterosexual actors get so much credit for playing gay or lesbian, when gay or lesbian actors get no credit for it.  Oftentimes gay and lesbian actors don’t even get to portray their own sexual orientation.

        This might seem like a tangent, but there’s a music connection here; the problem might not be so much with Minaj herself, but the culture of mainstream hip hop that makes actual gay and lesbian voices and identities invisible.