Nicki Minaj’s “Pound The Alarm” Reveals Trinidadian Party Politics

by Guest Contributor Annita Lucchesi, originally published on Tumblr

**Video Slightly NSFW***

Perhaps distracted by the picturesque scenery or the flash and glamor of Carnival, music critics have yet to say anything substantial on Nicki Minaj’s new music video, “Pound the Alarm.” Indeed, the overwhelming response has been to dismiss both the song and video as “virtually indistinguishable” from her previous single, “Starships,” and nearly all reviews have nothing to say other than run-of-the-mill comments on the beauty of the setting and Minaj’s physical attributes (see: MTV, Billboard). Fuse even went so far as to describe Minaj as a “bikini wearer extraordinaire” who “made sure her goods were front and center,” and Perez Hilton’s first comment was to tell Minaj, “pound that alarm with your bombastic bosom!”

While Nicki Minaj is obviously exceptionally beautiful, these reviews are as vapid as they are repetitive. Minaj is routinely overlooked as a ‘conscious artist,’ despite the fact that many of her songs, as well as her carefully curated appearance, are politically charged. The vast majority of the narrative on her fame is centered on her body and relationships with male rappers, as if she isn’t an intelligent artist who is very intentional about her image and her work (much less one who attended performing arts school!). Anyone who has heard her more directly “conscious” tracks like “Autobiography” or her remix of “Sweetest Girl” knows that she can be a passionate performer and talented poet. Despite this, Minaj constantly gets criticized and dismissed as lacking substance, which I believe has more to do with the combined forces of racism and sexism in popular media and consumer consciousness than anything else. No matter how gorgeous you are, it can’t be easy to be a young Black West Indian woman in the US media, much less one who is so confident in her ownership of her body and sexuality as Nicki Minaj.

There is also a not-so-subtle unwillingness on behalf of many of her critics to dialogue with Minaj’s work on her own terms, which the “Pound the Alarm” reviews each fall prey to. Though most of them acknowledge that Minaj was born in Trinidad, the video’s location, none of them attempt to place the video within its context—Trinidadian party culture and national politics.

Trinidad & Tobago was in a state of emergency for a sizeable portion of 2011, and nightlife was forced underground after a curfew was imposed. Trinis were understandably upset about the curfew and state of emergency, considering it was credited to an escalating murder rate that has more to do with police brutality and persistant socioeconomic factors that the government has yet to substantially address than anything else. While the curfew was lifted in late 2011, the state of emergency continued and in the last 8 months, several US and UK officials have informally implied threats of intervention, and there was an (unsuccessful) vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar this March. The nation is still under the British Commonwealth, receives military and law enforcement aid from the US, and is currently economically dependent on its gigantic oil industry.

Nicki Minaj is a US-raised Trini, and (though months after T&T’s Carnival) released a music video tribute to T&T Carnival at the height of this Caribbean carnival season. The very first shots of the video are famous places all over the island—Port of Spain, Maracas beach, Caroni swamp, and the gate over the entrance to St. James (the party district outside Port of Spain, known for nightlife and as home point for mas camps; it is also Nicki’s hometown). All of this is to the tune of the chorus on steel pan—what is essentially the national instrument, having first been the instrument of Black Trinis who had been banned from other forms of music, and is now a Mas tradition.

As many have commented, Minaj then appears in a traditional carnival costume, complete with feather headdress and a bikini top bejeweled with T&T’s national colors. She is seen performing on a truck alongside Trini soca superstars Machel Montano and Bunji Garlin, waving a T&T flag and, toward the end, we even see her with a T&T bandana tied to mask her face, walking through some kind of post-Mas apocalypse aftermath.

Nicki isn’t the first Trini to release nationalist or politically charged party music, and indeed the Caribbean has a long tradition of political expression via what most non-Caribbean people hear as generic party songs. This is why placing “Pound The Alarm” within its context as a party song in this tradition is critical—situating it within this framework of understanding demonstrates that the above-mentioned reviews hardly do Minaj justice, much less recognize the political subtext of the video.

Think about what it really means to produce that video within the context of the political climate in Trinidad: the curfew was set in place because the Trinidadian government believed it would be easier to prevent and monitor gang violence (the perceived cause of the high murder rate) if people didn’t congregate at night. In this context, partying can be seen as a form of resistance against the criminalization of low-income and youth Trinis (and the imperialism which fueled and necessitated it). Creating a music video homage to Trini party culture, titled “Pound The Alarm,” with the Bissessar government’s post-bacchanal prediction as the final shot, and connecting that to implications of aesthetics of militant nationalism (via the bandana), is extremely significant.

The video can also be seen as an answer to the criticisms increasingly launched against Minaj claiming she has lost touch with her roots, and subsequently regressed artistically. Contrary to this belief, Minaj explores her identities as both a Trini woman and a near-lifelong resident of Queens, NY, extensively on her newly released Roman Reloaded album. With tracks like Beez in the Trap and I Am Your Leader (featuring Cam’ron and Rick Ross), she has made it clear that she is as capable of producing rap anthems as ever, and has strong ties to both New York and US hip hop. “Pound The Alarm” then, alongside “Gun Shot” (featuring Beenie Man), becomes an assertion that Minaj simultaneously identifies as a Trini artist, occupying dual spaces as a West Indian in Queens.

All this aside, the video is nowhere near perfect. Others have pointed out how shockingly whitewashed Nicki is, and the video as a whole certainly has a strong absence of dark-skinned Trinis. However, the point is that even if you’re not a fan of Nicki Minaj, she deserves some credit—this is not a simple beachside club jam.

Again, too many gloss over her work when talking about ‘politically engaged rap’ due to the dominate narrative on her fame, and don’t realize all the subtext they’re missing by overlooking her; just because you’re not literate in the discourse she situates herself in, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  • HJH

    Disgusting article that shows an aggressive ignorance of both Trinidad and Hip Hop. I’m both Trinidadian and a fan of Hip Hop and I can tell you that Minaj is neither a Trinidadian or a “concious” hip hop artist. She’s a factory generated pop rapper who used Trinidad as an angle for a video. There is no deeper subtext or message to “Pound the Alarm” than that. Go back and look at Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” video, which was also set in Trinidad and also used all the same tropes. There’s nothing concious about bead and bikini Carnival Mas’. It’s sexy for sure, but it represents a degradation of what Carnival stands for.

    As to the State of Emergency, the paragraph where the author discusses it is an absolute abomination. We have a crime epidemic in Trinidad and Tobago. The weekend before the SOE five people were murdered. This is what prompted the Government to take action. Now there is a good argument to be made that the SOE was reactive, hasty and poorly planned, but the idea that “partying” is a form of resistance is just absurd. We party all the time in Trinidad and Tobago. We party far too much. We are partying through a crime epidemic. If you don’t understand our culture you wouldn’t understand. Use logic, what’s more important – wanton bloodshed or peoples’ freedom to get drunk, dance and hook up?

  • NK

    I don’t know anything about politics in Trinidad but I really loved the Polynesian references in starships. that video did not say anything about Polynesian cultures or politics but it is great for our youths to see some version of their culture represented in a positive way by international artists they like. I don’t know if it is the same in Tribudad but in Australia and New Zealand most of the media coverage of Polynesian cultures and people is totally negative so to see somebody like Niki Minaj *likes* us is really good especially for young kids. I have to say if a white person made a video like that I would be disgusted but Trinidad & Tobago never colonized Polynesia so it isn’t the same.

  • Amanda CQ

    I get what you’re trying to say, but I disagree. I’m a Trini living in Jamaica with a firm finger on the pulse of culture back home. And I can tell you first off that Trinidad has already forgotten about the SOE. Of course, the lingering distrust of Kamla’s still there, and probably the bitterness of several businesses who suffered seemingly unnecessarily. But there are other things engaging the country now that have swept the SOE out of our collective consciousness. Like the fact that now is the time when the Carnival parties start, cause it’s when bands like Tribe (whose costumes feature prominently in the video) launch their new costumes for next year. I think this video was more of a great money-making opportunity than a serious political statement. It was definitely the result of a profitable agreement arranged with Tribe, who has been trying to establish their dominance over ‘bikini-mas’ and Trinidad’s party scene. I feel like if this was supposed to be a political statement, if Nicki and her people had given the video and concept that much thought, then we would’ve seen more of a racial mix coming for a country where shadism and racism still divide the nation. That’s an issue that this article dismissively gives one line, but a reality we have to face our entire lives.

    Also, Nicki trying to explore her Trini roots? Probably because the Caribbean is hot now. I find it strange that her collabs seem to be with more Jamaican artists than Trinidadian ones as well as the fact that her accent fluctuates between American and Jamaican–not Trinidadian. I’m fed up of these international artistes claiming Caribbean roots–or Jamaican ones when it’s useful to them. We can see these artistes jumping up and down on a Carnival truck, but we never see them when we really need them. Like when Trinidad suffered massive floods recently and peoples’ houses were under 7 feet of water–with government aid noticeably absent. Nicki’s homeland was under water, but where was Nicki?

  • Dylan

    Hi Adrienne, thanks for your response.

    I fired my
    initial reaction off in a state of disappointment that an article I thought so
    wrong on tumblr had been promoted to added visibility on racialicous so I think
    I should quickly clarify that I am a fan of Minaj and proud of her in many ways
    for pushing the boundaries – as a women, as a trini, as a person from the
    Caribbean, as a dougla, as a POC, as a black women in the US racial binary, as
    an immigrant, as a minority and much more.

    That she is appropriated by the capitalist
    entertainment machine and has her own unique voice still while obviously
    fighting against its patriarchal, misogyny is impressive and by no means was I belittling
    that. And I totally agree that it’s possible “for Minaj to have struggles with
    self-acceptance and also have a political opinion. The fact that Minaj operates
    on a wide spectrum should be heralded: she may not be a great role model or
    entirely unproblematic but I think she offers an honest and complex view of
    Black womanhood which is often denied to us.” That is a great point.

    My issue was with the article itself and the oversimplication
    and misrepresentation of Trinidad, the political situation here, the history of
    Carnival and what the author claims the video is about. If statements by Minaj
    or the director were offered in support of the author’s readings – rather than
    a reading more in the style of literature studies essay then maybe I would be
    less critical. However, pushing political meanings into cultural objects where
    perhaps they don’t exist is problematic because it obscures the real politics
    and power relations at play for a more sanitised and hegemonic one. In this
    instance US racial politics read over Caribbean socio-cultural and economic
    realities.

    So what saying is my disappointment is directed at
    the author and not Minaj – it is also directed at racialicious for giving this
    argument more legitimacy. I should also add that the video has been discussed
    greatly in public and in academic circles in Trinidad (full disclosure I teach
    anthropology and political sociology at the University of the West Indies). To
    say a lot of people in Trinidad were disappointed with what they saw as a
    generic Hip Pop video wouldn’t be far from the mark too. However that is a
    different argument. It also doesn’t negate that some people love the video and
    for many different reasons. Our history is complicated – thus varied responses
    are normal. In that sense the author’s view might have a place here – however due
    to the many inaccuracies in the piece I am reluctant to let it slide.

    Some examples of errors, problems and inaccuracies
    to add to those in my previous post:

    The author overstates her interpretation and
    description of the curfew. I would also like to see the evidence for “several
    US and UK officials have informally implied threats of intervention.” That is
    pure hearsay.

    Also, why report “a (unsuccessful) vote of no
    confidence in Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar” – it was knocked out of
    the park along party lines yes but it never had a chance since the ruling party
    has a substantial majority. In fact polls show that more people were in support
    of the Curfew than against it. This doesn’t negate that the curfew can be
    described as class warfare against poor black men – but our class and racial
    politics are extremely complicated. Many of the members of the Government – included
    our current National Security are black men so the curfew while racist was
    first and foremost classist.

    The military and law enforcement aid from the US the
    author mentions is connected to the war on drugs which we all know is the most
    racist war there is. One forced on the rest of the world by the US Government
    and its capitalist cronies who launder hundreds of billions of US dollars
    through the first world’s banks and also support the corrupt class structure in
    Caribbean islands. A form of neo-colonialism if ever one needs an example. My
    point here is the author mentions such things and then just leaves them hanging
    without connecting them to Video. It a straw man and language used to
    politicise an argument where there isn’t much evidence of politics at all – i.e.
    the video has as an afterthought the Trinidad bandana as a gangsta symbol. Have
    you watch the making of the video? Minaj even mentions the bandana as an
    afterthought not as some political statement.

    My biggest ire as someone who studies and has
    published on the history of Carnival is the author labelling the music video “a
    tribute to T&T Carnival”. This is just plain wrong. The history of T&T carnival
    is complicated and I touched on the basics above in my previous post. Put
    simply, a tribute to Trinidad Carnival and its black working class roots which
    were appropriated first on the road to Independence and now by the Capitalist
    machine needs to express the exclusion of the poor black working class from
    Carnival today. The author falls into the typical over hyped, multicultural b/s
    that does not mention how poor black people in an echo of the colonial
    situation are the servants to the middle and upper classes that now enjoy and
    pay between $4000- $7000 TT dollars for a costume (the average monthly wage
    here is $4000TT). If the video is a tribute to T&T Carnival then it is a
    tribute to the carnival that is stratified by cost and race. Not to mention the
    video has no shout outs to calypso or soca the real music of our Carnival. Nor
    does it have more than a few seconds of Ole Time Mass which again is part of
    the essence of our carnival. When the author says that Minaj “appears in a
    traditional carnival costume” I wanted to scream. She appears in ‘bikini and
    beads ma’s which is def not the same as a “traditional carnival costume”.
    Please do not represent us. That is what the author does with her analysis of
    carnival in the video. And even though she is claiming to give a political reading,
    the author speeds over the colourism at play in video which is extremely revealing
    of the local situation. I think the author needs to call the video direction
    out on the lack of black female bodies in the video for the high browns and
    light skin black women it uses. Yet the author speeds over this in less than
    sentence.

    And I’d like to add that St James is not outside
    Port of Spain, it is part of Port of Spain. And today Woodbrook and Ariapita
    Avenue is the number one party district in Port of Spain. In fact the class,
    race and political difference between the two areas and their histories are an
    essay in itself.

    Lastly, to call the ending of the video a “post-Mas
    apocalypse aftermath” when it is a generic pyrotechnic finally is another great
    example of the author overhyping her reading and misrepresenting an image as
    political. Does she even recognise where that is? It is the Savannah, the home
    of Carnival and definitely not apocalyptic to us. Maybe to foreigners. But it
    is the soul of Carnival for many – where the stage is on a Carnival Monday and
    Tuesday, and where for a few hours everyone gets to play king and queen.

    So all in all the foundations and pillars that the
    author builds her argument on about the video are either overstated, open to
    disagreement or plan wrong.

    Maybe the author has a point in her intro about most
    reviews hardly do Minaj justice as a political figure with agency, or recognize
    the political subtext of her video. But let’s not overhype it and get carried
    away with Pound the Alarm – that does more damage than good. In this instance
    it rewrites our local history, race politics and class situation. For me, that is
    the same thing white hegemony does to black history in the States. Here it is
    US based intellectuals – through the visibility the website racialicious provides
    the author – doing that to people in the Caribbean. It is the same hierarchal
    situation you always write against but you are doing it to us rather than having
    it done to yourselves.

    If you got this far thanks for reading

    • Anonymous

      You know, we do have an open submission policy. The author put forth an interesting argument – that music writers missed the underlying meaning of the Pound the Alarm video. She provided context for her thoughts and actions and verifiable links. It fits our requirements.

      But, in these types of matters, people often disagree. It’s part of the territory here. If you choose to submit a counter point, please pay special attention to point 5 here:

      http://www.racialicious.com/to-contribute-to-this-blog/

      Racialicious works because it is an ongoing conversation between interested parties. If you are disappointed with what is published, then contribute something you can be proud of. Most of our transformative conversations have happened because of disagreements – but that is due to people spending less time wishing for what they want to see here and spending more time creating what they had hoped for.

      We have an open submissions policy for a reason.

      • Dylan

        Great sentiment. I wasnt writing a counter piece. I was just responding to Adrienne and before i knew it had written a couple of pages.

        • Anonymous

          That’s the way it always goes.

          • Dylan

            Morning. I was thinking about what you said here and also in your comment on twitter yesterday about “commentators having their knives out today”.

            Two things stood out – 1) that just like in feminism where not all women are equal i think it is far to say in battles for social justice not all communities are equal either. So when those living and working in the US against racial injustice and racism more generally speak for people of colour who live in the Caribbean they have to realise that their voices carry more weight than ours do. That is a statement of fact and a situation of privilege i don’t think those with the louder voices in our battles against power take as seriously as they should.

            The second point builds of the first, that is you mention verifiable links as reason for publishing the article. All those links are to US based sources. My personal opinion is if you are going to puiblish pieces about the Caribbean and give volume to an argument that those links supporting the article, or at least some of them, should be from the Caribbean and not US based sites like CNN and Perezhilton. I confused how they can be used as justification for representing the Caribbean. Misrepresentation as you know silences the voices of the less powerful and denies us the ability to define ourselves for ourselves for some else’s version – in this case a discourse about race and power from the US and not the Caribbean. Those with power have a responsibility to use it carefully. You may not agree with me or even take offence to what im saying. My hope is you won’t and you might consider some of these points in the future for other posts on the Caribbean. Thanks.

          • Anonymous

            1. Most of the comments I tweet about – like most of the pitches I tweet about – will never be published. The knives I was referring to are people who attacked the original posters, said terrible things about adoptive parents, and one that called us “fucking idiot Leninists” because of a quote in the RIchard Aoki piece. You know what they say about assumptions.

            2. You seem to miss that *we* – as in the staff here – are not speaking for the Caribbean. A person who self-identified as Trini sent us a piece analyzing politics from her perspective. If you have problems with her being from the US, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make her analysis invalid. And it doesn’t get around the core idea of this site – we have an open submission policy so other people can tell their stories. We would have never covered the controversy of Germany’s Next Top Model – we aren’t there. Someone had to send in that piece. We wouldn’t have covered the problematic way French museums cover slavery. Someone had to send in that piece. We watch and read blogs from other parts of the world, but we greatly prefer other people’s experience and analysis. And, as I said in this initial comment, people do not always agree. This has happened before with Jewish people writing for the site , with how we covered the London Riots, and a while back with how we cover racism in Latin America. That is just a part of writing on the internet. You could make that argument that we are shouting over your voices, but that would also mean that we were choosing these pieces over others – but the fact of the matter is outside of what we were getting on Reggaeton and the asides N’jalia Rhee made in the IR dating panel, we see very little by way of submissions. We can’t publish what we do not receive.

            3. If you read the OP carefully, she was criticizing US based media’s reactions to Minaj’s song. Again, it seems like the point you are making is not about her actual piece.

            4. I’ve been on this site for six years, running it for close to four. I take very little personal offense at this point. But one thing does get under my skin – when I tell someone who is critical of our coverage to write their own piece and they do not do so. This site does not run on magic. There are four people, who make time around their day jobs, to maintain the site, manage the comments, cover current events, and edit submissions. The ad revenues pay the hosting fees. I’m not sure why people expect us to somehow have the breadth of knowledge and the time to cover every single community on the planet to their satisfaction. We cannot. It is not humanly possible. We have a very clear open submissions policy on the site. This is to allow others to tell their own stories. But the onus is on folks who believe they have something to say to tell their stories. To put themselves before the harsh critiques of their peers. Because the project doesn’t work otherwise.

  • Dylan

    I read this on Tumblr previously and ive got to say as someone who is trini and lives in Trinidad whoever wrote this is completely over reaching. you can read a lot of metaphors into many situations. And the author certainly does that and misrepresents a lot in the process

    Minaj does not embrace Traditional Carnival culture. See embraces the bikini and beads carnival culture which is heavily commercialised and full of racial segregation – not the traditional carnival culture that was indigenous to the black working class! All the service staff in bikini and beads carnival production are working class and black. Its a horrible class situation overlaid with echoes of the colonial hierarchal situation bequeathed to the nation. all the profits go into the pockets of lighter skin groups who have had all the cumulative advantages in society. Makes me vex to read this because the author isnt playing the racial and class politics of the society properly.

    People in the Caribbean always get swept up into US race politics. Racial politics and categories are different depending on different historical and cultural realities. Trinidad is different in some ways to the US and the author is wrong to say this isnt a typical beach jam. it is. This isn’t to say black isnt at the bottom in Trinidad. However, it is to say this article has lots wrong with it and for me personally – is far more wrong than it is right.

  • miga

    She is looking a lot paler these days- I wonder if they just washed out the entire film (nothing looks quite as vibrant as it should) and all the extras were whitewashed in the process. It’s no excuse for sure, and the full spectrum of people weren’t represented, but I wonder if this helped erase visibility of dark-skinned Trinis.

  • k.eli

    ” Minaj is routinely overlooked as a ‘conscious artist,’ despite the fact that many of her songs, as well as her carefully curated appearance, are politically charged … Again, too many gloss over her work when talking about ‘politically engaged rap’ due to the dominate narrative on her fame, and don’t realize all the subtext they’re missing by overlooking her”

    So, clearly “Stupid Hoe” must have had a deeper meaning than I gave it credit for, huh? It’s okay to have a guilty pleasure but don’t try to rationalize Nicki Minaj as something she’s not.

  • Val

    Calling Nicki a “conscious artist” means one has to deliberately ignore her songs where she expresses deep misogyny, as in her song, “Stupid H*e”. And she was specifically talking about Black women in that song, so it seems to me that she has lost touch with her most essential roots. I really don’t get why some women, despite evidence to the contrary, continue to try to make Nicki into something that she’s not. Nicki is associated with a bunch of women hating rappers and seems to have jumped on that bandwagon. That’s who Nicki Minaj is. A couple of mildly political songs doesn’t change that.

    • Anonymous

      This. Yes. Why the complete obsession with Minaj?

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  • SS

    It seems like the author is telling us to overlook Nicki Minaj’s missteps because she gets a few things right. She has called black women nappy headed hoes, in addition to a litany of other jabs at black women and she gets one video partially right and it makes it all okay? I disagree.

    • Anonymous

      I even wonder if Minaj identifies as a Black woman? As I understand it she’s of mixed Black and Indian heritage and I know in Trinidad that comes with its own set of identities.

    • Anonymous

      I was also surprised to see no really identifiable Afro-Trinidadian in the small circle of female dancers in this videos.