by Guest Contributor Annita Lucchesi, originally published on Tumblr
**Video Slightly NSFW***
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.