By Guest Contributor April Gregory, cross-posted from STATIC
“You Could Be the King But Watch the Queen Conquer:”
Nicki Minaj as a Model of Empowerment for Female and/or Queer Youth
“In between the beats, booty shaking, and hedonistic abandon, I have to wonder if there isn’t something inherently unfeminist in supporting a music that repeatedly reduces me to tits and ass and encourages pimping on the regular.” Such is the dilemma of hip hop feminist Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. Like Morgan, I consider myself to be a fairly ardent feminist. I also consider myself to be a fairly ardent hip hop fan. It’s no secret that these two identities, as Morgan points out, are frequently in conflict with one another.
So imagine my utter bewilderment when, in 2009, I heard a woman spitting lyrics as crude and grimy as those coming out of the mouths of male rappers. Nicki Minaj had flown into my hip hop radar with her mixtape “Beam Me Up, Scotty.” Its cover art, which features Nicki and her bountiful curves in a skintight, barely there Wonder Woman outfit, was in itself enough to make the feminist in me have a stroke. Her rhymes provoked equal alarm. How could I, as a feminist, respect or support a woman who spit quasi-pornographic lines like “Bitches can’t find their man ‘cause I ride it good” (“Itty Bitty Piggy”) and “Maybe it’s time to put this pussy on your sideburns” (“BedRock”) while prancing around in outrageously stripper-esque garb?
To be blunt, Nicki Minaj frightened me. Her abrasive, slightly schizophrenic tone and unabashed use of misogynistic diction made me uncomfortable. I could not accept her brazen female sexuality as anything more than a ploy to obtain male attention and furthermore, I felt a little violated by the ease with which she could talk about her body and her sexual exploits. As an ally of the queer community, I was likewise bothered by Nicki’s claim to be bisexual, which I perceived to be an exploitation of queer identity for the purpose of appealing to heterosexual male fantasies of lesbian and bisexual women. And, above all, I was horrified by the fact that young girls were idolizing Nicki, especially the fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls from East Palo Alto that I mentored through a college access program.
Then, on Aug. 27, 2010, my relationship with Nicki Minaj was changed forever. Kanye West had released “Monster” featuring Nicki, Rick Ross, and Jay-Z on his Twitter page. After a few listens, I was forced to join those who “unanimously decided she had the best verse” on the track. I was particularly struck by the final lines of Nicki’s verse:
Pink wig, thick ass, give ‘em whiplash
I think big, get cash, make ‘em blink fast
Now look at what you just saw
This is what you live for
[Screams] I’m a muthaf-ckin monster!
She beats the boys at their own game through a verse that goes, to borrow a phrase, hard as a motherfucker. In the process, Nicki also affirms herself, from her unique sense of style to her entrepreneurial aspirations. Her assertion that “This is what you live for” situates Nicki in a position of power, wherein listeners beg for the sustenance her rhymes provide.
It is this same notion of power – as well as empowerment – that catalyzed my reevaluation of Nicki Minaj. I began to question the social constructions of womanhood as well as the hegemony within certain tracks of feminist thought that caused my discomfort with Nicki. What’s more, I realized that I wasn’t cool with Nicki speaking so openly about her body and sexuality not because it constituted a violation of my feminism, but because the norms of our patriarchal society dictate that women ought not to openly express their sexuality – and I had internalized those norms. Why shouldn’t I be okay with Nicki’s language? The way she dresses? The ideologies she espouses? Considering these questions and others has brought me to the conclusion that ultimately, no one is forcing Nicki Minaj to dress and act like a coquettish Barbie. Everything she does is of her own volition, and she is not submissive to patriarchy. Rather, Nicki takes patriarchal notions of femininity and womanhood, reclaims them, and makes them work for her. In doing so, she reverses the paradigm of female inferiority and submissiveness and creates a model of empowerment for those who look up to her.
As is the case with all hip hop artists, Nicki’s core fan base is comprised of youth. While I was once appalled by the idea that young people could be looking up to Nicki as a role model, my newfound respect for her has given me a different perspective. Nicki Minaj’s massive success and popularity presents us with a unique opportunity to rework our definition of a role model toward one that isn’t focused on what adults deem worthy of admiration, but rather is geared toward finding positivity and worth in what youth are drawn to. In other words, we ought to work toward meeting and validating youth where they are instead of sermonizing about where they ought to be.
Here are 6 reasons why Nicki Minaj provides a space for youth, specifically young women and queer youth, to feel represented in the overwhelmingly sexist and homophobic domain of hip hop: