“RIGHT THRU ME:“AUTHENTICITY, PERFORMANCE, AND THE NICKI MINAJ HATE
By Javon Johnson | With thanks to NewBlackMan
Thursday, November 03, 2011.
I began teaching at the University of Southern California in fall 2010 as the Visions and Voices Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow. Among others, one of my duties as Postdoc is to teach African American Popular Culture. One of the biggest difficulties with teaching a course such as this is the seemingly impossible task of trying to get my students to move beyond simply labeling aspects of Black pop culture as good or bad – that is, getting them to unearth and critically discuss the political, social, economic, and historical stakes in Black film, music, theater, dance, literature and other forms of Black popular culture.
I struggled mightily with getting them to see how a Black artist or sports figure could simultaneously be good and bad and how those labels, even when collapsed, do little to explain how violent rap lyrics are used as justification for unfair policing practices in Black communities, how literature and music is often used as a means for many Black people to enter into a political arena that historically denied us access, or even how Black popular culture illustrates that the U.S., since pre-Civil War chattel slavery, has had, and will continue to have, a perverse preoccupation with Black bodies.
My class is not the only group of people who have trouble moving beyond the ever-limiting dualities of good and bad. Like my students who could not wait to tell me all of the reasons they feel Nicki Minaj is a bad artist, icon, and even person, many Black people that I speak with are quick to throw the Harajuku Barbie under the bus on account that, as one of my students put it, “She makes [Black women] look bad, like all we are good for is ass, hips, and partying.” Fellow rappers such as Lil Mama and Pepa have commented on Nicki’s over-the-top dress up and character voices, with Kid Sister asking, “do people take her seriously?” What is most troubling about comments such as these is how reductive they are, how readily they dismiss Black women’s identity possibilities, in that anyone who dresses and talks like Nicki must be selling out and doing a disservice to real hip-hop, real Black people, and real women.
The politics of selling out aside, I am deeply troubled with how we read Lady Gaga as a brilliant postmodern pop artist and Nicki as little more than a fake who plays dress up for cash. What does that say about our understandings of Black women as related to the politics of respectability? Nicki disserves applause for carving out a space in an overly male dominated rap world, and, as she did in a recent Vibe.com interview, she often uses that space to tell women and girls they “are beautiful…sexy…[and powerful because] they need to be told that.”
Mixing the zaniness of ODB and Busta Rhymes with lyrical prowess of Lil Wayne and the creativity of Lil Kim and Andre 3000, all wrapped in a Strangé Grace Jones bow, the fact that Nicki can tell all the men in rap, or perhaps the world for that matter, “you can be the king or watch the queen conquer,” that is – join me or be destroyed by me, highlights the strength and boldness she possesses.
More than her ability to dominate a male driven hip-hop community or the lines promoting women’s empowerment throughout her work, it is her playfulness, coupled with her perceived sexuality and gender identity that causes the most panic. It is our inability to define and pin down Nicki’s identities that scare us most. Her voices and dress up lead many to question not only if Nicki is “real,” that indefinable quality that permeates every fiber of hip-hop, but also for some to question her sexuality.
In a hip-hop world where the most valuable currency is authenticity, the anxiety, or hate for that matter, Nicki causes stem mostly from the fact that she puts front stage all the things most rappers hide behind the curtains. Her entire persona, which relies on a healthy amount of theatricality, exposes how the real is as constructed as the reel, which makes her performance shattering because too many of us invest a lot in the idea that hip-hop is undeniable and unapologetic truth.
In this way, it is my larger contention that we are reading Nicki Minaj all wrong. Rather than figuring her characters, voices, and costumes as faking, I propose that we read it as making, as a performance of multiple reals that exist on the same body. And, it is quite precisely her Barbie like plasticity, her ability to mold herself into the woman she needs to be at any given moment, which is most amazing. Nicki’s malleability, her ability to be such a monster and such a lady in the same verse, complicates our understanding of identity performances to account for the ways in which people can be dynamic, complex, contradictory, and fractured beings all at once.
Whether it is Onika Tanya Miraj, Nicki Minaj, Roman Zolanski, or any of her other alter egos, Nicki plays with identity in ways that would make any scholar of performance proud. And, how real and, more important, brilliant is it for someone who studied theater to use characters in their career in entertainment? Nicki’s vague and playful gender and sexuality performances stand as constant reminders that identity, never fixed, is always in flux. This is not to say that Nicki Minaj is unproblematic. Rather, her dynamic performances both on and off the hip-hop stage open up spaces for amazing queer and feminist possibilities and they are constant reminders how frequently archaic identity tropes fail in everyday life, and quite honestly we need to be reminded of that on a more regular basis.
I am not asking for the singular real Nicki, instead I welcome all of her. The ability to alter one’s identity as one wishes is powerful, after all, it is the stuff that makes up many superhero narratives. I wonder, however, when we will begin to see this potentially subversive possibility as less a hindrance and more of an ability.
Javon Johnson is currently the Visions & Voices Provost's Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern California, USA, where he teaches in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity. He earned his Ph.D. in Performance Studies, with a cognate in African American Studies and a certificate in Gender Studies, from Northwestern University. He is a back-to-back national poetry slam champion (2003 & 2004), has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, BET’s Lyric Café, and co-wrote a documentary titledCrossover, which aired on Showtime, in collaboration with the NBA and Nike. He has written for Our Weekly, Text & Performance Quarterly, and is currently working on his book, tentatively titled, Owning Blackness: Poetry Slams and the Making of Spoken Word Communities.