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Dinh Work Sample #1 Ethnic Studies

Nicki Minaj: Rapper. Performer. Feminist?

In the second half of this course, we have examined various ways in which women

participate in hip-hop, both as a form of cultural expression and as performers in the music
industry. Nicki Minaj is a polarizing artist: some critics find her offensive and believe she
reinforces harmful stereotypes about black women while others argue that Minaj promotes
a crucial counter-narrative that simultaneously manipulates and rejects the male gaze. This
essay is going to examine the ways in which mainstream media portray and police Nicki
Minaj as a performer and a woman of color, as well as how she is refusing to conform to
respectability politics in her music, feminism, and personas.
Nicki Minaj, or Onika Tanya Maraj, is a rapper of Indian and Afro-Trinidadian
heritage, who emigrated from Jamaica and was raised in Queens, New York.1 She is known
for her distinctive, fast-flow rapping and various idiosyncratic, vibrant alter egos. At first
glance, it is easy to dismiss Nicki Minaj as a formulaic, artificially colorful, hyper-sexualized
rapper, or Young Money Entertainments token female artist who lacks self-determination
in a male-dominated terrain. Granted, Minajs videos definitely lend themselves to this
common assessment, as their centerpiece is primarily the rappers surgery-induced
hourglass figure in revealing outfits and sexual poses. Minaj abundantly raps about her
sexual escapades and openly brags about her promiscuity; for instance, titles such as
Freaky Girl and Sex in Crazy Places speak for themselves. Currently, Minajs widely
consumed persona is an unapologetically foul-mouthed, abrasively sexual being who is
unafraid of controversy and embraces being a sexual deviant. Similarly to precedent female
rappers such as Lil Kim and Sugas exploits of sexuality, Minajs socially deviant demeanor
prompts numerous critiques, most of which concern how she is perpetuating the Jezebel

Tran Dinh Work Sample #1 Ethnic Studies

stereotype and, consequently, misogyny in our culture.2 In other words: undomesticated,
perverse sexuality is detrimental to feminist credibility. This argument brings to question
the politics of respectability, both in mainstream white feminism discourse and within
black communities. Creative imagination is colonized, as are beauty standards and the
entertainment industry; therefore, Nicki Minajs performance as an artist is both built upon
these imperialistic markers of heteronormative profitability and is a reclamation of female
sexuality that transgress socially acceptable boundaries of self-realization.3 Her songs
include a variety of female desires in relation to materialism and sex. Particularly, she raps
about using men for material spoils in Anaconda, enjoying sex with both men and women
in Freaky Girl and Lil Freak, and tantalizing them in High School, while also clearly
differentiating sexual appeal from consent in saying, I dont want sex, give a fuck about
your ex in Lookin Ass. In doing this, Minaj centers a self-determined female desire in her
music, as opposed to deriving female sexual power from the male desire.3
Self-determination, however, is not what the general public associates with Nicki
Minaj. The media are influential in disseminating ideologies in relation to portrayals of
underrepresented populations. In viewing various interviews and self-published content
on social networks, Nicki Minaj is undoubtedly socially conscious. Specifically, she has
shown appreciation for a young fan, Miyah, who was battling cancer by meeting and giving
her a Minaj pink wig.5 In a HOT 97 interview, she demonstrated a refreshingly matter-of-
fact acceptance of transgender politics and challenged socially constructed gender binaries
by saying Im a girl with a vagina, unfazed by one interviewers confused retort, As
opposed to a girl without a vagina?6 Moreover, Minaj often speaks about the challenges
she faces as a woman of color in a patriarchal industry and culture, for instance, in the same

Tran Dinh Work Sample #1 Ethnic Studies

HOT 97 interview and on Ellen DeGeneres show. 6,7 Throughout these instances, Minaj did
not use academic terminologies or ethnic studies jargons to contextualize her experiences,
though that does not invalidate her insight. However, she possesses a political
understanding and awareness of her gendered, racialized experiences as part of hegemonic
socio-political structures. The bulk of criticisms directed at Minaj are rooted in
respectability politics and patriarchal marquees of true womanhood. By prescribing the
cult of domesticity to black women and women of color at large, these critiques are
fortifying white supremacy, misattributing blame onto women like Minaj for a stereotype
that was invented by white men to subjugate black womens sexual autonomy and identity.
Through assessing the commentary surrounding Nicki Minajs persona, it is impossible for
women n the contemporary society to embrace her body, explore sexual identity, and
desire freely from the rigorous policing and traditionalist validation of her personhood.
The backlash against Minajs positioning as an influential cultural-political figure on the
basis of her deviant social demeanor is reflective of the pattern of subjugation of women of
colors intellectual thought.
Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that Nicki Minaj is not the perfect
stature of feminism and progressive thought. Unarguably, she has made problematic
choices and statements that reinforces oppressive systems such as hetero-patriarchy by
slut shaming in songs such as Stupid Hoe and Superbass and perpetuating the gold
digger stereotype of black women in her hyper-materialistic lyrics. Minaj also appropriates
various aspects of Asian culture, particularly, Japanese Harajuku culture by having a
Harajuku alter ego, the Kimono in her Your Love video, and a tattoo that is consisted of
Chinese characters. In an interview, Nicki Minaj said, in order to step your pussy up, it

Tran Dinh Work Sample #1 Ethnic Studies

means keeping it exclusive when asked about her sex appeal in relation to working with
male rappers.4 This statement highlights the division between Minajs persona as an
entertainer and her personal choices in real life. Here, Minaj is engaging in a mainstream
feminist narrative that qualifies female sexual promiscuity as antithetical to respectability,
which contradicts the vulgar, unapologetic, sex positive messages in her music. In her
article, Imani Perry states, all of us, regardless of how committed we are to social justice
and critical thinking, remain conflicted beings.3 In acknowledging the conflict between our
desires and ideologies, it is understandable how most artists also display contradictory,
sometimes problematic, messages in their music, given the existing hegemonic social
structures with deeply ingrained and normalized oppressive dynamics. This section,
however, is not attempting to excuse Minajs problematic statements but is aiming to
contextualize them. By recognizing an artists shortcomings and the resulting socio-
political implications, I hope to critique Minaj, her strengths and flaws, rather than single-
mindedly idolizing her as a feminist iconoclast.
In conclusion, Nicki Minajs non-normative and expressions of sexual deviance have
clashed with contemporary politics of respectability, rendering her pro-woman, sex
positive messages obstructive to the attainment of equality in national discourse. Given a
history of subjugation of women of color, their sexuality, and intellectual ventures, Nicki
Minajs persona and presence challenge the status quo, and need to be analyzed with
nuance. As a performer, Minaj is both progressive and problematic, and it is important to
pay attention to the negatives as much as her empowering counter-narratives.

Tran Dinh Work Sample #1 Ethnic Studies


[3] The Venus Hip Hop and the Pink Ghetto Imani Perry

[6] (25:00 mark)