by April Gregory, ’13
“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,” 2009) and “Maybe it’s time to put this pussy on your sideburns” (“BedRock,” 2009) 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 August 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 muthafuckin 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:
1) “I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing it for them:”
She’s a role model.
Declared by some to be “the most interesting, relevant female rapper in the last ten to fifteen years,” Nicki Minaj has achieved an astronomical level of fame. Last October, Nicki was on seven different singles in the Hot 100 at one time. But as a female artist in a male-dominated industry, Nicki remains acutely aware of the expectations that come with defying the odds. In the MTV-produced documentary My Time Now, which was filmed before the release of Pink Friday, Nicki emphasizes the pressure she feels as a result of her success:
“I don’t have anything else to fall back on. […] I’ve been told forever that you’re not gonna sell. No one’s gonna get you. Don’t sound too smart. You can only be a part of a crew. And I just know there are so many women who get told these things every day. I used to think this was all about me. But I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing it for them.”
By relating her personal struggle with transcending sexist attitudes to that of young women who are limited by and underestimated because of their gender, Nicki positions herself as a representative of these young women in the male-dominated hip hop world. “Why isn’t there a female rapper turned mogul?” she asks. Dissatisfied with the status quo and determined to prove all the haters wrong, Nicki declares, “I want to be the first woman to do it, and I will be.” Given the lack of female competition in the current hip hop climate, it appears that Nicki’s confidence is not at all unjustified. As she declares on “Itty Bitty Piggy” (2009), “I’m the baddest in the school, the baddest in the game; excuse me honey, but nobody’s in my lane.”
2) “It’s Barbie, bitch:”
She challenges Eurocentric beauty standards.
“I got a lot to say about Miss Barbie,” declares Alexis, a fifteen-year-old from East Palo Alto, when I ask her what she thinks of Nicki Minaj. I’ve known Alexis for almost two years now, long enough to know that she loves hip hop and doesn’t love “fake” people, especially not fake girls. So it came as no surprise to me that Miss Alexis has some issues with Miss Barbie. “Everything about her is fake,” Alexis continues. “I mean, her personality is cool, but then again, she’s phony. She thinks she’s all that, she’s self-centered. She’s just so fake! Fake hair, fake boobs, fake butt. I mean, how she be callin’ herself Barbie, it’s like, sorry, you’re not a Barbie, no one in this world is a Barbie!” Alexis raises a valid point: if Nicki is really all about female empowerment, then why is she performing an identity that has been oppressing women, especially women of color, for decades?
However, where Alexis and others may see fakeness, I see a clever subversion of Eurocentric standards of beauty. Adopting a Barbie persona is not a new phenomenon among female MCs (see Lil Kim’s “How Many Licks”), but the way in which Nicki has so thoroughly crafted her Barbie image is unprecedented. Nicki doesn’t just act like a Barbie in her performances and in her songs – she also claims to be Barbie through one of her many alter egos. The Barbie motif is carried through every aspect of her performance identity: the cover art for the aptly named Pink Friday features an armless Nicki staring quizzically at the camera, with her digitally altered, plastic-looking legs sprawling before her.
Yet there are key differences between the blonde, vacuous, dysmorphic Barbie I played with as a little girl and Nicki Minaj. In terms of physical appearance, her body itself is far from Barbie-like – Nicki proudly describes herself as “thick,” an attribute that Eurocentric standards of beauty deem undesirable. In addition, the fact that Nicki is a black woman also stands in opposition to Barbie’s Anglo features that essentially define white beauty ideals. Furthermore, Nicki’s “bad bitch” attitude is directly opposed to the notions of passivity and powerlessness represented by the one-dimensional, Ken-dependent Barbie. Nicki’s overall self-presentation it thus nowhere near that of the traditional Barbie archetype. It is this incongruence between Nicki’s Barbie and the Barbie I played with as a child that results in a subversion of Eurocentric standards of beauty. Nicki reinterprets and reclaims Barbie, and in doing so, empowers young women who, like Alexis, know that “no one in this world is a Barbie.” In other words, Nicki provides an alternative mode of being Barbie, one in which female deference and Eurocentric standards of beauty are firmly rejected. “It’s Barbie, bitch, you can join the wave” (“Roger That,” 2010).
3) “Roman! You’ve gone mad, mad, I tell you, mad!”:
She empowers queer youth.
The foil to Nicki’s Barbie is Roman Zolanski, an alter ego that, though less frequently channeled than Barbie, has become an infamous trademark of Nicki’s unconventional, almost schizophrenic rapping style. According to Nicki, “Roman is a crazy boy who lives in me. He says the things that I don’t want to say… People have conjured him up, now he won’t leave.” Because Nicki defers to a male alter ego in order to say the things she feels she cannot, it may appear that Roman is a recursive figure. His function – granting Nicki the ability to make some rather fiery statements – could be interpreted as recreating patriarchal norms of female submission to and dependence on male power.
“Roman’s Revenge,” which is arguably one of Nicki’s most confrontational and hostile songs, is a prime example of the way Nicki uses Roman to say things she would not ordinarily. However, Nicki revealed in an interview on Lopez Tonight that Roman is “a gay boy,” which greatly complicates the purpose he serves. I argue that Nicki’s dependence on an imagined queer youth to “say what [she] can’t say” empowers actual queer youth and places them in a position of authority. Given the marginalized status of LGBT youth in society, Nicki’s use of a young homosexual alter ego as a vehicle for honest expression serves a counterhegemonic purpose. Nicki, through Roman, reverses the traditional power structure in which heterosexual norms prevail. Consequently, she challenges heteronormativity by portraying queer youth as authoritative rather than marginal and provides a model of empowerment for these youth.
4) “I am not Jasmine, I am Aladdin:”
She promotes gender equality.
As illustrated by her Barbie and Roman alter egos, Nicki Minaj’s hip hop persona takes on both female and male characteristics. One of Nicki’s most common lyrical tropes is ascribing masculine identities to herself in favor of traditionally female characteristics. Consequently, she challenges hegemonic notions of gender and power by endowing herself with the privilege that men are granted by virtue of being male in a patriarchal society.
However, Nicki didn’t always subscribe to the feminist agenda she currently maintains. Nicki, who was discovered by Dwayne “Lil Wayne” Carter, used to present herself as “Nicki Lewinsky” to Wayne’s “President Carter.” She has since largely abandoned that persona and today positions herself as an equal to the male artists who dominate hip hop. In reference to the line “I am not Jasmine, I am Aladdin” from “Roman’s Revenge” (2010), Nicki explains,
“I have the same power as these boys…I have the same magic carpet. There’s nothing different between me and them except they have a twig and berries, and I don’t. I no longer feel lesser than; I don’t want my girls to feel that way. I want them to feel that, even if you have a nine-to-five, if you grow up to be vice president of the company, you should earn the same thing the male vice president earned. You should demand the same thing.”
Again, Nicki connects her own sense of female power to her young female audience and consequently creates a model of empowerment for them. It is thus evident that Nicki’s navigation of both male and female spaces is, at least in part, meant to encourage young women who might otherwise feel marginalized by their gender to “demand the same thing” as their male counterparts. Given the massive popularity of Nicki Minaj amongst a diverse array of hip hop fans, her feminist agenda has the potential to permanently alter the male-dominated fabric of hip hop and create a new space where women are perceived as equals rather than objects.
5) “I never let a D-boy boink for free:”
The models of empowerment Nicki Minaj creates for young women and queer youth come together in the way she portrays her sexuality. While her provocative rhymes and less than modest manner of dress could be interpreted as an appeal to the sexual desires of heterosexual men, a closer look at her lyrics reveals that Nicki is in total control of her sexuality and never surrenders her sexual agency. For one, Nicki’s more recent lyrical content is fairly ambivalent toward sex. On “Monster” (2010) Nicki recognizes that her sex appeal causes men to be “so one track-minded,” but in reality, she “don’t give an F-U-C-K” about them.
When Nicki does decide to talk sex, she does so in a way that never places her a subordinate position. She’ll “never let a D-boy boink for free,” and when she does “boink,” it is her partner who will be left at Nicki’s beckon call: “He say, ‘Nicki don’t stop, you the bestest!’ / And I just be comin’ off the top, asbestos.” In this way, Nicki further expands her model of empowerment into the realm of sexuality by asserting that women have as much, if not more, sexual power than men.
Furthermore, while Nicki does not openly identify as queer, her lyrics indicate a sense of the fluidity of sexual orientation, which can be viewed as contributing to her empowerment of queer youth. For instance, in “Monster” (2010) Nicki coyly propositions Kanye and his former girlfriend, Amber Rose: “Besides ‘Ye, they can’t stand besides me / I think me, you, and Am should ménage (Minaj) Friday.” In Usher’s “Lil Freak” (2010), Nicki devotes an entire verse to her fluid sexuality:
Excuse me little mama but you could say I’m on duty
I’m lookin’ for a cutie, a real big ol’ ghetto booty
I really like your kitty cat and if you let me touch her
I know you’re not a bluffer, I’ll take you to go see Usher
I keep a couple hoes, like Santa I keep a vixen
Got that Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Dixon, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen
I’m hotter than a hundred degrees
A lot of bread, no sesame seeds
If I’m in your city I’m signin’ them tiggobitties
I’m plottin’ on how I can take Cassie away from Diddy
Girls wanna ménage (Minaj)
Yeah they wetter than rainin’
Usher, boost me in – everybody loves Raymond!
The fact that Nicki even acknowledges homosexuality in her rhymes is a source of empowerment for queer youth given the overwhelmingly homophobic discourse in hip hop. While some may argue that Nicki’s references to sexual encounters with women are merely an appeal to heterosexual male fantasies – especially within the context of a ménage e trois – it is important to keep in mind that, as is the case with her references to heterosexual encounters, Nicki maintains agency and control. She does not express her desire for women at the behest of or in order to please men. Nicki therefore challenges both the conventions of heteronormativity, by engaging a fluid sense of sexuality, and patriarchy, by portraying herself as sexually dominant. As a result, she promotes a view of sexuality that empowers queer and/or female youth through its endorsement of what patriarchal, hegemonic notions of sexuality deem marginal or deviant.
6) “I’m a bad bitch:”
She “flips the script” on sexist language.
Like all rap artists, Nicki Minaj is not without (abundant) contradiction. One of the most difficult to reconcile aspects of her hip hop persona is her use of misogynist language. Nicki frequently refers to herself as “a bad bitch” and even goes so far as to call herself a “cunt” in “Roman’s Revenge” (2010) – the very same song in which she spits that dope line of female empowerment, “I am not Jasmine, I am Aladdin.”
Nicki is in the business of reclamation, and accordingly, she is reclaiming “bitch.” In My Time Now, Nicki expresses her dissatisfaction with the current state of the word. “When I am assertive, I’m a bitch,” Nicki observes. “When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. He’s bossed up. No negative connotation behind ‘bossed up’ but lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch.” Nicki seeks to shift that negative connotation to positive by using “bitch” in empowering contexts and reclaiming it as the female equivalent of the male “boss.” Hence, when Nicki chants “I’m a bad bitch, I’m a I’m a bad bitch” at the end of “Itty Bitty Piggy” (2009), she is reaffirming her power and prowess as a female MC and subverting established, misogynistic notions of the term “bitch.”
Through her reclamation of misogynistic language, Nicki encourages young women to “flip the script” on such language, take ownership of it, and reverse its oppressive connotations. While we might not want to encourage girls to refer themselves as bitches on the regular, the idea of depriving sexist language of its power is valuable regardless of what a young woman wants to call herself.
“Excuse me, honey, but nobody’s in my lane:”
Some Final Thoughts
It’s easy to, as I once did, dismiss Nicki as “fake” and antifeminist or to view her eccentricities as ploys for fame and attention. But in doing so, we alienate the youth who love her, especially those who are arguably the most marginalized in hip hop – female and queer youth. Consequently, failing to see past a one-dimensional characterization of Nicki Minaj is counterproductive to the broader task of making hip hop a safer space for the queer community and women. The reality is that there is no one like Nicki in mainstream hip hop right now, and therefore there are no other voices of female and queer empowerment quite like hers on the airwaves. Let’s challenge ourselves to embrace the bedazzled corsets and bright pink lipstick and consider how Miss Barbie is redefining the female MC in new and empowering ways.
April Gregory is a junior majoring in American Studies. If you give her a bullhorn, she will yell into it about things she believes in. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.