Recently I had the pleasure of taking a helicopter ride over Boston. Apart from being super fun, the trip, riding high above my usual haunts, gave me a different perspective on the world I live in every day. In my normal existence, I do things you might do: I go to work, I get the items I need to eat and live, and I make an effort to get off the beaten path and enjoy nature.
What I saw from the air was that every livable space was designed, pre-planned. Every place where I could take a step had been planned and designed for the movement of humans and human activity. There was no “free” space, no place that I could go that someone else–a thousand some one else’s–hadn’t already gone. I experienced my day to day world as a place where I decided where I would go, but in fact, my space, like my activities are programmed and structured by any number of systems and institutions around me. What I experience as freedom is really just a very large maze designed to engage me in pro-social choices, like going to work, buying consumer goods, and contributing to the tax base.
It was with this fresh in my mind that I read an article about black women’s bodies by the fab Gail Dines. The article is a solid review of the “issue” of the black booty, placing hypersexual images of black women’s backsides in a historical context. But Gail reports that the push back to her article comes from third wave feminists– women who care deeply about women’s rights and who believe it is a woman’s choice to use her body freely in any way she chooses, including using it in hypersexual displays, pornography, commodification, etc. Women do have the right to express themselves as they see fit. But critical thinking requires that we examine the result of that expression–especially when done in public for money.
Can’t you just break out it of the chains of narrative and do what you like? Of course you can. You can do anything that you want. But while you are yelling, “Yolo!” and waving your shirt over your head–why not? you have the right to!–consider that if you do it in public–say, on camera–and you do it for money you have gone from just expressing your self to being a part of the massive chain of production that is media. And you don’t get to decide alone how people who see your tape will make sense of it. Mass media uses all kinds of visual and verbal codes to tell stories, frequently shuffling out old ideas from history dressed in new duds. Just like those paths I saw from the sky, we should understand that media messages travel along lines planned out before we were even here, referencing–and reinforcing– history, symbolic codes and dominant ideology.
When it comes to Nicki Minaj, or any other recording artist for that matter, we have to remember that “she” is not simply the human born as Onkia Maraj , she is the commodified, processed version of herself, created by a multi-pronged corporate team and packaged for mass consumption in order to make a profit. Sure Onika is some part of that construction, but she and hundreds of other pop stars are part of a very large system, one designed for the primary purpose to make cash.
The surest way for the pop industry to make money is to stick to the low-hanging fruit–sex, scandal, salaciousness. We are cheeky monkeys after all. When we see Nicki posing butt out, its not because her label said, “We want you to explore the deeper aspects of your sexuality in a way that gives voice to your womanhood.” They said, “Sex sells.”
Her displays are calculated business maneuvers designed not by Minaj alone but by a team, one which she herself has said is mostly male. In fact, when the initial cover for her latest single Anaconda was released many were shocked, and Minaj tweeted out that the cover art would be changed. Hmmm, just like when Kanye West leaked his Monster video–where Minaj guest-spit–only to add a disclaimer to it after everyone was shocked by the content. Artistic freedom? Nope, just a clever marketing strategy to drive eyeballs pre-release.
No doubt Nicki is an interesting artist and we can’t dismiss all of what she makes as sheer profiteering–but that Roman phase, tho, dismiss dismiss! She is not always bubble gum barbie, and love her or hate her she is engaging to watch and super creative. Beyond the mass marketed hits we occasionally glimpse other dimensions to the character Nicki Minaj, some unexpected, like this sweet video off her upcoming album The Pink Print with The Game.
Most of what we see from Minaj, though is hip-pop designed to reach a massive audience for maximum profit complete with wild outfits and an over the top persona. What makes her popular is her mashed up expression of contemporary cultural tropes–sex, barbie and bubble gum raps
Think of this horrible idea for comedy: Russell Simmons produced this sketch where Harriet Tubman agrees to sleep with master in trade for cash. Hey, it was just an humorous expression playing with the narrative of slavery and redefining it, right? Nah. The skit was roundly condemned, and even Hustle had to apologize.
Propagating idea that slaves had agency in their own oppression via mass media is tricky to say the least: even if you have the artistic right to play on old tropes, to do so for mass entertainment in a era still so rife with racism, keeping the old narrative alive in new clothes, is calculated profiteering at best and racist at worst.
Leaving slavery days behind, we can look at our own
post racial still racist world. Black women are free, have the vote, and are the fastest growing demo in college. Sounds pretty free right? The legacy of racial oppression in this country persists, despite the good news. Nickki Minaj is popular in part because she represents typical media representation of black women–hyper sexual, wild and unpredictable.
Few casual fans will even dig deep enough to find a more complex expressions of Nicki Minaj, leaving us simply with her most visible incarnation-a new era Jezebel. Even as she talks about her new natural look, she reveals the calculated way that she thinks about her image, and that her previous incarnations are not a reflection of her playing with power, but masking insecurities.
We black women are treading paths that have been set up in this country for centuries. Even as we choose new destinations, and walk with more power in our stride, we still live in a country rife with racial inequity. While many of us as individuals may have freed ourselves from slave mind, we live in a country where the image of blacks has been deeply carved in a fresco of oppression from slavery, through Jim Crow to our own modern, sublimated Jim Crow 2.0. We’re individuals and we live in a culture and are a part of democratic and capitalist systems at the same time. We can’t ignore the ways those levels constantly interact. While the power of the individual has primacy in our culture, taking the macro view to better understand the paths that we’re treading will allow us to move off the paths of the past and blaze a truly new future.