Nicki Minaj is one of the most fascinating figures in pop music today. Look no further than the most recent installment in the cult of Minaj—a T Magazine profile of the artist that affirms Minaj’s unparalleled ability to pose, dominate, and confound. The hip-hop maverick’s every word is a challenge; you get the distinct impression that not only is Minaj winning the game, she’s also in a constant process of re-writing the rules. In an industry where men have historically reigned supreme, Minaj is flipping the script—grabbing the world's attention with her dimples and wigs, and then dropping awe-inspiring tracks (think Barbie as boss-ass bitch). Minaj doesn’t deny her sexuality in order to play with the boys; instead, she proves how radical femininity can energize the playing field. Despite a string of high-profile relationships (most recently with rapper Meek Mill), Minaj is an artist first: “I can’t stop working, because it’s bigger than work to me. It’s having a purpose outside any man.”
Our current wave of hyper-commoditized, pop culture feminism is a well-documented trend. Ever since Beyoncé sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a rhetoric of female empowerment has become the norm. A cynical reading of Minaj's public image chalks up her calls for girl domination to a particularly on-point branding technique. But dismissing Minaj as a smart businesswoman just speaks to what she's already accomplished. So what if her politics are somewhat (or entirely?) mercenary—that just makes her a badder, smarter, bosser bitch.
Even if Minaj's life philosophies are little more than a direct response to a shifting market, her very existence as a successful black woman in hop-hop is more empowering than any pseudo-feminist maxim could ever be. More importantly, Minaj does not shy away from the responsibilities that her powerful identity thrusts upon her. The most talked about aspect of T Magazine’s profile is bound to be the intensity with which Minaj addresses Miley Cyrus, one of two white female musicians with whom she has spectacularly grappled this year. Both feuds centered around the MTV VMAs, an event that seems singularly unintelligible as a site of any real, substantive racial dialogue. So imagine everyone's surprise when Minaj managed to convert her lack of a Video of the Year nomination into a pulpit for discussing the music industry's blasé attitude toward black female excellence: “Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely rewarded for it.”
When Taylor Swift rebutted under the misguided belief that Minaj was calling her out, Nicki beautifully maneuvered an all-too-common scenario—a white woman talking over a black woman, and misinterpreting her political beliefs as a personal affront. The whole situation took an even more uncomfortable turn when Miley Cyrus, a white woman who wears dreadlocks and twerks, publicly criticized Minaj’s VMAs critique “because of the anger that came with it,” calling it “not very polite.” This highly charged back and forth came to a head at the awards ceremony, where Minaj addressed Cyrus as “This bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press”—even after MTV cut the rapper’s mic, the world could watch her mouth the words, “Don’t play with me, bitch.”
In the T Magazine piece, Minaj finishes up the vital work of taking Cyrus to task: “The fact that you feel upset about me speaking on something that affects black women makes me feel like you have some big balls. You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important? Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.”
Minaj is picking up where Azealia Banks left off, when Banks tweeted, “Black Culture is cool, but black issues sure aren't huh?” Banks was subtweeting Iggy Azalea, a white Australian rapper who has come under fire for her distinctly black, Southern sound (she’s also just straight problematic). The faces are different, but the concept is the same: How can we justify a culture where blackness is profitable on the radio, but deadly on the streets? How can we defend white artists who appropriate African-American sounds and styles, in light of all of the black musicians who have been robbed of their own five minutes of fame? If Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus want to steal African-American innovations, isn’t a working knowledge of structural racism and a commitment to hearing and amplifying black voices the least that they can do? Why are we cutting Nicki Minaj’s mic anyway—what are we so afraid of?
No wonder Minaj was so pissed off at the VMAs, when she “saw [Cyrus] just looking at me, with her face screwed up.” Nicki Minaj has bigger things to worry about than trifling white girls; she has music to record, products to sell, and a gospel to spread: that “thick black girls” are “sexy and fly, too.” Anyone who’s not behind her would be advised to get the hell out of her way.