Since the release of her fourth studio album Queen earlier this month, Nicki Minaj has been in the news daily—fans, onlookers and haters all experiencing a level of exposure outside of where Nicki or most celebrities go. In the album’s first week, Nicki disputed Billboard numbers that placed her album second after Travis Scott’s Astroworld, claiming Scott bundled his album with merchandise and enjoyed the benefit of being promoted by his partner, Kylie Jenner. She also engaged in a back and forth on Twitter with her ex Safaree Samuels, who continues to enjoy a legitimate career in her shadow. Unfortunately, Safaree’s serious domestic allegations against Nicki were downplayed during this exchange.
During all stages of this, Nicki has been characterized as having a meltdown, unable to control her emotions, irrational and loud—qualities easily ascribed to Black women generally, celebrity or not. This narrative is not new. Nicki Minaj is a rapper—and a public figure who has never claimed to be perfect. However, she’s often simply held to different standard.
Love, cite, and believe Black women are popular things for people to say and hashtag on Twitter these days, but what can we make of it? The yardstick with which Black women in the public eye are measured remains highly unrealistic, reliant on stereotypes and steeped in racism and sexism. Even when people feel they are being complimentary, presenting us with respectable and acceptable Black women to aspire to, ranging from Michelle Obama to Beyoncé, it’s narrowly insulting and unrealistic. Black women deserve layers and nuance—that includes not having to be perfect. In fact, terms like #Blackgirlmagic and #Blackexcellence, while designed to uplift Black people, can also undercut our layered humanity.
The stereotype of the angry Black woman is alive and well—while white women continue to face sexism, the gendered racial stereotypes Black women deal with are attempts to simultaneously silence us and downplay the significance of our words. Ironically, Black women have many reasons to be angry, but are punished the most for expressing many emotions, including anger. In the case of Nicki Minaj, DJs, bloggers, and writers online usually have a single response to this particular Black artist saying things that make them uncomfortable: she’s angry.
Writers have pointed to her intimate relationship with her fans, the Barbz, labelling them as an unhinged extension of the “yes” people she allegedly surrounds herself with. Like other pop stars’ devoted fan bases, the Barbz take it upon themselves to insult and belittle people they feel are hating on Nicki. Carrie Battan wrote about Nicki’s fanbase for the New Yorker, claiming, “While many popular musicians have stepped away from social media—cultivating a strategic distance—Minaj has leaned into it, often to her detriment.” Without evidence, Battan claims that this issue will ultimately hurt Nicki’s career. When it comes to Black women, we don’t have to wait for the detriment—it appears to just exist around us.
But male rappers aren’t just expected to beef and be rivals with their peers, their success is often reliant on it. Despite ignorant but popular notions that rap beef is simply about violence, battle rap and rappers as rivals has been foundational to hip hop since its inception. Even commercial rap artists have shown us that beef is profitable. In 2007, 50 Cent and Kanye West commodified the concurrent releases of their respective albums Curtis and Graduation, with Kanye pushing his date back to generate press over the competition. This time is remembered as legendary, while it is arguably merely two men publicly fighting over the sales of their albums. The two even appeared together at the MTV Video Music Awards and the cover of Rolling Stone, both depicting them as them fighting for the number one spot. Today we are expected to have a collective memory that praises men for things women are punished for. Nicki is seen as a sore loser for uttering a word about her unit sales because people didn’t like how she framed it.
But many things Nicki does are understood as a feud. When an Extra reporter interviewed 50 Cent recently, she characterized Nicki’s track “Barbie Dreams,” as “not very nice” and oddly asked if it is “going in the wrong direction.” 50 Cent had to explain the cleverness of Nicki’s reverse perspective and inspiration from his track “How to Rob” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Dreams.”
When we are determined to disbelieve Black women at every turn, calling them liars seems rational. It’s almost as if Black women aren’t allowed to assert things about themselves, or simply be wrong. For example, Nicki has claimed to both uplift women, and not bite her tongue when it comes to critiquing other women in the rap game. This discrepancy is clearly too much for people to understand, as if she is not allowed to do both. When Nicki recently claimed that she has spent time paying homage and praising women in rap, she alluded that people routinely forget this. Some believe many of the things she says are untrue and she’s only interested in her own success and wants to talk only about herself. But what if a Black woman is talking about herself? What if we could imagine a world where an arrogant Black woman is the standard, in or even outside of rap?
Men constantly tell us what they’re going to do and they often don’t even bother pretending to be talking about something else. When Kanye West espouses theories and offensive assertions about many subjects—including his opinion on Black people—he connects it back to himself. Recently, the Pusha T and Drake beef was so legitimate and interesting that it dominated the news and pop culture cycle. A hip-hop purist would at least see both artists’ grievances objectively—and Nicki never gets that.
Nicki Minaj is not only expected to be supportive of other female rappers (which she has both done and refused to do throughout her decade-long mainstream career), but popular culture has dubiously dubbed empowerment as the theme of female rap. On empowerment, we don’t require male rappers to be empowering to each other at all.
It’s clear that in many ways, rap was built to exclude women—and Nicki Minaj is the most successful example.
Follow Melayna Williams on Twitter.
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