In April, when Nicki Minaj sat across from Zane Lowe for her first in-depth interview in years, I expected her to dazzle us with her usual collection of personas—the colorful Harajuku Barbie, or the vindictive Roman Zolanski, with her spot-on British accent. But when Lowe asked about “MotorSport,” and the backlash following Cardi B’s claim that Minaj changed her original verse, she was just Nicki.
“It hurt my feelings to know that people would watch me be slaughtered and not one person would step in to say the truth,” she told Lowe. “Can I have some water, please?”
Uh oh. Her voice was cracking. Was Nicki Minaj about to cry? She told her account of “MotorSport” through tears, claiming to have text messages from Quavo—whose song it was originally—that suggested she was in favor of Cardi’s addition to the record. Calls from Birdman and Lil Wayne lightened the tense anecdotes surrounding her relationship with Meek Mill, who was sentenced to two to four years in prison when they were dating. Throughout, she seemed oddly aware of her audience, describing the things they wouldn’t be able to see, like her sky-high bun and the man behind-the-scenes being inappropriate with her. It was the moment everybody realized that when it came to talking shit on the radio, Nicki was a natural.
In the months leading up to the August release of her new album Queen, the album’s rollout was bogged down by a controversial DM to a fan, an unlikely friendship with 6ix9ine, and an Elle interview where she denounced sex workers. There didn’t seem to be anything the rapper could say without eliciting extensive criticism. Her actions raised genuine questions around her career. What is Nicki Minaj doing? Could she be the Queen of Rap by positioning herself next to problematic men?
In August, Minaj discovered an antidote—a way to circumvent that criticism—in the form of her own radio show, named after the album she was promoting. There aren’t many people who can hold my attention for two hours, but I tuned in to Queen Radio religiously whenever it was on, which seemed to be whenever Nicki had news to share. When it was time to premiere her album in real time, she did it on-air. When she broke her silence after Cardi B allegedly flung a shoe in her direction during New York Fashion Week, she took to Queen Radio.
There wasn’t much structure in the beginning, with awkward moments of dead air quickly filled by impromptu freestyling. “They’re asking me to stall, so I gotta stall,” she rapped on the show’s second episode. At times, Queen Radio could even satisfy your ASMR cravings, as she spoke between smacks or sips of a beverage. Mostly though, she just shared what was on her mind, blasting her skeptics with “Cocksucker of the Day” awards and seeking sex advice from Lil Uzi Vert. She boasted about the show’s success, citing its performance as the most popular show on Beats 1 and the fact that the #QueenRadio hashtag was trending weekly on Twitter.
To the chagrin of some critics, prominent rappers have been eschewing mainstream media in favor of starting their own radio shows—and Minaj is just the latest in a long line of artists to do so. Joe Budden’s self-titled podcast, Noreaga’s Drink Champs, Frank Ocean’s Blonded show, and Drake’s OVO Sound don’t just speak to the continued relevance of an antiquated format, one that reaches 93 percent of black audiences weekly, according to a 2017 Nielsen study. They’re a place for where hip-hop artists can tell their own stories, unencumbered by the narratives music media imposes on them. By fostering a space for peer-driven conversations, they represent a continuation of the oral tradition in the black community.
Black history and black oratory are inextricably intertwined. During the crossing of the Middle Passage, slaves were separated by dialect as a form of isolation and forced to patch together their respective patois to create new languages. Their masters often used Christianity to justify their bondage, but slaves converted the scriptures they heard into Negro spirituals, using music to create their own interpretation of the Bible rather than the one that was imposed on them. The oral tradition of the black church persisted even after blacks were free, and anti-literacy campaigns created barriers against voting, property ownership, and civic participation. Church incubated the voices of the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, soundtracked by Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermonic speeches and the sweeping soul of Aretha Franklin.
An eleven-year-old Barack Obama watched Shirley Chisholm’s run for president in 1972, and six years later, in a landmark affirmative action case, the Supreme Court ruled that race could be a factor in college admissions, though schools couldn’t impose quotas. Still, the racial and social climate was largely unchanged. In Hip-Hop America, writer Nelson George describes the birth of hip-hop in that decade as “a product of post-civil rights era America.” Artists like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five fearlessly documented the other side of Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” an extension of Richard Nixon’s drug policy, and the blight it left on predominantly black neighborhoods. “Rats in the front room, roaches in the back / Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat,” Flash rapped on “The Message.”
“We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s former Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, said in a 2016 Harper’s interview. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Racialized policing created problems of substance abuse, gun violence, and mass incarceration within black communities. Created to cope with America’s dog-whistle politics, rap was, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D put it, the “black America’s CNN.” It was the community’s way of telling its own story in an era where other forms of black music, like jazz and country, had already been co-opted by a predominantly white industry. There was power in the voices of black orators and their cultural commentary.
The 70s was also a golden age for black radio. DJ Frankie Crocker, a Buffalo native, set the precedent for a radio format catering to black audiences when he coined the term “urban contemporary while working as a host for New York City’s WBLS-FM. Crocker’s wide-spanning programming championed jazz, soul, and R&B, though hip-hop was relegated to DJ Marly Marl’s Rap Attack after 9 PM, when it could be as raunchy and abrasive as it wanted to be. Nonetheless, it was a new era for black radio—and a giant step forward from its origins in the Civil Rights era, when it was used mainly to broadcast rallies and protests, often using its own code language to escape police surveillance. The identity of black radio relied on a “for us, by us” approach. How would new black artists break into the mainstream otherwise?
In 1992, Hot 97 rose as one of the country’s first rap-centric stations, nurturing the careers of up-and-coming New York artists Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, and JAY-Z. The station’s tagline was, “Where hip-hop lived”; to control the growing narrative surrounding it, hip-hop needed a permanent home (outside of the two-hour slot on WBLS) and for its gatekeepers to be people who interacted with rap daily. In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, former host Cipha Sounds, who worked for the station for 17 years, described its personnel as “hip-hop fanatics who somehow got on the radio, as opposed to going to college and studying broadcasting.” In the 25 years since it dedicated itself exclusively to hip-hop and R&B, Hot 97 has cultivated the voices of Angie Martinez, Wendy Williams, and Funkmaster Flex, who is the only original staffer still employed by the station.
Four days after the release of Queen, Flex conducted an 80-minute interview with Nicki Minaj that was more focused on ghostwriting allegations and ex-boyfriends than Nicki Minaj’s highly anticipated album. At one point, as he pried into her dating life, she even began to mouth, “I don’t want to talk about this.” The lengthy interview was a painful reminder that even with a 10-year career behind her, she could still be reduced to her proximity to the men around her. Securing her own platform—a place where she could call her friends and give them pep talks, where she could share her own songs and the stories behind them—seemed to be the only way she could chronicle her own perspective.
Queen Radio began innocently enough, with Minaj offering a breakdown of her creative process for the album. As the events of her life escalated—with Queen landing at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, beneath ASTROWORLD, and an almost-physical beef with Cardi B—so did her show. Each week, the show got more salacious, but the fourth episode solidified her voice as a radio personality, with Nicki adapting Charlamagne tha God’s Donkey of the Day series into her own questionably named version of the format, “Cocksucker of the Day.” But this was more than bizarre news items. These were personal grievances.
A day earlier, she’d taken to Twitter to take issue with Scott’s position at number one, suggesting that his bundle packages, which included a digital copy of the album and exclusive tour merch, skewed his numbers. Travis Scott earned himself the title “Hoe Nigga of the Week”; according to Minaj, he was “out here selling clothes instead of music.” In the midst of her back-and-forth with Travis Scott and Baby Stormi (Minaj thought Kylie Jenner was using their child and relationship to attract Scott’s tour sales), she managed to compare herself to Harriet Tubman. “Queen of the week may go to Harriet Tubman. Had she just sat there and ate her rice, you niggaz history would’ve been a lot less triumphant.” Anyone wondering what the hell Harriet Tubman and rice had to do with streaming numbers would have to tune in the next day to find out. “I bit my tongue last #QueenRadio but I won’t on Tuesday,” she tweeted.
Sure enough, on the next episode, she explained the comment by comparing her fight to accurately count streaming numbers to the abolitionists’ fight for liberation. “You think Harriet Tubman was walking around with a fucking nice shiny dress on with a fucking crown on her head when she was taking slaves...TO FREEDOM?!” She yelled “To freedom” in a motherly tone, punctuated by Funkmaster Flex’s signature bomb drops. “Queens don’t always look nice and polished. Being a queen has more to do with having balls...to do what you weak fucks won’t do,” she said on-air.
As a listener, you felt like you were in trouble. It seemed like Nicki Minaj finally lost her shit. Whether you enjoyed the theatrics of Queen Radio or were just hate-listening, the cardinal rule in rap is to hit the booth to air your grievances, and she was—just not in the way we expected. She may have been losing her shit, but at least she was telling her side of the story—even if it was petty at times.
Loving shows like Queen Radio is a weird space to be in as a journalist. On one hand, it sets a precedent that restricts the access trained journalists will receive. If an artist can create her own media outlet, why grant a publication an interview? But these spaces are important—especially for black women artists like Nicki, and especially now. Black women artists have never been strangers to being cast as who the media portrayed them to be, versus who they are. Nicki Minaj didn't have a perfect year, but her radio show will be a catalyst for more artists, specifically women, to have the loudest voice in the room. Now, shows like Queen Radio display their fight to forge their own path in real time.On-air, Nicki wasn’t preoccupied with her mistakes—and that’s freedom.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.