Stray Shots: Nicki Minaj's Gyration & Taylor Swift's Cultural Appropriation
This week, Nicki Minaj gives you all the booty you can't handle, and Taylor Swift finds herself in the crossfire after some ill-timed genre parodying.
Once upon a time in a universe far, far away, HipHopDX used to host blogs. Through Meka, Brillyance, Aliya Ewing and others, readers got unfiltered opinions on the most current topics in and beyond Hip Hop. After a few years, a couple redesigns and the collective vision of three different Editors-In-Chief, blogs are back. Sort of. Since our blog section went the way of two-way pagers and physical mixtapes, Twitter, Instagram and Ustream have further accelerated the pace of current events in Hip Hop. Rappers beef with each other 140 characters at a time, entire mixtapes (and their associated artwork) can be released via Instagram, and sometimes these events require a rapid reaction.
As such, we're reserving this space for a weekly reaction to Hip Hop's current events. Or whatever else we deem worthy. And the "we" in question is myself, Omar Burgess and Andre Grant. Collectively we serve as HipHopDX's Features Staff. Aside from tackling stray topics, we may invite artists and other personalities in Hip Hop to join the conversation. Without further delay, here are this week's “Stray Shots.”
Was Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” Video Worth The Wait/Weight?
Omar: Two music videos surfaced this week featuring varying degrees of rapping and women’s asses gyrating, and they both received completely different reactions. After nearly a month of preview artwork (and the Internet memes it spawned) and teaser clips, Nicki Minaj released the official video for her single “Anaconda.” As we’ve known for some time now, the video prominently featured Nicki Minaj’s backside and a repurposing of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 celebration (or objectification) of the non-traditional female form, “Baby Got Back.” When women voluntarily showcase their bodies, there’s often a debate on where the battle lines are drawn between empowerment and reclaiming their own sexuality versus willfully participating in being exploited by men. The fact that acclaimed director Diane Martel was behind Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video didn’t stop other women from leveling charges that the song—and by association the video—promoted rape culture. Like any man with a functioning brain, I won’t attempt to “mansplain” which side Nicki is on with “Anaconda.” But both by her own explanation, her subsequent Instagram posts about preconceived standards of beauty, and the choice to flip gender roles by casting her label-mate and friend without benefits Drake as a vixen, Nicki seems to have earned the approval of a large contingent of women who both were and were not previously her fans. There’s the appearance/hope of her being able to dictate the terms of her sexuality just as freely as any man, and in an age where the Internet has become a never-ending source of racist, sexist, classist commentary without any hint of nuance, that’s as close to a logical discourse as we can hope for. Whether she actually struck a mighty blow for feminism isn’t for me to decide, but I’m content to be titillated by the video and enjoy my iced tea.
Andre: Nicki Minaj just happened to release her sardonic, symbolic ode to women’s bodies as Taylor Swift brought forth her latest effort at explaining how uncomplicated she is in a world filled with ever-complex narratives. Both skyrocketed bright and deep in a direction, and depending on who you are, that direction is straight to heaven or headlong into hell. Let’s be clear, both are attempts at viewing the culture of the male gaze in often-conflated ways. For Nicki, the idea of womanhood is more feverish and menacing. Of course it is. She’s a black woman. She’s a rapper. She’s got the backside of a Kush goddess, and she’s grabbed the sword from the female Rap stone, and is brandishing it with surgical force. It’s a tale as old as time; here comes the irresistible force and there’s the immovable object. In Nicki’s case, she’s managed to dangle the carrot of her sexuality in such a way as to remove it from the conversation. For certain kinds of media there is such a thing as too much ass. For us, this is not a problem for as the patron saint of Hip Hop Andre 3000 hath said, “If models are made for modelin’/ thick girls are made for cuddlin’.” On that much we wholeheartedly agree.
We also agree that Nicki Minaj is the cleverest manipulator of imagery in the game right now. Our hyper-awareness of her sex appeal has created a peculiar duality in which Nicki holds all the cards. From her ingenious use of thirst trap photos on Instagram to her shifting song demos in which she uses the scantily clad Nicki as just one of her many personas, she’s figured out how to make fun of us for not being able to look past all that lovely. It’s brilliant. The entire video is a breeding ground for parody of the male-gaze. The coconut milk spilling out of it’s coffers, the spraying whip cream all over her chest, the teeny-tiny weights just smaller than her itsy-bitsy bikini and all of a sudden she’s wrapped up in a famous 2 Live Crew sample all the bullet points. She’s body positive (“fuck the skinny bitches”); she’s making fun of the Rap Victorians and the booty haters (“Oh my god, look at her butt); she’s taking all the sexual power (“He toss my salad like my name Romain”), and then at the end as she fondles a banana she destroys the phallic with a snip and glares into the camera. Then there’s the Drake dance and the video reaches the end of its mission. She destroys Drake with her sexual agency (the man is left holding his head in his hands), and it becomes a Kill Bill tale of revenge. But, that’s it. I’ve reached my limit. I can’t go any further without dipping into the “mansplain” subgenre Omar described above. But if it’s a fight you want, Nicki wins hands down, and those verses are damn good too. Don’t get distracted.
Does Taylor Swift Need Some Sensitivity Training?
Omar: Taylor Swift, having been thrust into yet another racially tinged Hip Hop debate (remember that little incident at the 2009 VMAs?) didn’t fare so well this week. During one of the many face-palm inducing moments in Swift’s new video “Shake It Off,” she climbs through a human gauntlet of mostly voluptuous, female dancers of color while seemingly in awe as they gyrate above her. To be fair, Swift also parodies ballet, interpretive dance, Lady Gaga and possibly the video to Robert Palmer’s 1985 hit “Addicted To Love.” But much like Christina Aguilera’s Lil’ Kim-assisted “Can’t Hold Us Down,” Miley Cyrus’ 2013 VMA performance of “Up All Night” or Katy Perry’s Geisha-inspired AMA performance of “Unconditionally,” there have been claims of something within the spectrum of bad decision making, cultural appropriation and reinforcing negative racial stereotypes. Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt was one of the most prominent, early critics of “Shake It Off,” and Swift has yet to respond to charges from the Internet’s court of public opinion. As Hip Hop fans, we generally don’t like the culture being parodied or appropriated by those perceived as outsiders. Things worsen when the appropriation borders upon disrespect. But pop culture at large has already enveloped a huge section of Hip Hop. And the general perception seemed to be that Swift or someone in her camp should have known better either through being a casual fan of Hip Hop or 20-plus years of being exposed to Hip Hop culture, even if only from the distance of the Billboard charts. Either way, two Pop videos with millions of respective views diverged in the Internet this week. They both poked fun at Pop and Rap tropes from music videos of decades past. And while there were messages of female empowerment (yes, even buried within corny-ass lines like, “haters gonna hate”) in both, one will probably be remembered as contributing something worthwhile to a nuanced debate about embracing various body types while providing masturbatory material. The other—purposely or not—will smack of cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity. But at least people are talking about these issues.
Andre: For Taylor, simplicity is always the sell. Here, she says, take my down home charm and allow me to make you better by trusting you. She’s like a Disney princess working at a drug rehab program. And her interpretation of the male-gaze-matrix is no different. It’s a system built on deflecting that gaze and leaving purity in it’s wake. That’s what black bodies are for. So one can lust and still feel new enough afterward to stand up when Taylor comes sauntering over to your table. Western culture is built on these assumptions so certain symbolism is tied earnestly to each other. But Taylor’s moved on from the other-than definitions that go over in the country crooner space. “She wears short shorts / I wear T-shirts,” isn’t enough to sell Pop records. You need something a little more tangible, and so it’s necessary to trot out these old-timey tropes. I don’t fault her for it. It’s the most banal thing in the entire universe and it speaks volumes that you don’t really see the faces of the women of color, but she’s not trying to make that kind of point. It’s really just the satisfaction of us, the Pop music listening public that she’s trying to satiate. For American music the appropriation of black women’s bodies are a staple; it’s apple pie, it’s rib dangling off the bone, it’s pizza at the Super Bowl.
Hip Hop’s reaction to it was equally as predictable. Earl Sweatshirt is clearly a complex and sensitive young emcee. So he knows these things are harmful and he said so. “Haven't watched the taylor swift video and I don't need to watch it to tell you that it's inherently offensive and ultimately harmful,” said the OFWGKTA vet. Think about that. This is the guy who dazzled us with feats of technical rapping while titillating by talking about being up in guts and having sluts to fuck and ups to chuck. To be fair, Taylor did this in the most least offensive way possible. She wasn’t running around with her dancers mummy wrapped into such exaggerated proportions that it reminded you of the hottentot venus a la Katy Perry, but, as Molly Lambert pointed out—her Vevo screenshot is her crawling underneath a bridge of gyrating bodies of color. What is she looking for under there? The perfect Pop song and she found it. These things have release dates that are chosen, but some crafty exec dropped this red flag knowing there were parallels to the gunning down of black male bodies happening all over the country because, well, symbolism doesn’t work the way it should if it isn’t tied to something in the conscious mind already. Has she also usurped Miley’s top five spot on the black appropriation list? Yup. And she’s done so while simultaneously giving suburban moms an alternative to reflexively buying their kids the music of the woman who twerked on Robin Thicke. Genius.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter@omarburgess.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant who's contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Senior Features Writer for HipHopDX. He's also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter@drejones.