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Nicki Minaj's Retroactive Feminism

How the biggest female rapper stops just short of being the best feminist.
 
 
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Last month, Nicki Minaj was part of a dust-up that underscored how important the Queens-born rapper is to young women. At Hot 97's Summer Jam—arguably the most important arena concert in New York hip-hop—a white Hot 97 DJ by the name of Peter Rosenberg made some disparaging comments about her music while introducing another artist. "I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing 'Starships' later—I'm not talking to y'all right now. Fuck that bullshit. Bullshit. I'm here to talk about real hip-hop shit."

"Starships" is Minaj's latest number-one pop-techno hit, and to "real hip-hop" heads, Rosenberg was indicting the commercialization of rap. But to those of us who are "real hip-hop" heads, Nicki Minaj fans, and also "chicks" at the same time, Rosenberg's comments illustrated the gender divide in hip-hop that has made it so difficult for women rappers to ascend to the level of their male counterparts.

Minaj is the most famous female hip-hop artist of all time, boasting a string of Billboard top hits and mainstream magazine covers, a feat that took a good 10 years to achieve against the backdrop of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown holding court in the '90s, and having major career setbacks in the '00s. And sure, "Starships" is a pop-techno song, but Nicki Minaj is a top-notch rapper, at least as good as her label boss and NOLA superstar, Lil Wayne. That the song was cast as purely the provenance of women (by a white man, no less) helped make Minaj's legions of rabid fans worldwide (she calls them Barbz, feminizing both genders by nicknaming them after Barbie) even more loyal to her movement. She is vehement about being a positive role model in kind. She respects and encourages her fans as much as she can, and early on in her career, she toned down the sexuality of her image after realizing how many young women look up to her.

I adore Nicki Minaj. I love all of her music, "Starships" included. I wrote one of her first cover stories, I can rap along to her earliest mixtape cuts, I admire the way she carries herself with dignity yet never squelches her impulse for experimentation and drama. (Like that time she did a faux exorcism at the Grammys, to confused and mostly disdainful response.) After years of hoping for a powerful woman rapper to fill the void left in the mainstream by the fading of Fox and Kim, after years of false starts (Remy Ma) and fruitless hopes (Rasheeda!), it seemed that Minaj was the vision I'd been waiting for. Her Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape, with her take-no-shit attitude and totally unique, totally electrifying rap style, was like the heavens parting.

It's hard to overstate this. Imagine ANY other genre lacking ANY women popular in the mainstream for at least five years. It hasn't happened elsewhere, so for feminists and rap fans, her arrival gave us hope. And indeed, her popularity has opened doors for other women rappers in the mainstream—witness the rising star of young Harlem spitfire Azealia Banks, for one. But there's one thing about Minaj that stops just short of making her my rap life savior. And that's how her brand of feminism is retro '90s—and how she's been set up by the male-centric structure of hip-hop to define herself by dissing other women.

Brags and disses are inherent to the culture of hip-hop—part of defining one's self is by showing how flamboyantly you can cut down someone else—and Nicki Minaj as a spitter is not exempt from this tradition. But the feminist inside me wishes this was not the case, beginning with her feud with Lil Kim during the release of Pink Friday, after Kim accused her of stealing her style. (Prior, Minaj properly genuflected at the throne of Kim.) A few unfortunate barbs back, and the first single from Minaj's second album, Roman Reloaded, is "Stupid Hoe," a Kim dis that is sonically adventurous, lyrically amazing ("You can suck my diznik, if you take this jizz-is,You don't like them disses, give my ass some kisses"), and then verbatim calls her adversaries "Nappy headed hoes."

Yes, as in Don Imus. It's hard to hear that kind of dis from an African American woman who, like so many black pop stars, is prone to a platinum blonde hairdo, and undermines those times she does support other women (usually fans and her peers, like Katy Perry and Lauryn Hill). At the end of the song, she declaims that she is the "female Weezy" (Lil Wayne), which hopefully means that Lil Wayne is the male Nicki Minaj, but also is disappointing in that you wish she'd define herself against herself, not against a man. And while she calls herself a "boss bitch," reclaiming the concept of the b-word that's been so prevalent in certain male rap tracks, at Summer Jam she made it clear who she really considers the boss. After Peter Rosenberg dissed her, Lil Wayne made the executive decision that she would not perform at the concert in her headlining spot. Though she could have appeared and clowned him back in front of tens of thousands of people, in the spectacularly saucy way only she can, she conceded to her label boss' wishes. Wayne made the choice for her. It was disappointing.

And yet, she's so close! Minaj truly can be a wonderful role model in the way she encourages embodying your own destiny. But this interview on Nightline, in which she forgoes naming herself a "feminist" in lieu of "girl power," brought to light exactly what her feminism is about: the 1990s.

If you'll recall, in the '90s, the term "girl power" was invoked by the Spice Girls and other corporate entities to neuter the explicit feminism inherent in other music of the day—the in-your-face woman power of Yo Yo, the subversive energy of Bikini Kill, as two examples. "Girl power" feminism ushered in a convoluted feminism that gave birth to sentiments like "I am the female Weezy": sex positivity was often framed as "if men can be promiscuous, so can I"; throwback glamour to the '50s and '60s was framed as countercultural, rather than retroactive. Minaj's invocation of the term recalls that era. And while complex, complicated definitions of feminism are important to its progression—there is a point in which the water gets stale. We've heard it all before.

Meanwhile, fans of women rappers watch with dismay as the new crop repeats the male-centric cycle of dis-retort-repeat, rather than supporting one another. As Azealia Banks gets increasingly famous, her Southern counterpart, Tampa Bay's Dominique Young Unique, is throwing barbs her way, releasing diss tracks and having Twitter fights with the fellow 20-year-old. At this point, the good old-fashioned rap beef feels regressive, especially when we're finally getting over the drought of women receiving attention. With Minaj's lead, it would be kinda nice if, just once, all these awesome women would get together and do a "Ladies First 2012." Because we have a much bigger, much more deadly adversary to combat: patriarchy.

 
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