Mainstream hip-hop is often admonished for its degradation of women and glorification of hyper-masculinity and violence. Referring to the music, bell hooks (1994) states that while these elements are present in hip-hop, critiques surrounding representation in this genre are largely ahistorical; the music does not arise out of a cultural vacuum – our society generally demeans women and praises hyper-masculinised, violent men.
Furthermore, power relations must also be taken into account when discussing representation in hip-hop. The majority of people who own recording studios are elite white men, and these men continue to support hip-hop artists (financially, of course) even as they produce “damaging” images. What does this tell us about the important role that the dominant class plays in enabling the mass-production of problematic images – images whose point of reference is a marginalized segment of society? Conflicts surrounding gender and politics are clearly evident in this form of popular culture, and analyzing them in relation to women’s representation in hip-hop can lead to meaningful insights on the limits of female subjectivity in contemporary culture.
I examine women’s representation in hip-hop from a race-conscious-feminist perspective because it prioritizes intersectionality. Race, gender, and class are all important to consider when examining women of colour’s lived experiences, especially necessary because it is these women (or a simulacra of) that we see in hip-hop. Although we risk essentializing when we perceive them as a group rather than individuals, hooks (1991) points out a good use for this practice in her discussion of pedagogy. As an example, even though encouraging identity politics in the classroom might silence input from classmates who cannot speak from the same locus of experience, it is the very experiences of marginalized groups that often results in challenges to hegemonic structures. Since marginalized “others” speak from outside of such structures, their perspective as a group should importantly be employed in the classroom. Similarly – and in spite of contemporary culture’s insistence that we are all simply individuals separate-and-apart from our group origins – I will be examining Nicki Minaj’s place in hip-hop keeping in mind the history of both anti-black racism as well as sexism. I start with her background.
Born in Trinidad, 32 year-old Minaj moved to Queens, New York at a young age. She offers inspiration for her many fans not only because of her creativity and talent, but also because of the many “places” from which she speaks. She is a young woman from a working class background, who has become successful in a male-dominated industry on the basis of her music. In a genre where women are usually relegated to the background, often scantily clad and posing beside expensive things such as cars, to hear and see a woman actually speaking in a video (rap-form) is an exciting change for hip-hop. Minaj’s image is often quite sexual, however, and even though she has an extremely curvaceous figure she commonly wears revealing clothing (think about the epitome of this – her newest music video “Anaconda”). It is at this point that her subjectivity might be put into question. Is she just a “video girl” who can rap, or an empowered woman just scantily clad? It is the blurred line that Minaj creates between subjectivity and objectivity that might be ripe for an advancement of “subjective hyper-sexuality”, and that is why she is an interesting subject for my analysis.
A hip-hop feminist framework is useful for understanding how Minaj can both represent a subjective, empowered woman while reproducing a hyper-sexualised image. As hip-hop feminists attest, her unique position as a female rapper gives her the ability to “speak” subjectively in a way that women without a platform cannot. In many of her songs Minaj speaks about her difficulties in trying to gain recognition as a female rapper in a male-dominated industry. In “I’m the best” (I’m the Best Lyrics, 2010) – off of her first album – she raps:
i ain’t gotta get a plaque, I ain’t gotta get awards/
i just walk up out the door all the girls will applaud/
all the girls will come in, as long as they understand/
that i’m fighting for the girls, that never thought they could win/
cause before they could begin you told ’em it was the end/
but I am here to reverse the curse that they live in/
to all my bad bitches, i can see your halo/
By bringing to light the overt (and obvious) discrimination women face when attempting to be successful in a male-dominated world, “voiced” through her music, she is engaging in the type of subjective act that Hill Collins (1989) attributes as central to black feminist thought. It is through self-definition that one is able to resist structures of domination that seek to define in relation to the hegemonic ideal.
These few paragraphs are excerpts from an essay that I wrote discussing Minaj’s contradictory position in hip-hop as a woman who is openly sexual yet speaks subjectively. Hence, the term that I have coined called “hyper-sexual subjectivity”. The idea is this: it is possible, I argue, to hold these contradictory roles (at least as far as feminism is concerned), but also problematic. Problematic because such posturing does not result in societal liberation for women because it serves to reinforce the musings of the dominant class (men) that perceive women only as sexual objects. Such sexual objectification of black women also has a long history, as the story of Saartje Baartman confirms, so these grounds should be treaded lightly.
T. M. G.
Hill Collins, P. (1986). “Learning from the outsider within: The sociological significance of black feminist thought.” Social Problems 33 (6), pp. S14-S32.
hooks, b. (1991). “Essentialism and experience.” American Literary History 3 (1), pp. 172-183.
hooks, b. (1994). Outlaw culture: Resisting representation. New York: Routledge.
I’m the Best Lyrics (2010). Retrieved December 1st from MetroLyrics website. http://www.metrolyrics.com/im-the-best-lyrics-nicki-minaj.html.
Image Credit: Nicki Minaj’s Instagram (instagram.com/nickiminaj)