I am a devout worshiper at the alter of contemporary pop music, especially the music of Nicki Minaj. When I see tweets from my peers lamenting being in a situation wherein they must listen to a top-40 radio station, I become an animate embodiment of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Elitists may enjoy rolling their eyes at catchy hooks and tacky features, but I can't get enough. I like to take a break from being serious all the time and just do something relatively harmless. Intellectually, I recognize that plenty of the trappings of popular culture are far from harmless, from the problematic lyrical content to the questionable and oh-so-public behavior of some of pop's biggest stars, but for every Meghan Trainor song packed with sneaky body shaming, I can find an empowering ballad or badass singer to bop to. I love my favorite artists almost like I know them personally because I rely on them to save me from the misogyny migraine caused by so much of contemporary music. Because of this, I tend to feel personally offended when one of them puts out something I don't agree with. "Offended," though, is an understatement when it comes to how I feel about the Nicki Minaj lyrics in "Hey Mama," which continues to become a summer staple as it hit number eight on the Billboard Top 100 this week.
Usually, Nicki Minaj is my favorite rapper and celebrity. I know that there has been plenty of backlash against Nicki's various public personas, Nicki's route to fame, and, of course, Nicki's outrageous lyrics. I know she isn't perfect. But it's the problematic, subservient lyrics from "Hey Mama" that really bother me.
And I mean they really, really bother me because Minaj has been a part of my personal journey to success, in that I've taken so many of her empowering words to heart. When I had to move back in with my parents between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I had a picture of her taped to the back of my bedroom door and it greeted and motivated me every morning. Written across the photo was a quote from an interview Minaj did with Wendy Williams:
Don’t chase these boys and all that stuff. Go to school, go to college. Don’t depend on anybody.
I worked three jobs and I babysat in my spare time. I sold everything I owned. I took online classes to keep myself on track. I did not chase these boys, I did not depend on anybody. I looked at that picture and listened to Minaj's music every day and it only took me six months to get back on my feet and return to New York. I couldn't have done it without her.
And on the flight to New York, I listened to her verse on Drake's "Make Me Proud." She raps about taking a break and running away with someone... but only after she devotes the majority of her feature to talking about her business ventures and incredible empire. I made a mental note then that it is possible to be a successful, independent woman and be devoted to another person — it just has to be done right. Less chasing boys, more, as she says, dominating every avenue.
Nicki didn't actually physically help me get back to New York, of course, but I've had a soft spot for her and her message ever since I taped that picture up on my door at a time when I needed her words most. Actually, I've had a soft spot for her since I saw her 2010 mini-doc, Nicki Minaj: My Time Now. I planned a week in advance to watch the premiere with a friend who had cable in his dorm and I still remember how transfixed I was during the famous Pickle Juice Monologue that saw Minaj challenge gendered double standards in the music industry by observing:
When I am assertive, I'm a bitch. When a man is assertive, he's a boss.
If you haven't seen that segment, go watch. I'll wait.
The best part about Minaj is that her empowering messages for women don't stop with her insistence that female entertainers deserve the same respect as their male counterparts. No, she's all about standing up for all women everywhere.
Beyond that, Minaj is borderline militant with her devotion to keeping her fans in school (see above), reminding them online and even during her concerts, and always underscoring the importance of girls getting an education and supporting themselves. Minaj demands that she climaxes every time she has sex with a man — something she told Cosmopolitan just recently. (It's sad that this concept is revolutionary, but dammit, it is.) What's more, Minaj has no time for slut-shaming, instead encouraging young women to own their sexuality while still thriving in other areas of their lives. She told Rolling Stone in 2014:
I stand for girls wanting to be sexy and dance, but also having a strong sense of themselves. If you got a big ol' butt? Shake it! Who cares? That doesn't mean you shouldn't be graduating from college.
This woman has built her empire on the idea that a woman can be completely and fully in charge of her own life and career. Taking her own advice, she dumped long-time boyfriend Safaree Samuels amid rumors that he was jealous of her success and ungrateful for all she had done for him. She channeled the emotions from the breakup into her album, The Pinkprint, which also hosts her latest release, a collab with Beyoncé called “Feeling Myself,” a celebration of female friendship and girl power. The lyrics are an ode to the substantial accomplishments of both Minaj and Beyoncé, pointing out that they don't need men for musical appreciation while the title coyly hints that they don't even need men for sexual gratification.
It was my favorite track from The Pinkprint as soon as I heard it, which is why it is especially troubling for me to hear it in radio blocs along with the other current single that features Minaj: David Guetta's previously-mentioned chart-climber, “Hey Mama.”
Guetta, a regular ol' successful white dude who is otherwise unremarkable in the sea of regular ol' successful white dudes currently producing electronic music, recruited Minaj for the track, which has her rapping about a guy who is apparently so singularly great in bed that she is willing to do pretty much anything to stay with him.
The Minaj I know and love got adorable little Ariana Grande to domineeringly sing, “You gotta beg for it, beg for it, I wanna see you lookin' up,” on a track titled “Get On Your Knees.” Unfortunately, "Hey Mama" doesn't follow that trend.
Guetta's Minaj spits:
Yes, I'll be your woman
Yes, I'll be your baby
Yes, I'll be whatever that you
Tell me when you're ready
Yes, I do the cooking
Yes, I do the cleaning
Which is rhymed with the gag-inducing:
Yes, you be the boss and
Yes, I be respecting
Whatever that you tell me
Cause it's game you be spitting
As someone who has so often championed Minaj's status as a symbol of female empowerment and all-around glorious independence, this juxtaposition is pretty jarring to me. Assuming others would be equally outraged, the very first time I heard this track on my "Pop and Hip Hop Power Workout" Pandora station, I paused my jog to sit on a stranger's stoop and look up what other people had to say about this latest release from an artist who is so vigilant about her image that she makes her younger relatives listen to the clean version of her albums (per a report from The Guardian)
What I found was that the lyrics were called "disappointing" by many writers, but that even critics of the message were more interested in how great the production of the song is. There even appeared to be more outrage at the way Bebe Rexha, who sings the chorus, was left off of the list of featured artists (“I guess more than two [featured] names don’t look good on the radio”).
If it looks like I'm overreacting here, remember entertainment is never just entertainment; if Beyoncé can inspire legions of young women with a catchy dance track, Minaj can be held responsible for wantonly throwing around conflicting messages for her impressionable fans to piece together. From the woman who has given us such succinct take-downs of the male gaze come lyrics like this:
Make sure I'm on my toes, on my knees
Keep him pleased, rub him down, be a lady and a freak
It's not OK. These lyrics are nothing short of irresponsible. Combined with the fact that they were written to be featured on a man's track rather than Minaj's own, they are goddamn dangerous, telling young girls that independence and empowerment are cool and all, but they are temporary and disposable if there is something more advantageous to trade them for.
The bottom line here is that words are powerful. And words from famous people who are known for words are even more powerful. Fans put a lot of stock in the what comes out of celebrities' mouths — after all, people love to see elements of themselves reflected in those who are successful and high-profile. I do it too: When Minaj openly labeled herself as pro-choice last December, I took the news as a major victory for me personally, because I plan to spend the rest of my life expanding access to and understanding of abortion, contraception, and healthy sexual practice. And here was my idol, stomping all over abortion stigma with her monster Giuseppe heel. It felt good.
The victorious feeling that accompanied reading her words about being pro-choice and the hope I felt every time I looked at her photo taped to my old bedroom wall have been truly shaken. They're replaced by the defeated feeling that bubbles up every time I hear the words to "Hey Mama." As a member of Minaj's Barbz, this song is a major disappointment to me and her decision to be involved in a project that is so contrary to her generally feminist outlook has definitely left me with a bad taste in my mouth, no matter how sweet the song tells me the na-na was supposed to be.
And I feel totally defeated. There is nothing to be done now. The song is released and it is doing extremely well on the charts. It will be one of the singles we associate with the summer of 2015 for years and it will exist in her catalog forever. The only thing I can even attempt to do is offer up this critique. Yes, everyone — even Minaj — makes mistakes and in this age, those mistakes live on the Internet forever. Luckily, the Internet can also serve as a platform to start a dialogue about those mistakes. You know what else is a great way to use the Internet, though? Watching the “Anaconda” video again. (Did you guys see the part where she put the banana in her mouth but then chopped up the banana? It's funny because she's destroying the phallic imagery in her video, get it? Like a dick, get it? Go ahead, Nicki. I see you.)
Ultimately, I'm not going to renounce my Barbz membership, even if I'm really too old to still be saying that. (Wait, nevermind. The Barbie herself told fans not to rush growing up in Essence, so who am I to say I'm too old?) Regardless of the contradictory message presented by "Hey Mama," I still value all of the other advice Minaj has dispensed over the years, and that, of course, is why I'm so upset. After all, her simple reminder that "you don't have to be a b—ch, but there's nothing wrong with it at times," has seen me safely through a number of situations just as her songs have seen me through countless hours studying, working out, and getting ready for everything from job interviews to first dates. Just like I imagine she would want them to.
I still love you, Nicki. But I don't have to love "Hey Mama."