After a week full of media screen-shotting tweets between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, there’s more to take away than a sensationalized “war” between the two.
Minaj has had a reputation for addressing societal issues, especially ones that directly affect her person, her identity, and her culture. Aside from media and social networks, these types of things can be found in something much more simple and much more intimate: her music and performances.
If you really want to analyze it, Minaj’s “Anaconda” video set the record of 19.6 million clicks in its first day, only beat when Swift’s “Bad Blood” received 20.1 million on its release.
But that’s just stats, and there were five slots for MTV’s Video of The Year nominees. These were taken by Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar’s “Bad Blood,” Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” and Beyoncé’s “7/11.”
Michelle Habell-Pallán, UW associate professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies, explained how some people question Minaj’s tweets about black women being unrecognized simply because Beyoncé was nominated.
“There’s not a limit or a quota,” Habell-Pallán said. “There’s more than one black woman who has influence in popular culture; do we have to limit it?”
While it is true Minaj’s “Anaconda” was nominated for Best Female Video and Best Hip-Hop Video, perhaps it is a testament to her intersectionality at play (being a both a woman and a person of color) that her nomination was displaced from the overarching best video category to being in subcategories.
As a reminder, one of Minaj’s tweets was: “I’m not always confident. Just tired. Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely rewarded for it.”
“I like that because she’s really hitting home,” Habell-Pallán said. “What she’s saying is referring to deeper history: the way in which black women’s influence has been actively pushed to the side or erased.”
United States history is very much embedded and visible in music itself. Pop music came out of rock, which began with black people. Elvis Presley took “Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thornton, a black woman from Alabama whose real name was Willie Mae Thornton. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Thornton got her name from not only her physical appearance, but her voice.
While her “Hound Dog” was on the top Billboard’s R&B charts for 14 weeks in 1953, it broke away from the time’s traditional R&B by including guitar, bass, and drums rather than a saxophone and piano. Three years later, Elvis performed “Hound Dog” without giving her credit.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was doing the windmill with her tireless neck muscles far before The Who’s Pete Townshend ever did. The steel or electric guitar really wouldn’t be around the way it is now without her.
Another one of Minaj’s tweets was: “If I was a different ‘kind’ of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well [smiley emoticons].”
Minaj’s tweet could be referencing a multitude of things: the way she shamelessly flaunts her body, the way she gives no f—s in her attitude, the way she oozes dominance and power, or her intersectionality.
For some, intersectionality is a bit hard to grasp because it is very complex. Especially if both black men and white women have received awards, that covers both race and gender, right? Wrong. It addresses them separately, leaving out specifically black women (not to mention a multitude of others).
“It’s not just about gender, but being racialized and gendered,” Habell-Pallán said. “It’s not just about solidarity among women because not all women are treated equally. But at the same time, not all white women are treated the same as white men, and the same with black women and black men.”
While teaching at the UW, Habell-Pallán has created a new section in the UW Library’s archives: “Women Who Rock.”
“We are one of the only archives that actually preserves oral histories of women in doing popular music,” she said, “and that is connected to the social justice movement.”
The music industry is full of nuances and complexities, and the fact that influential, intersectional artists like Nicki Minaj are calling attention to these complex issues is at least one step forward in that it acknowledges the problem.
People must also realize what that problem actually was, not that it was just an argument, and address it accordingly, in context. Minaj’s tweets shouldn’t be brushed aside and dismissed as an “attack” or “argument,” but as a testament to very real issues in the music industry, and with consumers.
“Black women are at the heart of rock and pop music in the U.S., that’s just irrefutable,” Habell-Pallán said.