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Nicki’s World

26 Aug

As BET gets set to air its documentary about women and hip hop Monday, I am finding my 30-plus, old school feminist-self working hard to gear up to get down with the over-the-top, lyrically layered, brand savvy rapper that is Nicki Minaj.

The self-described Barbie is inescapable. She works every rap and R&B hook, and changes her looks to fashion what could be categorized as camp, cultural appropriation or classic sexual objectification.  Until Minaj, I’ve managed to safely maneuver around mainstream new millennium starlets because they offered no more than a cookie-cutter replica of the unique hip hop dynamism I remembered.  (See the links to artists below.) Likened to Lady Gaga for her eye-catching performances, this former theater student is adept at staging media spectacles, such as autographing breasts, adopting different voices, and orchestrating a coming-out tweet to squash rumors about her bisexuality for those who might have misread the Remy Ma viral video confession from her masculine persona, Roman, as Nicki Minaj. You can call the latter a cop-out or a capitulation to a commercial model that demands that all women perform hyperfemininity period. As I enter Nicki’s world (slowly and with caution), I am not only considering the ways she uses her body, but I am thinking of three ways her performances of race, gender and sexuality instigate a feminist engagement with the popular.

1.  Beauty and Postfeminism

Postfeminism advertises the sexy, smart, economically successful self-absorbed it-girl from a post-patriarchal world where politics are defined by “style wars” rather than issues of gender inequity. Here, beauty and postfeminism seem to be disconnected from critiques of consumerism, gendered labor, or political citizenship.  On the one hand, the look-good-feel-fine empowerment that Minaj offers feels as lifeless as the dolls she suggests every girl wants to be—you know, the nonspeaking, decorative, plastic bodies to be handled and watched. Then again, I can imagine her Barbie thang as her way of injecting a sense of beauty and wonderment for homegirls, like herself, who’ve had to create other worlds to escape the ugly one they lived every day. In either case, Minaj has managed to capture the attention of young women—hook, line and stiletto.

2. The Lady and The Freak

In what could be described as a post-Tip Drill moment where folks are “manning” the line to distinguish the ladies from the freaks, Nicki Minaj is not the only one who is creating personas to perform otherness. As Roman Zolanski she can express desire for another woman, and as Harajuku Barbie she can perform a sexualized Asian girlhood without damaging the central “brand” or image. Beyoncé is another celebrity with a freak persona. In big hair and tall heels, Sasha Fierce does Beyoncé’s “dirty work.” Both entertainers talk about a sense of freedom—which is almost always connected to sexual freedom.  Celebrity aside, ordinary young women on and off screen are crafting “real” and alternate/virtual identities as a response to the increased policing of their bodies through this hip hop binary. Rather than marking public/private bodies, young women like Minaj are now describing their “real” good bodies and their fake freakish ones. In our sincere efforts to “free the girls,” it is possible we might have caged our “real” sexual selves.

3. Camp, Celebration or Cultural Appropriation

From her Anime-inspired Vibe magazine cover, her Harajuku Barbie persona, to her recent music video, Your Love, where she plays a geisha girl (among others), Minaj reprises dated stereotypes about Asian women that suggest desirability comes in part from submissiveness or obedience.  Costuming conceals and reveals her body, and both frame her as the exotic; the hand gestures she does in separate scenes either to seduce her lover or to fight her foe are grafted from other forms of popular culture depicting Asianness. I can remember the debut of the Harajuku Girls shadowing Gwen Stefani at a music awards show. Then, folks flipped about a white woman co-opting Asian culture and parading other women (as objects of her imagination).  Yet, as Minaj mines the visual landscape to reinvent herself, her Afroasian encounters – whether camp, celebration, or cultural appropriation – remain unchallenged.

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On Slim Thug

14 Jun

From news media pundits, comedians-turned-relationship experts, to a soulful singer speaking about his self-proclaimed white supremacist penis in Playboy, it would seem that everybody has something to say about the un/desirability of Black women. When I read the Vibe interview excerpt by Slim Thug and the response gone viral by Marc Lamont Hill, I opened my laptop to see my cursor just jumping on the electronic page amped for me to slam Slim and the keys, to throw my two cents into the blogosphere to make sense out of his deplorable depictions about Black womanhood.

And, then I heard the interview. He does recall harmful stereotypes about race and gender. No doubt. One of them includes the idea that white women possess and perfect femininity. He does recuperate dangerous discourses about the extinct black man and the emasculating black woman. No question. Trust, I could have written an entry without even reading the interview. But, I heard the interview. I heard the pauses. And, I had to pause and wiggle off the knee-jerk reaction to “read” him. I just heard him. I heard him searching for the word—the right words—to frame his analysis (however unconvincing). On a national stage, I heard Slim Thug trying to work through powerful race and gender scripts so ingrained in our culture that they appear commonsense to him and other folks in our community.

In the final part of the interview, Slim Thug describes a black femininity and masculinity tied to the performance of class, or to a wealthy lifestyle (a lifestyle that is, contrary to what Vibe writers summarize, is not exclusive to the hood). For him, a black man blowing dough on dro and syrup (i.e., cocktail mix that includes cough syrup) at home or at the club to attract women is as problematic as the black woman who incurs incredible credit card debt to buy luxury brands to attract men. Both are performing gender scripts from a hip hop dreamworld. While Slim Thug criticizes Black women for our “crazy way of thinking,” his examples speak to the craziness of consumer capital that seduces all of us to live out champagne fantasies. (We need only watch any television program to be reminded of the worldview we are invited to subscribe.) The hip-hop get-rich raps that Slim Thug profits from hinge on the very consumerism he deplores in other folk. He is right on when he suggests these cyclic performances adversely impact black relationships because they are rooted in artifice. He is dead wrong to levy his attack toward already vulnerable black women. Ultimately, the “50/50, fair exchange” that Slim Thug said he wants for successful black relationships and the black community can only materialize when he divests in his own narrow definitions of success—that is, capitalist economic power and patriarchal power over women (i.e., masculinity par excellence).

In peace & solidarity,
Aisha

She Just Wants to Dance, but She Can’t Fight the Rhythm

13 May

(A Performance Excerpt by Caitlin O’Connor)

She just wants to dance.

He just wants to groove

In his fly dancin’ shoes.

Seconds lapse between his favorite steps, Doin’ tha

Ass tap, dip back, hip thrust, she like that.

She dances because she can’t fight the rhythm.

He grinds, he grins at the lyrics that he’s hearin’.

He thinks he’s got his certified ho and she’s deafly dancing so she don’t even know.

She just wants to dance.

He just wants to groove.

But the lyrics, they spit bullets

Into the faces of dancing girls

Who hope to exist meaningfully in this world.

As the music races, his hand he places in her face, in her spaces she had felt
His breath on her neck before
On the dance floor with the beat no longer
Thumping
Against space,
Behind a locked door.
Muted beat,
Lyrics play
She finally hears what he’s got to say.

Ass tap, dip back, hip thrust, she like that.
He think she like that.
Syncopated rhythms of harsh hands.
Syncopated rhythms of harsh hands.
Syncopated rhythms her heart stands…Still. You dance.

You can dance. Do a dance-step
At a funeral or at the scene of a crime.
Rape with the
words and rape of the body
Are both rape of the mind.

A victim of dance can promise you this:
When there is no longer a beat
The music doesn’t always sound so sweet.

I open with this performance excerpt because this past week Caitlin closed my office door to purge a poem she’d been holding since we parted. It was a poem purposefully memorized. For months we passed each other, pitching empty promises and pocketing good intentions about reconnecting. When others cycled through my office, she sat unmoved–clutching her bag over her gut as if secrets were stashed there. She said I had to see her, to hear her—the near-tear and the crackle. She wanted me to bear witness to the poetics of her life.

Her poem haunts me.

On the one hand, I am ecstatic she distilled a semester-long discussion about hip hop feminism into a performance. The teacher-me says well done. On the other hand, the need-to-be-togetha-me has come undone with the fleshed-filled reminder that to do this work is to engage constantly in collective healing and self recovery. And women, we are not well. The stories we choose to tell are often triumphant yet traumatic. I wonder if the two represent our carefully choreographed two-step, our coping with the incomprehensible. So, we dance. So, we write. So, we try to get back (into) ourselves that thing that has been lost or taken from us. The triumph of self awareness and the trauma of sexual assault converse. Caitlin crystallizes what we’ve managed to dance around: the psychic toll of violence—real and representational. The victim-survivor trope she uses is a familiar one in our feminist creative-intellectual work. Why this trope? Why these stories?
We empty ugly onto the floor and the page to form art that moves folk, an art form that propels (a) movement. What are we moving toward? What do we make of this cathartic dance we write? Caitlin demanded that I see her, hear her. With recognition comes accountability. I just want to dance right? I just want to dance right. I just want to dance.Write. I sit with her poem and can’t shake that we are stuck in a groove, listening to another woman trying to fight the rhythm while we sing the same tune.

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