The latest “feud” between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj highlights some lingering problems of marginalisation in pop culture and society, says Brian O’Flynn.
Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift found themselves embroiled in a very public Twitter spat yesterday, following Swift’s nomination for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2015. Minaj, believing herself to have been unfairly snubbed by the VMA judges, took to Twitter to express her dissatisfaction with a thinly veiled jab at Swift.
Swift responded with some indignance. Despite rumours that her recent Bad Blood music video was an extended diss to pop peer Katy Perry, Swift claimed to be horrified that Minaj was attempting to “pit women against each other”.
This may seem like a fluff piece of news; a pointless foray in the neverending cesspit of celebrity gossip. But we neglect to remind ourselves that pop culture provides invaluable snapshots of our society and captures the zeitgeist in a powerful way.
The superficially infantile nature of this argument belies the lingering social issues that it highlights.
Minaj’s complaint was not the tantrum of an entitled diva throwing her toys out of the pram. It was the complaint of a black woman who has had to sit back and watch all her life while her culture has been marginalised, dismissed and then later appropriated.
Back in the days when being black wasn’t “cool”, rap music was a niche and underground genre. It was produced and consumed almost exclusively by the black community, and was an artistic form of rebellion and assertion of identity in a world where it was incredibly hard to be black. In recent decades, black culture has evolved from something niche to something cool and desirable. In a world where everyone is afraid of being generic, people latch on to forms of expression that are attached to a distinct identity, and black culture fits the bill perfectly. From dreadlocks to rap music, white people want to get on board.
While this seems like a positive development that contributed to the liberation of black people, it was actually cultural neo-colonialism. White people wanted the originality and identity of black culture for themselves, but instead of simply consuming the culture from its source, they re-appropriated it. They began to imitate the culture and place themselves at its helm, thus disempowering its black originators and refusing to recognise them for what they had created.
This is how we find ourselves in a world where some of the most awarded and recognised rappers are white. For example, Iggy Azalea has won a host of rap and hip-hop awards from MTV, AMA, Billboard, People’s Choice and more. These awards fall in Azalea’s lap while more talented black artists go unrecognised, and despite the fact that Azalea’s work is a heavily watered-down pop knock-up of rap music.
Azalea is living proof that our society values black culture, but value it more when we don’t have to associate it with actual black people. Despite critics widely recognising that her lyricism is mediocre at best, she has vastly outsold her black peers. Whitewashed rap is more palatable to the mainstream Western audience, making it uncomfortably obvious that beneath all our lip service and good intentions, we are still internally racist.
In light of all that, Minaj’s whining seems a little less trite, doesn’t it? Of course Minaj is going to be highly sensitive about a snub, when it is part of a huge trend of black erasure and marginalisation.
And this issue has more than just a racial component. Minaj’s complaint referred to slim women being celebrated. I hardly need to explain that thin bodies have been historically glorified while alternative body types have always been shamed. Many think that this is now turning around, what with the prevalence of body reaffirming posts going viral on social media, and the popularity of singers like Meghan Trainor, who glorifies curvaceous women. However, if you look past the lip service Trainor pays to alternative body types, you’ll realise that Trainor is by no means overweight. It seems that we are far from triumphing over body shaming when the popular figurehead for the body positive movement is a conventionally attractive, thin woman.
Minaj is right to complain when the biggest award ceremonies on the planet fail to acknowledge black artists for their cultural achievements, while glorifying more palatable white artists. She is right to be angry that the body positive movement is failing, and is only willing to recognise the same cookie cutter type bodies.
Maybe none of this is Swift’s fault. But Minaj’s anger is the product of years of marginalisation.
To top it all off, her video for Anaconda in 2014 was hailed by feminists as sex-positive and empowering. It explicitly denied the male gaze and declared that the sexuality of the women on show was their own property and not the commodity of men. Perhaps she feels that a video like that deserves recognition over the highly produced celebrity extravaganza that was Swift’s Bad Blood video.
And you thought celebrity feuds were meaningless…
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