Imagine that the many problems in the world are strands in a spider’s web. Tiny threads come together to create a scene that is larger than life, and every strand has an impact. Indeed, movement felt in one part of the web to individual strands will create vibrations that reverberate in other parts- the entire web will shake when a problem arises. This is the analogy that mattered when I sat down with my friend Amba to discuss Nicki Minaj, and watched the conversation turn to Sandra Bland and more.
Amba: My initial thoughts were solely about Nicki. My thought process was thus: “yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaasssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss”. That reaction was for one of the industry’s hardest working people standing up to say what needed to be said about how the VMAs and MTV in general simultaneously commodify black contributions to society while devaluing it.
Bhumika: Agreed. As a female, and a black female at that, Nicki has had to work her ass off in order to gain credibility as a rapper. Hip hop and rap are known as black forms of music, but in this instance it almost felt like she wasn’t being celebrated for her contributions. Nicki spoke to the way black culture is valuable, but black women aren’t. Why do you think Taylor Swift injected herself into the conversation?
Amba: She inserted herself because she, like many white female entertainers and many white women in general, cannot comprehend a black woman’s struggle in any way shape or form. They are often incapable because they see a focus on black women’s issues as pitting people against each other because it is something they themselves cannot relate to. They cannot understand that they are often the perpetrators of these micro aggressions against their “sisters”. So the tactic used here is to accuse the offending “angry black woman” of being anti feminist, or of attacking women in general.
Bhumika: Taylor Swift lacks the ability to view things from an intersectional standpoint. She tweeted “Maybe one of the men took your spot” at Nicki. In the world of white feminism, intersectionality does not exist; it doesn’t consider that culture, ethnicity, religion, and race matter in the grand sphere of equality. To me, Taylor seems to see it in this way. She automatically jumps to the idea that women shouldn’t be pitted against one another, but that men might be the culprits here instead. She doesn’t even take into account that Nicki is speaking to the unfair treatment of black women as a whole.
When the media got wind of all of the excitement on Twitter, they painted Nicki as a villain, and Taylor as the victim. This was done through the wording, and through the pictures used. How do you feel about the fact that a black woman, when speaking about a relevant issue to society, was painted as a “bad guy”?
Amba: I feel unsurprised, as did Nicki in her immediate reaction to the depiction. Prominent black celebrities and twitter personalities chimed in quickly as well. Notably, Janet Mock immediately pointed out that the pictures used were in poor taste, and replaced the wacky Nicki picture with a poised pose, and Taylor’s demure picture with a zany shot.
Black voices, especially black women’s voices, are silenced in many ways. The easiest is to invalidate their words by suggesting that they and everything they do are a joke. Nicki specifically has long been a target of this because of her sexually provocative lyrics, clothing, and her loud makeup and hair. The easiest way to dismiss legitimate voices is to make all black people into a joke.
Bhumika: In the grand scheme of things, I think the invalidation of black voices is a huge problem. When you reduce an entire group of people to a caricature, their experiences and struggles become a non-issue. This is heavily tied to white privilege, and white people, as they have the power to speak and silence these issues. As we speak, voices are erupting on social media asking for #justiceforSandraBland. She knew her rights, she was an advocate for black lives, and now she is dead. When black voices are dismissed as irrelevant, black bodies are as well.
Places like Twitter can erupt in moments like these, but groups in positions of power can limit their interaction and ability to change anything. They have power at grassroots levels, but not in places where systemic racism occurs (or can be changed for that matter). When Taylor Swift offers an apology to Nicki (which she did on Twitter), the conversation is meant to be silenced. This perpetuates the problem, because these are things that shouldn’t be silenced. Taylor Swift didn’t react to the way black bodies and women of colour are marginalized. She likely won’t.
Amba: Denying the value of Twitter or social media spaces in general is denying the world that we live in. Twitter and social media as a whole absolutely have the power to effect change, and the discussion is not, was not, and cannot be silenced by Taylor Swift deciding it is done.
Invalidating black voices means that black people are rendered partially invisible in society. The only visible image of black people in media is negative: criminal, hyper sexual, deviant, degenerate, absentee parents and out of control children. All of these are smashed by actual facts and statistics, but those things are rendered invisible in this hypervisibility of faux tropes.
This leads even the conscious media viewer to questions that aren’t even posed, before the media is even skewed. What should Sandra have done to avoid being killed? What did she do to bring this on herself? Was she high? Was she a criminal? We ask (or are led to ask) these questions because the right answers will fit her into the negative trope that Americans are taught. Existing outside of that trope is hard to understand.
Nicki Minaj exists outside of that trope. She is articulate, she is powerful, she is successful. She is unquestionably in charge. All of those things need to be erased and invalidated to fit the trope that American media (and american society) is comfortable with.
Nicki Minaj will not be silenced, but mainstream media will stop discussing this issue because Taylor swift has attempted to close it. People will continue to discuss it, and theorize, and pontificate, and generate meaningful discussion. It will take a hundred more Nicki Minaj’s who immediately call things out as they happen before it is even acceptable for Black people (esp. Black women) to have voices in our society. And even then, that’s assuming that eventually white people wake up and smell their privilege- a grand and generous assumption.
Bhumika: Nicki’s “Anaconda” broke Vevo’s ‘most views in 24 hours’ record. It was a pop culture phenomenon, inspiring memes, artwork, and even Ellen Degeneres, who produced her own Anaconda video. Why didn’t MTV consider it relevant again?