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 a friend and I sat down to discuss Nicki Minaj, and watched the conversation turn to Sandra Bland and more.
Amba is a small town girl turned fellow Torontonian. She eats, sleeps, and breathes online, and so she was the perfect person with whom to discuss Nicki and Taylor’s Twitter debacle. She is a critical drinker, a heavy thinker, and all around opinionated lady. The latter is my favourite part- especially when our opinions seem to agree, as they did on this occasion.
Amba: My initial thoughts were solely about Nicki. My thought process was thus: “yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaassssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss”. 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. It is an old pattern, as old as slave labour.
Bhumika: Agreed. As a female, and a black female at that, Nicki has had to work her ass off in order to appear relevant and 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. Instead, white women who utilize the black form are being celebrated. We can talk about Iggy, or Mylie, but that would deviate from this discussion. 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: I would love to say that Tay Swift inserted herself because she was mistaken, or confused, or even simply a bad person. But she didn’t, wasn’t, and is not. 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. [I interjected here to add a succinct “SLAY”] 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. These individuals usually invoke men as the common enemy because 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, or of attacking them personally.
Bhumika: But she assumed Nicki spoke about her. Do you think this was an okay assumption to make?
Amba: I think that from Taylor’s vantage point, anything addressing the VMAs, MTV, music, or the music industry at all is personal, because she felt a sense of entitlement to her right to fair play. When there is any suggestion that something was unfair in a white women’s favour, they cannot comprehend. They feel personally attacked. They feel defensive…Taylor had no reason to think Nicki was calling her out. She had every reason to know that she benefitted from the unfair advantage that Nicki was describing in her post. And that is why she responded. Nicki did not mean Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift knew that the specific type of privilege benefited her, and she reacted. That is why Nicki was so in the right to say that she didn’t mean Taylor at all… but that she “should speak on this issue”.
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. This is why second and third wave feminism came to be. White feminism, often considered first wave feminism, 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 blew up with news about the fight. Many media outlets 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. It can even be tied to the era of blackface and minstrel shows evolving into the modern vision of a clown; the trademark makeup of over-lined lips and large nose mirror minstrel show depictions of black people. 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. Mike Brown’s murder would not have been global news if not for Twitter specifically. First hand video circulated via Twitter. Doxxing racists has resulted in real people losing their jobs. President Obama has used both Twitter and Tumblr as spaces to engage in meaningful discussion with the people. 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. This happens to all minority groups, but for African Americans it is hard to imagine such a large group being invisible. This invisibility is sometimes perpetuated by their hypervisibility in other lenses, such as Fox News’ news that paints only stereotypes and lies (because they have no legal obligation to report the news). The hyper 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 hypervisibility of the “Phantom Negro” 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 “Phantom Negro” trope that Americans are taught. Existing outside of that trope is hard to understand.
Nicki Minaj exists outside of that trope. She is articulate, and she is powerful (financially and in terms of cultural following). 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.
Even black people and black women discussing Nicki Minaj are being invalidated: “why aren’t you talking about Sandra Bland?”. If we discuss her death “why aren’t you talking about other deaths?” and if we discuss other issues, “what about our troops?” And that generally leads to “if you aren’t patriotic, go back to where you came from”. Such a basic, circular, illogical tactic should be laughable but is actually common.
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. On this issue, and on the murder of Sandra Bland. And on the murder of black trans women. And on misogynoir. And on many other topics. And all of those discussions will be invalidated by lumping them together in a generalized “black twitter” joke. Their use of memes, a popular song, AAVE, whatever it is, they will be dismissed by mainstream media. And it will take a hundred more Nick 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. Which is a grand and generous assumption.
Bhumika: It’s crazy to me how the invalidation of black voices and bodies can be felt in so many instances. I think that it’s up to us as the people, and as allies to make sure discussions like this continue to take place, regardless of whether white media decides it isn’t relevant. By listening to grassroots discussions and trying to empathize with others and understand their pain, we may be able to aid them, and work together to push rights that result in equality.
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?