Nicki Minaj and the Performance of White Supremacy

“[Hitler] killed Jews and Gypsies because he didn’t have us.”

— from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon

I had already read the numerous condemnations before actually viewing the lyric video for Nicki Minaj’s latest single, “Only.” Just how bad could it be? I thought. After all, I had not seen prior indication that the pop star was given to anti-Semitism. Yes, she can be quite problematic in her provocations—from appropriating the racially offensive words of Don Imus in “Stupid Ho,” to performing a demon-possessed version of her alter ego Roman Zolanski in her 2012 Grammy performance of “Roman Holiday” to hijacking Malcolm X’s image for “Lookin’ Ass“—but these controversial performances seemed mostly to heighten her theatricality.

This time, however, I must admit not only to my disturbance at her appropriation of white supremacist and fascist imagery, which many, including the Anti-Defamation League, have interpreted as promotion of Nazi ideology, but also to my profound disappointment that she would seek such visuals (or at least sign off on such visuals, which are aesthetically placed together in an impressive animation video directed by Jeff Osbourne) to metaphorically suggest her own power and sexual prowess as a female emcee in the hip-hop game. Is this a case of shock art over espousing shocking ideology?

Whereas I recognized the pop artist’s attempts at subversion of the objectification of the black female booty in “Anaconda,” or in her militaristic response to male chauvinism in “Lookin’ Ass,” this particular attempt at subversion is less than effective. Perhaps because those of us who know our history can’t help but be made uncomfortable. And when I invoke history, I’m not doing so in Oppression Olympics style—in which Jewish and African American communities compare notes as to who suffered from more oppression—but to suggest that we must be held accountable to each other, to recognize the ways in which we can enact solidarity, and to acknowledge how our histories overlap and are interrelated.

I invoke history to remind us that, before Columbus began the genocide against Native Americans, he was first financed for this expedition by Spain, a country that was in the midst of a Jewish expulsion in 1492. I invoke history to remind us that Hitler made clear connections between black and Jewish people in his infamous Mein Kampf, and in 1937, organized the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) and Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) exhibits, which featured mostly African and African-inspired art and music, especially jazz. Both were blamed on Jews, who were accused of bringing this influence to Germany and, subsequently, “bastardizing” the “racially pure” Aryans with such “impurities.” It was this same Germany that protested the performances of the sexually daring Josephine Baker, Nicki Minaj’s predecessor, fearing her “primitive” influence (arguments that sound eerily familiar when compared to today’s condemnations of hip-hop culture).

In essence, Hitler Africanized Jewish communities before launching outright attacks on them, attacks made easier precisely because of this construction of racial difference. As the character Guitar suggests to the protagonist Milkman in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Hitler is “not shocking” to anyone who has survived Jim Crow-era racism—a racism that most people would be stunned to learn actually influenced the Nazi regime as they forged ahead with plans concerning eugenics and the formation of ghettoes. As black people, we too would have ended up in ovens if there were enough of us in Europe at the time, an understanding that led historically black colleges in the South to provide refuge to Jewish scholars fleeing Germany and, in turn, for Jewish progressives to join in the Civil Rights movement here in the U.S.

But Holocaust history is never taught as a history that is interrelated to the histories of other oppressed groups. It is marked off and held up as the exception rather than the rule, even though genocides have happened before and have happened after, and more than likely will happen again.

Perhaps it is this knowledge that has led some naysayers to believe that Nicki Minaj, as a black woman, had no control in these artistic choices or that she had fallen asleep during history classes, rather than believe she would actually co-sign such images. She and her Young Money crew are so obviously not the desired subjects for such a Nazi-inspired regime. Of course, Minaj is not the first artist to borrow such fascist imagery—think Pink Floyd or David Bowie or even movies like V for Vendetta—or to subvert imperialist imagery for one’s own self-assertion, as Michael Jackson suggested with his music video, “History,” gesturing towards his pop-cultural dominance usurping the once totalitarian rule of the former Soviet Union when he became the first Western pop star to perform in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

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However, when Nazi or fascist imagery is invoked, it is usually to heighten the problem of fascism or the idiocy of it, not to glorify it. On par with her fellow Young Money rapper, Lil’ Wayne, who once abused the name of lynch victim Emmett Till to brag about his own sexual prowess, Nicki Minaj highlights the problem of postmodernity and shock for shock’s sake: imagery and rhetoric become so ubiquitous and so excessive that it loses its meaning and political bite.

Unfortunately, as I had already argued about her appropriation of militant masculinity in “Lookin’ Ass,” her reliance on white supremacist patriarchal imagery erases other images of empowerment and the histories of vibrant and powerful women. To locate power and prowess within symbols of evil and imperialism is to lack imagination when envisioning black female power. Black women’s history is so overly written in victimization that a provocateur like Nicki Minaj borrows from the Nazis to signify her power!

If nothing else, I hope the controversy surrounding this video will open up useful conversations on whether a performance is just a performance, whether certain images can be subverted, and whether their political meanings are too entrenched to be altered. I hope we can move beyond simplistic “Black women are racist too!” conclusions that allow some to excuse their own anti-black racism and misogyny, or “misogynoir” (to quote Moya Bailey) that specifically targets black women.

Mostly, I hope we can begin conversations on the interrelated histories of different marginalized communities and open up new dialogue to talk about the overlaps—about the suppressed history of Afro-Germans during the Third Reich, for example, as the upcoming film Rheinland plans to explore. Audre Lorde, who once influenced German women of color to articulate their identities as Afro-Germans (recently examined in the documentary film, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, 1984-1992), urged us to create solidarity and, especially for African Americans, to expand upon our own local understandings of blackness to create diasporas and transnational communities.

She also once said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Nicki Minaj’s use of such tools is less about subversion and more about entrapment.

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Opening photo from the “Only” lyric video; Entartete Musik photo via Wikimedia Commons



Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.