The internet has been a precarious place for me lately. I’ve noticed that the lifespan for visibility is the same no matter how small or big your platform: Exalt the person, crucify the person, and raise the person up again. Continue this until death, or simply until someone seemingly more interesting and younger comes along. The unique part is how some personalities are characterized as they are crucified, which tends to depend on their social identities. Femmes and women who are Black and of color are often vilified at a much more rapid and heinous pace than those who occupy other identities.
This has been true throughout pop culture history: Yoko Ono was blamed for the demise of the world’s favorite and most influential band, The Beatles. She was seen as a wicked woman that used her sexuality and feminine brand of cunning to disband four incredibly powerful and talented white men. In more modern times, before Beyonce was globally loved, she was globally demonized. She was painted as a villain that — in a similar vein to the plot of Dreamgirls — destroyed the lives of her musical sisters in order to arrive at stardom.
The response to this type of demonization is usually to behave your way out of the criticism; be nice, be quiet, be likable and hopefully, the public will take you back. The image of the Black woman or femme holding their breath to be loved again by the public is not a new one. Consider the story of how Eartha Kitt was blackballed by Hollywood after sharing her critical opinion on the Vietnam war with President Johnson and the First Lady. Kitt was forced to live in Europe to sustain her livelihood until she was finally embraced again, emblematic of a type of Black Hollywood legend about what can happen not just your fame, but to your livelihood if the powers that be decide you’re too much of a wicked person to work.
Nicki Minaj is the latest Black female entertainer to have a difficult time in the public eye. It’s hard to tell exactly when her wave of popularity went from mostly favorable to unfavorable, but the peak was undoubtedly Remy Ma’s diss track, “Shether,” which had an image of a bloody and dismembered Nicki Minaj as the single cover. From that point on, Nicki Minaj has held a questionable place in the public imagination, although she still maintains the massive “Barbz” fanbase that she’s cultivated since the beginning of her career.
Recently, we’ve seen artists like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift swing from being immensely popular and likable to widely criticized — if still popular — artists in the timespan of a single album cycle. Like those two, at their lowest points, Nicki’s next step was going to determine if she still had as tight a grip on the public as she once had, and the outcome hinged on how she decided to handle her new public persona as the villain.
So, on her comeback single, Nicki Minaj wrapped her voice around a sensei impression and rapped: “They need rappers like me! So, they can get on their f*cking keyboards and make me the bad guy. Chun-Li!” With the song, she birthed a viral trend where people customized the line to fit their own situations or other current events. Minaj turned her moment of crucifixion — of being the bad guy — into a cultural moment where her audience could celebrate and magnify the characteristics that made them unlikeable yet were necessary to sustain their own power.
Minaj also introduced the idea that the audience criticizing and vilifying artists need them in order to sustain their own jobs, or make their own social media accounts interesting. In what is arguably her triumphant return, she declares “the villain” a vital element in public discourse, social interactions, and pop culture. We do, indeed, need rappers like her to make our social media accounts, think pieces, and drunk conversations at house parties riveting. She suggests that we should be thanking her for the dissent and the controversy that was produced at the expense of her reputation around her own real-life personality.
With this, Nicki Minaj flipped the script usually afforded to Black women and femmes of behaving yourself out of unfavorable public opinions by being kind and polite. She wore her newest characterization as The Bad Guy and turned it into a hit song. Nicki Minaj was vilified simply because she became too popular and too powerful while being Black and a woman. It’s hard to name why it became so popular to dislike Minaj because one singular moment simply doesn’t exist. She didn’t actually do anything wrong. She was something that is always vilified: Loud, Black, femme, and self-assured.
It’s no secret that the more power, wealth, and fame you garner while occupying the Black femme/woman identity, the more you must change yourself in order to accommodate others. It is hard to imagine Beyonce at her level of power without that quiet, southern charm. The megastar has even opted to not engage in interviews in order to avoid vilification by the public and media. It’s hard to imagine Oprah at her level of power without the relatable, homegrown likeability that is often most appealing to white women. Would Oprah have reached such impressive popularity if she wasn’t seen as so earnest and sweet? Could she be as powerful if she was seen just as cutthroat and egotistical as Russell Simmons or, say, our current president?
Nicki Minaj is vulgar and loud. Each accomplishment and check cashed hasn’t been met with humility and quietude — it became fodder for her verses. She wears her power on her scantily-clad body like a Versace medusa head, all while being Black and female. Minaj was punished for this, but it has been fascinating to watch her take hold of her place in pop culture and do what few in her unique position have been able to do: Decide her own fate and not wait for the public or the media to decide it for her.