No, really: where were you seventeen years ago?
I've been reading a lot of criticism of Nicki Minaj recently, and it sort of makes me uncomfortable. Not because I'm the biggest fan of Nicki, but because it seems to me that too many of us are just bashing on her, throwing around terms like "racist" and "orientalist," and failing to look at the big picture.
But back to my original question -- where were the haters seventeen years ago, in 1993? I'm talking, of course, about the year that Enter The Wu-Tang dropped (shouts to Theresa for bringing this up). Let's look at the science:
- They renamed their neighborhood Shaolin, after the temple they saw in a kung-fu movie. There's a map of New York in the Wu-Tang Manual drawn in "Chinese style."
- They themselves are named after a mountain range in China.
- Their early videos feature them standing around with Chinese swords (or remember that part in Method Man where Meth's handing out blunts? Watch for the guy at 0:40).
- RZA has a book out called the Tao of Wu...
- In which he tells you about the profound life lessons that can be learned from kung-fu movies and Dragon Ball Z.
- There's also the Wu-Tang Manual, which features pictures the RZA standing (for purposes of authentication) with an authentic Chinese shifu, with hands together in prayer pose, and in front of Chinese characters on temple walls.
- In this book he tells you all about (ahem) Buddhism, the I Ching, and pretty much anything that falls under the category of "Exotic China."
- RZA is producing, and starring in, his own kung-fu movie, in which he shoots lasers at Chinese people. Yes, you read that right.
I guarantee that if anyone but the Wu-Tang did any of the above, the a lot of these self-styled cultural critics would be choking on their iced mocha lattes -- but for some reason, when the Wu dabbles in orientalism, they get a pass.
I mean, don't get me wrong, I love Wu-Tang just as much as anybody. I'm just starting to see a bit of a double standard here.
What I think is really going on here is a combination of things:
1. A weird, latent sexism aimed at female rappers in general.
2. The fact that people like to complain about how rap sucks now, and how it used to be good in the 80s/90s/two months ago (protip: nothing happened to rap, something happened to you: you got old, got a condo, got a couple cats, and lost track of what was cool. Congratulations, you're no longer allowed to talk about rap music).
3. Even worse than #2: a growing population of people that never knew anything about rap in the first place, but took Ethnic Studies 101 at college in the mid '90s, which combined with their Blogger accounts all of a sudden makes them hip, informed cultural critics.
But those are just hypotheses. For now, lemme get into a few of the concrete points that people seem to base their beef with Nicki on:
"Nicki is not talented":
This whole "Nicki is not talented" talk is trash. Nicki is talented. You might not like her gimmicks or her theatrics, and who knows, maybe she does have a ghostwriter (sidebar: so do a lot of your favorite rappers) but that doesn't take away from the fact that she's pretty good at what she does. Not my favorite rapper ever, but solid, and often pretty great.
The Harajuku Girls business:
Yes, she probably got it from Gwen. But the trouble with getting angry about Nicki's description of Harajuku is that, well, it's not all that far from the truth. Harajuku isn't a site of some deep political movement, it's not an ancient tomb. It's a place where trendy teenagers and trendy twenty-somethings go to blow their weekly wages on trendy overpriced streetwear that they saw in trendy magazines. I know this because I used to do it myself. You go to Harajuku to see and be seen. It's a center of mass commercial culture, and as Tokyo hotspots go, it's been a total sellout for years. There is nothing sacred about Harajuku or Harajuku fashion.
The "Your Love" video:
Okay, yes, it's sort of silly. I actually don't like this song. But it's a little weird that everybody is going in on Nicki when there are so many other examples of this stuff around. For example, dig Jasmine's "Jealous" music video:
Shot for shot, this video is so similar to Nicki's that it sort of makes you wonder if Jasmine's people didn't catch wind of "Your Love" and decide to re-do it, except with less imaginative backdrops, less shot variation, and, well, less black people. And a stupider song.
One thing the video has more of, though, is Orientalist ridiculosity -- samurai (proper suited ones this time), falling cherry blossoms, an doll-like singer that never actually moves, and ninjas. That disappear. Instead of the female lead getting to fight over her love interest as we see in Nicki's version, this purple-haired plaything sits, stiff as a board, while various menfolk stab each other for a shot at her affection. Yes, this was made by Japanese people, for a Japanese audience. But it's no less fetishistic than Nicki's video.
So, the question: is this video in the "okay" zone? If so, why?
And, of course, we could go in on plenty of other videos:
- For example, if we're going to talk bad about director Hype Williams now, we should probably remember that like a lot of people, he's been raiding Asia for visuals since the mid 90s -- and not just in the Wu-Tang era. Remember Missy's Sock It 2 Me? That's a clear hijack of Mega Man 7 (Da Brat is Bass) (but maybe Japanese videogames are okay).
- And, of course, there's one of Hype's students, Lil X -- who might not ring a bell immediately, but should bring back some memories with this demo reel featuring footage that was used in R Kelly's exotic masterpiece, Thoia Thoing:
- He also did some work with Xzibit. Remember "Concentrate? Yeah, this one:
- And aside from all the things that can be said about the video, note that the sample is actually a Buddhist prayer, which is, oh, I don't know, maybe sacreligious or something.
- And while we're on the topic of prayer, remember that new Cam'ron and Vado jawn, Speaking in Tungs? Yeah, that's sampled from a track called Shohmyoh -- essentially a long prayer with synthesizers -- which came from the Akira soundtrack.
- And speaking of Akira, I'm sure we remember the jumbled Japanese in Kanye's Stronger.
But for some reason, gentle reader, none of the aforementioned faux paxs (with the exception of R. Kelly) saw much criticism (Theresa did kinda go in on Murs though). Is it because the rappers in question are "better" than Nicki? Or because they're male?
I mean, yes, I get it. The images Nicki presents of Asia aren't the most sophisticated ones ever. The Harajuku thing becomes a skewed, simplified symbol for Japan. All of Asia becomes a big, mysterious, exotic jumble of unintelligible scribbles. Okay.
But why are we so upset with Nicki when she juxtaposes Thai and Samurais? Did we forget that Inspectah Deck called himself a "Wu-Tang Shogun" back in '94? Why are we so quick to jump on female artists?
Of course, I'm not here to defend Nicki as such. But I will say that accusing Nicki Minaj of being some horrible, ignorant, racist orientalist -- especially when you start questioning her values based on her possible "Indian heritage" -- is necessarily going to demand that we start asking ourselves some very serious questions.
So, Nicki haters, or non-Nicki haters, what do you think it is that is pissing people off so much about the Harajuku Barbie?