Nicki Minaj: The Harajuku Barbie?

August 17, 2010


You've heard of Nicki Minaj, right? She's the only female rapper anyone is talking about these days, signed to Young Money by Lil Wayne. Her gimmick includes nonexistent punchlines and rapping in a bad British accent. She also goes by the precious nickname, Harajuku Barbie, presumably inspired by Harajuku fashion made popular in the United States by Gwen Stefani. Please, hold your groans.

Is it worth going here? As a great blogger once said, "Attacking Nicki Minaj for not having substance is like attacking a green wig for being green." For starters, the Nicki Minaj schtick is so disjointed, we're probably not supposed to make any sense of her. Secondly, I don't know anybody who takes Nicki Minaj seriously as a rapper or entertainer. But I saw the video for "Your Love" and I had to bite.

I'm not going to pretend I know all there is to know about pan-Asian history, but something about this feels wrong, like Japanese culture threw up all over Hype Williams and he decided to shoot a video about it. She appears as a geisha, ninja, and samurai! In one video!

I get that it's supposed to be campy, and under regular circumstances (read: from an artist who didn't call herself the Harajuku Barbie) it'd only be mildly irritating. But something tells me we haven't seen the last of this type of cultural appropriation from Minaj, née Onika Maraj. I'm tempted to expect more from her, given her part-Indian background, but just check her explanation of her "Harajuku Barbie" moniker:

It seems to me more rooted in Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls rather than actual Harajuku fashion. The same Gwen Stefani who once toted around a group of silent Asian women as pets.

I have long been fascinated with the appropriation of Asian cultures in hip hop, but I try to check myself if I'm being unfair. Don't forget I once explored at length the implications of giving Murs and 9th Wonder a pass for "Asian Girl". So what makes me cringe at this and not, say, Wu-Tang Clan? Is it because Nicki Minaj is a female rap artist and therefore an easier target? Is it because Wu was very specifically fixated on a martial arts film, and not the entirety of Chinese history? Is it because Wu are just better rappers?

I want to believe there's no uproar about this because nobody is really checking for Nicki Minaj, but the likelier story is that there aren't a whole lot of people who think there's something wrong about this.

Addendum: Potential commenters, please note that "You're just a Nicki hater!" comments will be denied unless you have something to bring to the conversation.


Theresa Celebran Jones


Theresa Celebran Jones was born and raised in Connecticut and has moved cross-country four times. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young daughters. She works full-time as a technical writer and is an MFA dropout. Her only other hobbies are reading, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and listening to hip hop. Clearly she has no social life.



Is there something wrong with referencing the Japanese culture? Go listen to "Still I Rise". Haters. Go Nicki!
After reading your comment, "something about this feels wrong, like Japanese culture threw up all over Hype Williams and he decided to shoot a video about it." I felt compelled to watch the video for myself. Personally I thought it was visually stylistic as it is not something that you would expect to see from her, a somewhat fluid story line, which is probably where you may see that there is something wrong with it. I also think what Mr. Williams tired to do cram a lot of Asian inspired visual elements into a four minute video, hence the campiness, especially the fight scene. But call me romantic, there is something about yards and yards of flowing, billowing material that appeals to me. And lets not forget the ending where Nicki dies and red scarves are pulled from her while her would be lover yells angrily up at the camera as red petals rain down on them. What many people don't realize is that the Japanese and African-American relationship extends as far back as to when Admiral Perry first stepped foot in Japan. Since that time Japanese people, mostly younger generations, have gravitated toward African American culture either because its different from their own culture or they feel a sort of kinship when it comes to the everyday struggle with trying to fit in with white America. So I honestly don't think people will be making such a big deal out of a little known video by a so-so rapper who can't seem to make up her mind what color or style her hair will be from one minute to the next. However, I do agree with you about the Harajuku title that has been given to her and Gwen Stefani. I don't think that these women exemplify what that really is. And yes, Wu-Tang Clan are better rappers.
You're getting on her because this is an Asian magazine and you're mad..... no one really cares about your opinion youre not an urban blog anyways ...... NEXT ! 

Not that this commenter is going to come back to get schooled. I'm only engaging this comment to give my spiel about the nature of blogging -- just because the discussion is dominated by one subculture (in this case, urban blogs), doesn't mean their version is the correct one or the only one with anything worth saying.

And anyway, in researching for this post I found at least fifteen urban blogs calling Nicki Minaj wack anyway so... NEXT!

I'd never heard of her before this article, but in looking her up, I didn't find anything that would compell me to get to know her as an, um, "artist". She's a stripper-cum-rapper, exploiting Asian culture as a "fashion statement" because she lacks creativity. Sort of like those chicks who wear chopsticks in their hair and think it's clever. It's not. And, neither is this chick. Let it go, and feel justified in your lack of admiration for her; she sucks. Plain and simple.
smdh is all i can do its funny how hard people will go to defend nicki minaj as if yall really know dis chick the truth of the matter is nicki minaj is not da hottest thing we have seen as far as female rappers i do give her props as a female representing us since shes da only one doing it but she doesnt represent me as a female nor what i stand for.she does lack substance n quite frankly lyrically i cant understand a word she says half da time people need to get over da fact dat everybody is not going to like nicki nor her rapping whether she sells records or not dat doesnt stop my bills from being paid i wish her all da luck she better get her money while she can cuz there will come a time when we'll be asking ourselves'whatever happened to the chick dat was out wit wayne n cash money' no hate dats just real talk
still I rise , stil i fight, still i might crack a smile keep my eyes on the prize. see my hater tell them hi :) one day you'll remember this, one day when we reminisce nothing i do ever is good enough for the music biz.
I too thought the my love video was pretty terrible in terms of cultural appropriation. But to say no one respects Nicki is a bit much - she's actually getting a lot of accolades at the moment. She kills it on kanye's 'monster'. And when you hear her interviewed at length I actually think she's pretty intelligent. her harajuku definetition is terrible - but unfortunetely A LOT of people use 'harajuku' in that sense.Does that make it ok? no. But I've seen parties/clubnights advertised here in Australia as 'harajuku' fashion night. What about white people doing cosplay at manga events? You can blame Steffani (and her usage of the term was a whole 'nother level of terrible), but I remember as a teen people were already talking a lot about fruits and decora fashion - it was a big influence on teens I met here. It has a lot to do with education about appropriation. I have trouble explaining to most people what is even wrong with cultural appropriation - something I tend to discuss with other designers who do it when i get the chance. They say hip hop has an obsession with asian cultures and appropriating those cultures - I'd say that is true. But then there's a number Korean hip-hop/pop groups blatently appropriating hip hop culture. Or the girl bands appropriating mo-town. Once again, I don't offer any answers, and I can't defend the artists - but I also can't entirely dismiss them. Nor could I offer up wu tang as being better or less offensive than minaj - I think you'd have a pretty hard time saying that....
whoops, I posted instead of spell-checked, sorry about the million typos!
if what you say is true the shaolin and the wutang must be dangerous...
your editorial is legitimate as well as it comes from a valid point-of-view, but i wonder if we're taking nicki minaj's ethnic background into consideration? i mean, we can all bash nicki minaj for her cultural appropriation or simultaneously praise her for being a over-the-top artist, but the matter of the fact is that we -- as readers, fans, or bloggers -- aren't taking into account that minaj is of asian descent herself. in a new york times article, it clearly stats that the artist is multiracial -- coming from African, Trinidadian and Indo-Asian descent. can we still accuse, mislabel, or (re)define her with the same monolithic standards of identity that most individuals have done so already? granted, excessive cultural appropriation (e.g. madonna and india, or stefani and japan) is never tasteful as well as it is a slippery slope to categorize someone with. however, knowing that she is indeed a part of our community does change things -- to a degree. as someone from a asian-mixed heritage, i think what really needs to be addressed is when entertainers or other figures, misuse cultural markers and reemerge to introduce it as a flamboyant spectacle which is far from its original beginnings. additionally, when people take these same characteristics and mold them into a globalizing bastardization of western/american culture. hmph.
Historically speaking (late 19th century America), black folks have embraced Asians. Nicki along with Wu Tang and other groups just found a way to capitalize on it.    
I honestly feel that she is embracing Asian culture and spreading it to the hip hop community, as well as mainstream (not to say that other performers have not done so already). So are black people supposed to only rap about black-related subjects, as for Trinidadian rappers to only rap about trini-related topics? Why boldly highlight the racial/ethnic boundary that separates us already? I respect her for being successful and tough in this industry. As for the broad(I know you're a female just by the jealousy you projected) who said: "smdh is all i can do its funny how hard people will go to defend nicki minaj as if yall really know dis chick" I think it's funny how hard people like YOU will go to put someone down, like you're unhappy or something. Nicki was probably referring to you when she said "you mad at me because you think I have it easy. If we were in the 2nd grade then you would tease me. You see, you're still a snotty-nosed hoodrat. i love nicki scribbled all over your bookbag." lol jump out a window. If you dont understand a word she says, then you obviously don't know punchlines. Go watch a couple of GrindTime Battles, then come back to this. And you said "she doesnt represent me as a female nor what i stand for." So you expect female rappers to rap only about you? not me, your grandma, my best friend, Oprah, hilary clinton, etc., but YOU only right? GTFOH lol Put your suggestion in an envelope, mail that crap to the North Pole and hopefully you'll get your wish. Do you also want Nicki to replace "th" in their proper places of words with a "d" instead? Like how you do? Learn how to spell before you judge someone who's educated and business-savvy aka Nicki Minaj. I can't believe i just dedicated this post to your ignorant comment. Waste of my life! I have 3 words for you, "It's Barbie B******CH!" Everyone, go peep her song "Can Anybody Hear Me" referring to people in the industry, as well as people like "Anonymous". "Dear God, I am only what you made, and I appreciate everything that you gave me. But like, I don't wanna do it no more. Sorta lost sight of what I'm doing it for. Thought that I was doing something good for the game...Until they all started throwing dirt on my name."