Nicki Minaj's Malcolm X Controversy: What Her Critics Got Wrong

The single art for "Lookin' Ass Nigga" shouldn't overshadow its powerful music video

Nicki Minaj's Malcolm X Controversy: What Her Critics Got Wrong
Nicki Minaj
Brandon Soderberg WRITTEN BY
Brandon Soderberg

Last week, when Nicki Minaj released her new song, "Lookin' Ass Nigga," she got two completely different reactions. Her fans were excited by the prospect of a new rappity-rap song from their heroine, complete with a music video that trolled the rap patriarchy and ambitiously commented on hip-hop objectification. But her detractors quickly denounced the "unofficial" single art — a famous photo of Malcolm X with a rifle in his hands, peering out a window in his home — as deeply, unforgivably offensive. 

The art was unwise — even the Malcolm X estate itself took issue — and Nicki apologized just one day after posting it, though on Hot 97 a few days later, she defended her use of the image, which she viewed as “a parallel” for the way women are attacked in hip-hop culture. She made the right decision to back off, and though it's easy to see why the photo caused controversy, her intent, along with the song's explicitly feminist music video, has been either ignored or grossly misread by her critics, and that's a problem.

The “Lookin' Ass Nigga” video is truly something special: a furious and explicit attack on the male gaze that pervades so many rap videos. Here, the men are reduced to leering, creepy eyeballs (Nicki's body reflected in their pupils), and in its final moments, Nicki pulls out two guns and shoots offscreen, killing these onlookers and, by implication, all the lecherous dudes on their laptops and smart phones, watching the video and objectifying her — she is murdering the male gaze. That this thing premiered on WorldStarHipHop, the exploitative armpit of the hip-hop Internet, just makes it even more subversive.

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Perhaps the most frustrating response to the video came from Kevin Powell, who started a Change.Org petition exhorting Minaj and Universal Music Group to “Stop Disrespecting Malcolm X, Black History and Black People.” Taking issue with Malcolm X being used to promote a single titled “Lookin' Ass Nigga” is courageous. But read how Powell characterizes the video: “Nicki Minaj’s use of guns in her new music video speaks to the gun culture in our society today where gun violence is an acceptable norm.” How could anybody view this stark black-and-white video, with Nicki in the desert, cartoonishly firing weapons on male onlookers, as having anything to do with hip-hop's street culture? 

On Tuesday, five days after the single art was removed and Minaj apologized, The Huffington Post published "Malcolm X and Nicki Minaj Got Nothing in Common: Offended by All Means" by Reverend Charles E. Williams II. It is, again, rightfully outraged by the Malcolm X imagery, but it also trips and falls on its conservative sanctimony when it comes to women's bodies, which is what the song is about and the reason she used that image in the first place — because she feels under attack by sexism and objectification. Williams makes the frustrating mistake of critiquing what Minaj wears (or doesn't), misunderstanding the song and video and giving forward-thinking rap fans "Bitch Bad" flashbacks: “There is no way people, nor myself, should let you stand by and use Malcolm X in your "ignant"... no-class single, about men looking at you with barely no clothes on.” Williams goes on to critique rap's “demeaning and misogynist lyrics,” but again: Here's a video that takes on hip-hop's misogyny! Nick is expressing herself sexually, on her own terms, while refusing to accept that she deserves to be stared at and judged as a result. 

And has nobody acknowledged the song and single art's connections to hip-hop history? “Lookin' Ass Nigga” itself is based around a sample of the Mohawks' “The Champ,” a stalwart break and beat sampled on hundreds of songs, including EPMD's “The Big Payback,” Eric B. & Rakim's “Eric B. Is President,” and Main Source's “Large Professor,” which should certainly count for something in 2014, if you're concerned about tradition and history. The single art should've immediately recalled Boogie Down Productions' 1988 album By All Means Necessary, whose album art features KRS-One recreating that same famous Malcolm X photo. It also connects to Funkadelic's 1979 cover for Uncle Jam Wants You, which recreated a photo of Huey Newton and was later referenced by OutKast's Big Boi for 2003's Speakerboxxx.

In short, black pop has a long history of co-opting revolutionary imagery, and it's curious that the buck stops at Nicki Minaj, an ambitious, complex female rapper who, hey, also happened to make a radically feminist video. Ignoring and misreading such an overtly political music video to start a campaign about how irresponsible and disrespectful she is — based on an image tossed onto Instagram and nothing more — feels intellectually lazy. In Nicki's case, though, it seems particularly absurd, given her inarguable skills as an MC, her rarefied role as an empowered woman in hip-hop, and the release of one of the most explicitly feminist rap videos the mainstream has ever seen.

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