In Defense of Iconoclasm

In Defense of Iconoclasm

Words by Dave Bry

With the impending release of the new Young Money record, one writer revisits the Nicki Minaj “Looking Ass Nigga” controversy with a new perspective. 

Earlier this week, Jesse Washington of the Associated Press wrote an article called “Rap Disrespect of Black Icons Raises Concerns.” It addressed Lil Wayne and Emmit Til and Russell Simmons and Harriet Tubman, but was mostly centered on a controversy sparked last month when Nicki Minaj used a famous picture of Malcolm X as the artwork accompanying her new single, “Lookin’ Ass N*gga.”

“Chart-topping rapstress Nicki Minaj provoked widespread outrage with an Instagram post featuring one of black history’s most poignant images,” he wrote. “Malcolm X peering out the window of his home, rifle in hand, trying to defend his wife and children from firebombs while under surveillance by federal agents. Superimposed on the photo: the title of Minaj’s new song, which denigrates certain black men and repeats the N-word 42 times.”

Indeed, Nicki made a lot of people angry. A change.org petition started by Kevin Powell’s BK Nation, calling for her and her record label to “stop disrespecting Malcolm X, black history and black people,” collected 796 signatures. Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, released a statement saying, “Ms. Minaj’s artwork for her single does not depict the truth of Malcolm X’s legacy.” Sacha Jenkins, creative director here at Mass Appeal, wrote an editorial called, “Nicki Minaj: Eat My Crusty Boxer Briefs, Ni**a!” It’s an excellent piece, making its point about co-option with a searing mix of humor and bile.

“Maybe I’m just an old ass-man/hater who has a hard on for history and the powerful lessons gleaned from history,” says Jenkins, who is 42. (Nicki Minaj is 31.) “Maybe history doesn’t matter to this generation of rap fans. Pop fans probably REALLY don’t care about history, and Nicki, you are a Pop Tart of the highest order. Maybe that’s why you’re trying to come hardcore with a song that says nigga every two seconds. I hope all of your little Barbies around the world understand what you’re saying—especially all of the little white girls. I hope your message makes them want to watch Roots via Netflix. The foot cut off scenes could maybe inspire a new dance step that you can then turn around and sell at Macy’s or Toys ‘R’ Us a la a board game called ‘Nicki Minaj’s On The Good Foot Dance Board Game.’”

Nicki Minaj took the image down from her Instagram and replaced with a message saying, “I apologize to the Malcolm X estate if the meaning of the photo was misconstrued. I have nothing but respect (and) adoration for u.”
Jesse Washington and Sacha Jenkins are black. I worked with both of them, at Vibe magazine in the 1990s, and consider them both friends. They’re both incredibly smart, and they’ve each taught me a great deal about hip hop and black history and the intersection of these things. Far more than I could ever teach them. I am white, and find myself in the less-than-one-hundred-percent comfortable position of engaging in this argument from an outsider’s perspective. Nevertheless, I think argument is healthy, so I am writing here in defense of Nicki Minaj’s usage of the picture of Malcolm X.

It’s because Nicki Minaj is an artist.

Even if she is a pop artist, even if she sells her music and videos and, as Sacha noted, a line of perfume, she is an artist and we need to look at what she’s doing as art. Whether or not we think it’s successful, whether or not we like it. There is something to be said for respecting history, our historical heroes, iconic images, etc. But I think, especially when it comes to art, especially in a form like hip hop, there is more to be said for allowing our artists to use and manipulate and reinterpret history, our historical heroes, iconic images, etc., in absolutely any way they see fit. Even if there’s something disrespectful about how it comes out. Perhaps, in some cases, because there’s something disrespectful about it. Jesse’s article started off by saying, “Malcolm X and rap music have always fit together like a needle in the groove, connected by struggle, strength and defiance.” Taking the old and making something new out of it, often with a middle finger raised in the direction of anyone who might say not to, is at hip hop’s very core.

Last week, rapper Talib Kweli went on Twitter to discuss another kerfuffle that greeted the release of some other cover art: that of Pharrell’s new album Girl. This one featured three light-skinned women, and struck some people as insensitive for “colorist” reasons. “Your self image is not an artist[’s] responsibility,” Kweli wrote, “Artists have 1 responsibility; honesty. They ain’t gotta explain.”

This dovetails with my thinking about Nicki Minaj. We can attack her art, or her artwork, as unsuccessful on any number of levels. But we can’t, or we should not, tell her what materials she’s allowed to use in her attempt at creating that art. Artists should be allowed to make their palettes out of everything they see or hear or know about in the world. This includes swastikas, crucifixes and urine, the Virgin Mary and elephant dung, and the Prophet Muhammad. The idea of killing one’s idols, even just the freedom to do so, irreverence, is an important part of the artistic impulse. Artists take the world as they find it, and crumple it up, and build it into something new.

Elder generations (and here I include my 43-year-old self with Jesse, 44, and Sacha) owe younger artists the same leeway we gave to KRS-One, who referenced the same picture of Malcolm X for the cover of Boogie Down Productions’ 1988 album By All Means Necessary. We don’t have to like Nicki Minaj’s music as much as we like BDP’s. (We don’t, I’m pretty sure. Though I happen to think the new song is powerful and excellent in its own way.) But we have to remember that KRS was in the business of selling records, too. And we have to give Nicki the benefit of the doubt when it comes to intentions. She is making her own statement. One that I read as, mostly, “Fuck you, Patriarchy.”

Art, certainly of the popular music variety, flourishes best in an environment where nothing is more sacred than the art itself. Think of punk rock’s willful destruction of all previous codes. Think of early hip hop’s. Think of N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police.”

Think of The Police. On their first album, released way back in 1978, the great British punk-pop group had a song called “Born in the 50’s.” On it, Sting shouted a call to rebellion that could be, that should be, I would say, repeated by every generation of human beings for the rest of time.

“You don’t understand us
So don’t reprimand us
We’re taking the future
We don’t need no teacher.”

Sting sucks now, of course. He’s so old.