by Dr. Boyce Watkins
My good friend Etan Thomas sent me a picture of the latest album cover released by the rapper Nicki Minaj. The cover of the album, called “Lookin Ass N*gga,” made me turn my head to the side, trying to figure out why Minaj would do something so ridiculous. What I actually saw in the album cover was the act of a desperate woman who is deeply concerned about the fact that she’s now about as relevant as a four year old lottery ticket (My daughters talked about Nicki a lot back in 2009, but rarely mention her today).
But this cover went a little deeper than standard edgy artistic expression and it’s ironic that it was released during Black History Month. For many of us, it shows just how low we’ve sunk as a people and how quickly some of us are willing to stomp on all that is sacred in order to make an extra dollar. Notice that, when Malcolm was killed nearly 50 years ago, he was assassinated by other black people as part of a broader conspiracy. Years later, irresponsible African American artists are hellbent on murdering his reputation.
Here are a few reasons that Nicki Minaj made a grave error in using Malcolm X for her album cover and why she might want to use that fast tongue of hers to spit out an apology as soon as she possibly can:
1) Because there is a good chance that Nicki doesn’t know very much about Malcolm, at least many of her listeners don’t: Unfortunately, the mighty power of hip-hop to empower a nation has been transformed into the kind of minstrel show that makes you want to jump off a bridge. We live in a generation where ignorance is king and Nicki is at the epicenter of an era of psychological genocide of our young people. If Nicki and her homies at Cash Money Records were to spend as much time educating black youth on Malcolm’s greatness as they spend bowing and begging for money, they could literally change the entire African American community. But hey….black kids don’t pay the bills, so why not just keep letting them die in the street?
2) Malcolm was not a big fan of women who disrespect themselves in the way that Nicki does: Nicki Minaj, quite frankly, is a brilliant lyricist. I agree with her assessment that she is every bit as good as any man in the highly sexist hip hop music industry. But perhaps caving into economic pressure, Nicki has turned herself into some kind of plastic-looking ghetto cupie doll, where everything is about having pink hair, big bubbly eyes and trashy, skin tight outfits. With this album cover featuring Malcolm X, Minaj is exploiting the image a man who lived his life with the kind of dignity she will never understand and presuming that he too would like to be part of the minstrel show. Maybe Nicki can study Malcolm’s life a little more carefully and realize that he understood that there are some things more important than making money.
3) Malcolm wasn’t interested in calling himself a “N*gger,” a “N*gga” or anything similar: Malcolm prided himself on representing the essence of manhood. I wrote an article once comparing the rapper Lil Wayne to Malcolm Little (not Malcolm X), because I truly believe that there are millions of Lil Waynes in the world who could become as great as Malcolm if they were to apply their power and intelligence for good, rather than evil. Malcolm X was nobody’s “N*gga”: He stood up to racist white America in such a fierce and forthright way that it cost him his life. That courage is something that Nicki and her friends don’t know much about, since they spend the bulk of their time happily buck dancing for a bigger bank account. Maybe they need to just stay in their lane.
4) Because Nicki’s partner, Lil Wayne, is the rapper who compared Emmett Till’s face to a woman’s [email protected]: Lil Wayne owns Cash Money Records, the label that profits from the size of Nicki Minaj’s booty. You could actually say that they are her pimps. A few months ago, Wayne released a song called “Karate Chop,” where he compared Emmett Till’s battered face with a woman’s [email protected] after he finished having sex with her. The Rev. Jesse Jackson called me about the incident and we tried like hell to get Wayne to apologize or at least understand the severity of his words. But money can make people blind, deaf and ignorant, so we were ignored. It wasn’t until I wrote my “open letter” to Mountain Dew that Wayne lost his endorsement deal with the company and eventually issued an apology.
I only ask this: Why do we have to fight each other and cost an artist millions of dollars before they realize that you shouldn’t urinate all over the legacies of the men and women who paved the way for us to have the freedoms that we have today? Malcolm X gave his life for Nicki to shake her butt, but she repays him by reducing him to a cartoon character.
The truth is that people like myself, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj should be fighting on the same side: Our kids are going to prison by the boatloat, left woefully uneducated and dying in the street. Little black girls are being abused and plagued with self-esteem problems that last into adulthood. Those with the biggest voices in the hip-hop music industry should be at the front of the pack when it comes to speaking on these matters of importance. We should also be diligent when confronting the overseer record labels who give artists a financial incentive to share and perpetuate messages that are destructive to our community.
Ignorance is like a virus, and it’s difficult to manage situations in which your loved ones are infected. So, when dealing with the intellectual zombies that some rappers have chosen to be, you have to take shots at the head and protect your children by any means necessary. The fact that the perpetrator has a black face only makes the crime that much worse in severity, since we sometimes feel that we can’t confront oppressors who look like us.
Nicki Minaj and her record label owe black America an apology. If we don’t protect Malcolm’s legacy, then nobody will.