“I thank God that I’ve been placed in a position to do something, and represent women in a culture that is so male-driven.” Nicki Minaj’s acceptance speech started out classily enough. Last night, for the fifth year in a row, she won the title of Best Female Hip Hop Artist at the BET Awards. She thanked BET for putting black people on TV, turned up her nose at the term “female rapper,” and then qualified herself for the Shade Hall of Fame by throwing in a few pointed jabs at her only real competitor for the award, Iggy Azalea. (Other nominees included Angel Haze, Eve, and Charli Baltimore.)
“What I want the world to know about Nicki Minaj is when you hear Nicki Minaj spit, Nicki Minaj wrote it,” she said, seemingly referring to the rumors that Iggy-Igg uses ghostwriters (such as her mentor T.I.). Then she smirked, did this prissy dance move, and looked over at her own mentor, Lil Wayne, with a shit-eating grin. “No, no, no shade,” she muttered four times, which indeed means yes, shade.
Rap has always been a particularly competitive genre of music, where the beef’s as thick as a Peter Luger filet. But this goes beyond the basic shade-throwing that happens between Drake’s OVO family and Kendrick Lamar’s TDE crew. “I don’t look at myself as a female rapper because I know what I do,” Minaj continued in her BET Awards speech. This is not a new line for the woman who screeched, “I am not Jasmine, I am Aladdin.” Earlier this year she told MTV, “Absolutely, I do not see myself as a female rapper anymore. I’m sorry, I see myself as a rapper. Like you said, I’ve worked with the greats and I’ve held my own with the greats. They respect me so I should respect myself enough to see myself the same way they see themselves.”
Anymore. How exactly does one grow out of her gendered category while still being proud to represent women in rap? If Nicki Minaj is choosing to identify as post-gender, did she only achieve this by garnering as much respect as her male peers? And does this mean Minaj’s female peers like Iggy Azalea will transcend the “femcee” ghetto if and only if they are perceived by their male peers as real competitors? Why give the men that much power?
Nicki Minaj is part of the solution and part of the problem. It’s clear that she reads “female rapper” as a diss. Yet she’s among the biggest stars to ever bear that title, which seemingly allows only one marquee name to exist at any given time, despite numerous male stars serving as the faces of stylistic and regional rap movements. It would be awfully second-wave feminist of me to say that Minaj owes it to her female peers, like Iggy, to show solidarity in order to break down barriers together. But to argue that respect from her male peers allows her to abandon self-identifying as a woman in the industry is a slap in the face to women trying to fight rap’s sexism instead of adhering to its arbitrary rules that suggest there can only be one female rap superstar.
Earlier this year, after straight-up laughing at Forbes‘ assertion that Azalea “runs hip-hop,” Minaj congratulated Iggy with a tempered compliment on Hot 97’s Breakfast Club. “I think that congratulations is in order. Her single is doing really, really well, and I think that’s a good thing,” Nicki said, adding, “I just want female rappers to understand that I’ve kicked in a lot of doors for them and I just would appreciate if they would acknowledge that.”
An important factor in Minaj’s rise to worldwide success — much like Missy Elliott before her and Iggy Azalea after her — was her pop radio crossover. All three women reached superstar status when they blended pop and hip-hop in an appeal to non-rap fans, a listenership that leans more female than male. The pop crossover is often perceived negatively within hip-hop, but Nicki and Missy have remained respected despite it — perhaps a bigger feat for Minaj, in light of her relentless pop grind. For her to besmirch a peer for pop-star tendencies (like not writing her own songs) is a touch hypocritical, but moreover, a public catfight with Iggy Azalea is exactly what hip-hop’s male gatekeepers want.
If Nicki not only realized this expectation but cared about subverting it, she might decide not to shun her gender by playing into a game men created. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely — because when you’re winning, why hate the game?