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Reclaiming the Booty

by AFP
Theo Wargo-Getty Images North America—AFP

Theo Wargo-Getty Images North America—AFP

Nicki Minaj highlights black women’s challenges in criticism of MTV’s Video Music Awards.

Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video opens in a jungle and the camera goes straight to the heart, or rather bottom, of the matter—the rapper’s derriere, which she gyrates with sensual delight. The video is a five-minute celebration of a black woman’s body and has been watched nearly half a billion times on YouTube, breaking what at the time was the record for first-day views.

The failure of “Anaconda” to land a nomination in the top category at MTV’s Video Music Awards led Minaj to speak out, charging that the music industry preferred to recognize women with “very slim” forms.

Much of the media attention focused on the response by nominee Taylor Swift who, casting herself as a feminist, asked Minaj why she would “pit women against each other” and invited her to join her on stage if Swift won. Minaj said that the white superstar missed the point and Swift later apologized, marking a rare false note for the country-turned-pop singer who has carefully cultivated an anodyne image.

Minaj welcomed the apology and said there was no, in the words of Swift’s nominated song, bad blood. But the Trinidad-born, New York-bred artist urged greater discussion on the role of African American women in music.

“Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely rewarded for it,” she wrote on Twitter.

Women of color have seen success previously at the MTV awards, with past winners for Video of the Year including Rihanna, Missy Elliot and Beyonce, who was again nominated this year. But “Anaconda”—which was nominated in three categories including Best Hip-Hop Video—stands out for its bold cultural message, starting with the ironically exotic setting of a jungle with scantily clad black women.

Other songs have extolled fulsome behinds—notably 1992’s “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot, with its refrain “I like big butts and I cannot lie”—but the women of “Anaconda” twerk their bottoms with nary a man in sight. The only man comes at the end, when Minaj—singing, “I want to see all the big fat ass bitches”—lap dances around the seated rapper Drake. As he reaches to touch, she slaps his hand away.

“She is definitely playing on racial stereotypes but I think she’s also turning them on their head,” said Janell Hobson, an associate professor of women’s studies at the State University of New York at Albany. “She is reclaiming the body—she is reclaiming the booty—for women’s own self-affirmation as a sign of beauty and pride—‘Yes, look at me, if you’re going to look,’” she said.

As “Anaconda” was passed over for Video of the Year, MTV announced the host of the Aug. 30 gala would be Miley Cyrus, who at the 2013 awards famously stripped to a skin-color bikini and twerked with singer Robin Thicke. The performance brought mainstream exposure to twerking, the bottoms-in-the-air dance that grew from the 1990s New Orleans bounce scene and is often considered to have roots in West Africa. And Cyrus, the onetime child star on the Disney television series Hannah Montana, managed permanently to transform her image into a sex symbol.

More recently, Swift slipped underneath twerking women of color in her video for “Shake It Off,” as she teased about her inability to learn various dances.

“The advantage that white women have is that they are automatically presumed to be sexually pure, so any deviation from that is seen as a break from the patriarchal confines of sexual oppression,” said Cate Young, author of the feminist pop culture blog BattyMamzelle. “Women of color are coming from a place where we are presumed to be sexually deviant and so we are left in a position of either confirming that stereotype by expressing our very normal human sexuality, or repressing our sexuality in order to avoid stereotypes. So either way, we don’t win.”

Controversy also erupted over the latest Grammys, where white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was nominated for four awards, although she went home empty-handed. Rapper Azealia Banks was especially outspoken by accusing Azalea, who performs in a southern African American accent, of cultural exploitation.

White artists’ adaptation of African American culture is as old as rock and roll. But, the cultural sociologist Carolyn Chernoff said, “appropriation is not the same as appreciation.”

“It’s not to say that white people can only square-dance or clog,” she said. “But it’s saying that there are certain ways that white artists knowingly use culture that is associated with a particular kind of American blackness, and do it in ways that reinforce harmful stereotypes.”

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