“Pussy put his ass to sleep, now he callin’ me Nyquil”:

Nicki Minaj, Black Female Sexuality, and Sexual Empowerment

Cover image for Nicki Minaj’s 2014 single “Anaconda”

Nicki Minaj’s 2014 “Anaconda” is an excellent and super catchy conduit for talking about the sexual empowerment of Black Women. The song samples and reconceives Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 90s hit “Baby Got Back,” which transformed Black women’s voluptuous butts from “loci of their deviance and hypersexuality” to “symbols of desirability and beauty.”[1] In the video, Minaj plays with the image of the naturally hypersexualized Black woman when she accentuates her own butt. Her sexualized dancing and claiming of her own body as attractive recalls and attempts to rewrite centuries of gawking at the Black woman’s body as a site for uncontrollable, violent desire.

But Black women in rap music videos have always been the subject of heated debate. Mireille Miller-Young argues that sex and representations of it, especially in rap music videos, are “rich with possibilities for self-actualization and empowerment” for Black women, but that those performances are made complex by the “stigmas and abuses that devalue, commodify, appropriate, mystify, and violate Black women’s sexual integrity.”[2] Given the pervasive imagery of Black women as pejoratively hypersexual and thus deserving of sexual violence, blame, and dismissal, can Minaj even harness her sexuality as a source of power?

The myth that women can gain power by getting paid, even if the source of that income is work considered degrading, is the “female empowerment myth” [3] And yet, many Black female musicians do feel empowered when they perform sexuality for the patriarchal gaze and profit from it. If Minaj performs sexuality and femininity and “fetishiz[es] [her]self as a consumable commodity”[4] and is paid for it, is she empowered?

That depends on how we define power. In the highly visual medium of the music video, it is helpful to think of power in terms of intentions and objectification. Minaj’s rump shaking, while it can be empowering and is paid labor, becomes objectifying and disempowering in the light of widely held racist and sexist conceptions of Black women. Thus, we must interrogate the construct of power differently, like by asking how it is represented. When Minaj plays a model’s butt like a drum and surrounds herself with scantily clad dancing women, it’s difficult to say if the models are objectified or empowered, but Minaj is certainly dominating the scene.

Minaj, though, is a rapper. Rap can be read as a positive space for Black woman rappers, and Bettina Love writes that it’s “a place where race, class, gender, and belief systems are constructed and informed,” especially for younger female listeners.[5] Love’s ethnographic research shows that the six girls she interviewed lacked the analytic framework to understand gender and racial oppression and insisted that video models made poor decisions to get themselves placed. If Minaj raps about female empowerment while twerking, but most people lack the vocabulary to question systems of racial and gender oppression and see so her as a ‘ho,’ is Minaj still empowered?

That raises questions about subjectivity. Is Minaj’s status as an empowered Black woman dependent more on the intentions of her actions and her perception of herself, or on others’ perceptions of her? Unfortunately, answering this question fully would require stepping outside the white supremacist patriarchy that creates the condition for Black women’s bodies to be so devalued and mistreated in the first place, an impossible task. To investigate the sexual empowerment of Black women requires a deep understanding of the history of the Black female body and how it is has been vilified, consumed for profit, objectified, and sexually assaulted; of sexual empowerment, and who is marked by sexual dominance; and what kind of capital maintains power and what the effects of that are on the Black female consciousness. We need to ask questions of intentionality and subjectivity and weigh self-perception against popular perception, mostly to no answer.

Jackson writes: “Y’all, we we’re ready for…’Anaconda.’ We ain’t ready for women to fully own and inhabit their bodies, their sexuality, their selves,” but by doing the work to interrogate the nuances of Black female sexual empowerment, we can become ready.

[1] Miller-Young, Mireille. "Hip-Hop Honeys and Da Hustlaz: Black Sexualities in New Hip-Hop Pornography." Meridians 8.No. 1. Representin': Women, Hip-Hop, and Popular Music (2008): 268–269. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

[2] Miller-Young 286, 278

[3]Alinda. "Black History, Black Women, & Sexual Empowerment." Madness Reality. N.p., 7 Apr. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

[4] Miller-Young 283

[5] Love, Bettina L. “Where Are the White Girls?: A Qualitative Analysis of How Six African American Girls Made Meaning of Their Sexuality, Race and Gender through the Lens of Rap.” Counterpoints, the Sexuality CURRICULUM and Youth CULTURE 392 (2011): 122. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

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