Last month as Nicki Minaj was performing her half of Beyonce’s “***Flawless” remix at the iHeartRadio Music festival when her music abruptly stopped. “You guys, is there a problem in the back?” she asked. “’Cause I can do it acapella,” she declared as she proceeded to launch into the verbal acrobatics that have made her the burgeoning icon that she is.
As I watched Minaj rap I couldn’t help but think of another performance given by her contemporary Iggy Azalea. In June, Azalea appeared to fail to even lip sync during a Chicago performance with Jennifer Lopez. Even though there’s no way to prove it, I think the hiccup during Minaj’s “***Flawless” performance was her subtle way of making a statement about her talent and her acclaim relative to Azalea’s. Nicki was showing herself to be the superior rapper while criticizing Iggy’s ability to perform in the face of a technical difficulty. In short, Nicki was throwing shade.
During that performance and her acceptance speech at the BET Awards, Nicki was using shade to make a political statement. As Evette Dionne pointed out in an article for Bustle.com white privilege has enabled Iggy Azalea, a rapper of what some might call questionable talent, to acquire a level of visibility and acclaim that is comparable to Minaj’s despite the fact that she has yet to achieve similar career milestones.
“It is, in fact, the privilege of being white that allows Azalea to be declared hip-hop’s preeminent figure when her album sold 52,000 copies in its first week, even though Nicki Minaj’s ‘Pink Friday’ sold 375,000 in its week-one debut.”
Despite this glaring difference between the two artists’ impact on music, Forbes saw fit to declare that “hip hop is run” by Iggy Azalea anyway. Though this kind of distortion is disconcerting it’s hardly new. As writer Joseph Vogel pointed out in an article for The Atlantic, a similar disparity exists in the ways that pop icons Janet Jackson and Madonna are received and celebrated.
“Yet in spite of their similar commercial achievements and cultural impact, Janet Jackson remains, by comparison [to Madonna], grossly undervalued by critics and historians. Try to find a book on her career, cultural significance, or creative work, and with the exception of her 2011 autobiography, True You: A Journey To Finding and Loving Yourself, which focuses on her struggles with body image and self-esteem, you will come up empty-handed. Do the same with Madonna, and you will find at least 20 books by major publishers.”
Vogel goes on to mention that Madonna is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, an important seal of approval that Janet has notably not yet received.
Iggy’s Forbes Magazine article and the levity with which the mainstream treats Janet Jackson’s notable achievements are ways of warping and ultimately nullifying the legacies of women of color. The subtle jabs that Nicki Minaj made at Iggy Azalea during her BET Awards acceptance speech and Las Vegas performance were just her way of rectifying that. While Iggy Azalea seems to be a well-meaning and nice enough person her measure of talent is in no way comparable to Nicki Minaj’s, Angel Haze’s or Charlie Baltimore’s, the women that she was allowed to stand beside in BET’s Best Female Hip-Hop Artist category.
Nicki Minaj knows that despite the fact that she can outsell Iggy Azalea and rap veritable circles around her that her hard-earned status as hip hop’s queen emcee can be unrightfully usurped. After all, if Janet Jackson’s impact can be erased from history why not Nicki Minaj’s?
She also knows that if she were to make a point of explicitly saying that the gulf between she and Azalea’s talent is wide and unlikely to be bridged that she would probably receive undue criticism. So instead, in the face of America’s fascination with the performance of blackness in white bodies, she throw shade. And while some might call it petty, I say its political.