Nicki Minaj’s just-released single “Lookin Ass Niggas” is a grandiloquent takedown of black men who have failed to live up to her personal standards of manhood—defined in terms of drug using and dealing, sexual prowess, employment (or lack thereof), wealth and other measures of material status. The lyrics alone raise important questions about the values and ideals being extolled in corporate hip-hop.
And in a feat rivaling a Quentin Tarantino film, she packs in the word “nigga” 40 times in just under three minutes.
But it’s the initial artwork accompanying the track that’s causing the greatest concern: The famous image of a rifle-bearing Malcolm X looking out the window—once emulated to great effect on the cover of Boogie Down Productions’ album By All Means Necessary—is now captioned by the track’s title. Was Minaj calling Malcolm X—peering outside his home in a posture of self-defense—a “lookin ass nigga”? And should she have even dared to juxtapose Malcolm’s image or likeness anywhere near a word so vile?
It’s easy to dismiss Minaj and the commercial hip-hop she purveys as villainous misappropriators and disrespecters of one of the most iconic black leaders in American history. And once the image was out there, a number of commentators immediately sounded the alarm, including respected activists Rosa Clemente, Kevin Powell and Dominique Howse, who organized a Change.org petition to have the image removed.
As the controversy has progressed, though, Minaj’s response reflects an attempt to engage with Malcolm X’s actual history and meaning, even if it’s in a limited and remarkably flawed way—reflecting a broader trend in pop culture toward the selective and uncritical appropriation of Malcolm X, and the marginalization of the more radical voices in the black freedom movement.
In her apology posted on Instagram, Minaj explains, “I am in the video shooting at Lookin Ass Niggaz and there happened to be an iconic photo of Malcolm X ready to do the same thing for what he believed in!!!!” So it wasn’t, she says, that Minaj thought of Malcolm as a “lookin ass nigga”; it was that Minaj thought herself to be a Malcolm.
“Do you have a problem with me referring to the people Malcolm X was ready to pull his gun out on as Lookin Ass Niggaz?” she asks.
By highlighting the fratricidal nature of the conflict that ultimately took Malcolm X’s life, she’s presuming to echo Public Enemy, circa 1989, when Chuck D rapped in “Welcome to the Terrordome” that “every brother ain’t a brother, ’cause a black hand squeezed on Malcolm X the man.” Either that, or she’s grasping a little too hard for Malcolm’s grievance, told to his biographer, Alex Haley, near the end of his life, that “we had the best organization the black man ever had—niggers ruined it.”
But that’s where any similarities end. She’s not mourning the squandered potential of the Nation of Islam or defending her family from violent attack—as Malcolm was with his gun. Rather, her remixed history of Malcolm X leaves out a critical refrain: While he may have battled with other black activists, his greater struggle pitted him squarely against the powerful racist forces within the U.S. government.
Whether or not Minaj knows Malcolm X’s full history, her decision to distort it has a broader institutional context, with negative implications. Just last week, teachers at Public School 201 in the Flushing, Queens, neighborhood of New York City refused to let their fourth-grade students write about Malcolm X, whom they pronounced “violent” and “bad.” In that instance, parents encouraged their children to do those papers, and challenged teachers to familiarize themselves with The Autobiography of Malcolm X—a read that would undoubtedly give them a better measure of the man.
The manipulation of Malcolm X’s image, in particular, also has a broader context. In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor, but the image was cropped from a photo of Malcolm in Cairo in 1964, calling on African heads of state to charge the U.S. government with human rights violations in the United Nations.
If Minaj’s appropriation of Malcolm’s image for “Lookin Ass Nigga” was egregious, certainly the Postal Service’s revision of Malcolm X’s radical politics was just as glaring, if not more so, no matter how respectable the outcome in the form of a stamp.
These acts of disembodiment sever Malcolm from his radical tradition of protest against injustice, from his radical love of black people and from his humanity. They are all acts of cropping that rob us of the richness of our history.
Read more of The Root’s coverage in “Nicki Minaj Apologizes for Malcolm X Cover Art.”
Zaheer Ali is a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University and a lecturer in black studies at the City College of New York, where he teaches a course on Malcolm X. He served as a project manager of Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project and was a lead researcher for the late Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Follow him on Twitter.