In the past month a battle has emerged between two of rap music's most visible female emcees, Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj. The beef is not about lyrical prowess; nor has it been fueled by New York City borough competition between Brooklyn-born Lil' Kim and Queens native Nicki Minaj. Instead, because of the small niche that has been etched for black women in hip-hop, Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj — along with their fans and followers — have been clamoring for the title of hip-hop's reigning sexual icon.
Both rappers have employed larger-than life expressions of femininity, sex and caricature in pursuit of it. "Y'all know who this is; I love starting trends," Kim told a Buffalo, New York, crowd earlier this month in an oblique reference to how much the outlandish and brightly hued hairpieces Minaj has been wearing lately resemble her own look in the 1996 video for "Crush On You." "I'm going to another level," proclaimed Kim. "I love the wigs and everything, but I'm so above them."
More than just a catfight between pop sirens, this is yet another chapter in the evolution of black sex symbols and the unique ways in which black women adopt alter egos in order to express their sexuality. Black women have been portrayed as hypersexualized "bad black girls" since the 17th century, so much so that this depiction has become a cultural archetype, according to K. Sue Jewell, a contemporary sociologist. Even today, black women remain bound by the racist belief that they are predisposed to sexual deviance and lewdness. The creation of alter egos provides safe haven from the pain of this stigma.
Popular culture has provided unique staging for the development and management of this character play. In the evolution of popular music, each generation of black artists evolves more fearlessly, expanding the public's conception of black sensuality and sexuality. Name changes and costuming have been central to creative personas of black female artists, and have provided refuge from the otherwise-confining space of black female sexual expression.
The sensual performances of Josephine Baker — most notably her seminude "Danse banane" from the Folies Bergère production of Un Vent de Folie in 1927 — brought her international notoriety during her career in France as the country's "Black Venus," "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess." Despite the freedom afforded her as "La Baker," Baker's sexual identity would remain entirely closeted.
Today Nicki Minaj offers her own "Harajuku Barbie" outfit to the masses, marrying the no-limits nature of Japanese youth culture with the iconic strength of America's sweetheart. Beyoncé Knowles, who adopted the Sasha Fierce persona in 2008, described her alter ego as being "fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken…and more glamorous" than she is.
In the case of any of today's mainstream entertainers, little is particularly new about the images they've created. Like Diana Ross before her, Knowles has transitioned from lead vocalist in an urban girl group to achieve iconic crossover success as an international solo artist and actress via a masterful blend of R&B and pop performance, along with careful image development. Knowles takes it a step further by also incorporating Tina Turner's sexual soul-rock sensibilities and dance styles.
Meanwhile, pixie-like Rihanna takes a page straight out of Grace Jones' aesthetic book to create her own "good girl gone bad" dichotomy: She wears a short, liberating haircut and models for statuesque, skin-baring, high-fashion photos in performance wear that pulls directly from Jones' catalog. While Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj defend and debate who owns the trends they set to secure their means of self-expression, one must ask how black women can evolve beyond needing a stunt double.
Daunted by the seemingly inevitable fact that they'll be pegged as either oversexed jezebels or asexual mammies, many young black women struggle to express their own sexuality without the benefits of the second skin afforded by performance art. In the era of Sasha Fierce and the Harajuku Barbie, black girls dress, speak and act in ways that imitate these pop projections of black sexual power created by grown women playing dress-up. Our community must shatter the good girl-bad girl moral dichotomy that so firmly binds expressions of black female sexuality — otherwise the agency of young black girls and women is put at risk through the shaming of their sexual maturation.
A public example of this type of shaming is the now-infamous "wardrobe malfunction" incident of the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, during which Janet Jackson's breast was exposed, igniting a witch hunt driven by censors, sponsors and the American public. Although Jackson did apologize, the FCC, media and public responses to the incident all raise questions about the subjugation of black female sexuality — particularly since the co-performer who removed her top, Justin Timberlake, was largely left out of the fray. Jackson has never formed an alter ego as a part of her own sexual evolution as an artist; in fact, she has been open about it, wearing her sexuality unapologetically and brazenly. But in the wake of the fallout, Jackson, who is known for her erotic performances on tour, has been far more subdued in public.
American society, irrespective of race or gender, has a difficult time unpacking the notion that black women's sexuality is not a product, not a gimmick, but something real, complex and authentic — and only a tiny part of who any one of them might be.
In order to unpack the baggage that limits black sexuality, it's time for black women to have the courage to stop thinking outside of themselves.