Although I, Michael Harriot, studied the Chinese language in college and resided in the country, I will admit that, outside of a movie, I have never seen anyone wear these clothes in real life. I must also admit that my fashion knowledge could fit inside a smurf’s thimble. So I decided to tackle the issue with Maiysha Kai, managing editor of The Glow Up.


First of all, can you explain which elements of Nicki Minaj’s performance were considered to be culturally insensitive?

Well, for this performance, not only did Minaj don costumes that clearly riffed on traditional Asian garments, but Oriental architectural elements were used in her set dressing, and she also employed specifically Asian bodies as background dancers. In the past, when other artists have done some version of this (see: Katy Perry and Minaj’s onetime nemesis Miley Cyrus), it has quickly been called out as appropriative, meaning that it was only natural that some people might ask: “Nicki, what’s good?”


But what might be considered most offensive is the amalgamation of Asian motifs and clothing, by which I mean that it was sort of a mashup of an entire continent—predominantly China and Japan—rather than a straightforward homage to either culture. Since this is typical of the way Westerners often reductively approach Eastern cultures, it’s understandable that some folks took offense.

Case in point: From a purely costuming perspective, Minaj began her performance in a kimono-style garment (Japanese), shedding it to reveal a body-armor-type of bodysuit that looked half-cheongsam (Chinese) and half traditional samurai armor (Japanese). All in all, it’s a questionable but not highly original combo, but I also think what some might also have taken offense to is Minaj’s sexualization of these motifs, which have been used to fetishize Asian women for over a century.


The song “Chun-Li” is supposedly an homage to the character from the video game “Street Fighter” who bears the same name. Should this make any difference? 

It makes a difference insofar as one considers how much “Street Fighter” fetishized Asian culture in the first place (which is interesting, since it was created by Japanese animators). Minaj’s costume was a clear interpolation of the animated character’s, which means that Minaj merely fell into the same trap the creators did.


But there are some people of Asian descent who say they were not offended. Does that negate the people who take issue with Minaj?

I think it’s entirely a matter of perspective and prerogative. I never expect to speak for or to agree with all other black people on any one issue, so I think a person has a right to be offended or not as they see fit. Since it’s the interpretation of Asian culture that’s in question, I think people of Asian heritage have more right to pass judgment on it than we do.

That said, if a few people on Twitter can absolve Minaj on behalf of all Asians, then it must also mean that Kanye West was speaking for all black people when he said, “Slavery is a choice” ... which is a HELL NO.


But what about Minaj’s supposed Asian heritage? Isn’t her great-grandfather supposedly Asian?

Supposedly—which is why you’d hope that some thought went into how Eastern culture is portrayed, rather than throwing a bunch of motifs at the wall to see what sticks.


This is where it’s also worth mentioning that while Minaj’s great-grandfather is purportedly Japanese, Chun-Li (the character and the name) is Chinese, which is like saying that Moroccan culture is interchangeable with Nigerian, just because they’re on the same continent. Asia is the largest continent in the world, including not just China, Japan, and North and South Korea but India, Pakistan, much of the Middle East and parts of the former Soviet Union. So even qualifying Minaj by saying that she’s “Asian” is a pretty broad distinction.

This is similar to the debate about the woman who was upset because people said her daughter shouldn’t dress as Polynesian Disney princess Moana for Halloween. Does this mean that all fashion from other cultures is off-limits? Can Eminem not wear a dashiki? When Kendrick Lamar dresses as Bruce Lee and calls himself King Fu Kenny, is it equally offensive? I was planning to dress as M’Baku for Halloween this year. Should I get permission from a few members of the Jabari tribe?

Personally, I never want to see Eminem in a dashiki—or anyone not black dressed as any of the black characters from Black Panther—but I do think there’s a distinction between a child dressing as a fictional character they adore and, say ... a “Real Housewife of New York” bronzing herself and donning an oversized Afro wig to dress up as a very real Diana Ross.


But to your earlier point: Appropriation is really in the eye of the beholder. Knowing the type of callout culture we live in, I think anyone who has as high a profile as Minaj knows that—and simply doesn’t give AF.

So is Nicki Minaj guilty of cultural appropriation or not?

Of culturally appropriating “Street Fighter” (and Lil’ Kim)? For sure. That’s who she bit from the most.


But how do you feel about the song, though?

I mean ... if this is “haterade,” I guess I got my thirst quenched. [Shrug.]