Was Nicki Minaj’s SNL Performance Cultural Appropriation?

Illustration for article titled Was Nicki Minaj’s SNL Performance Cultural Appropriation?
Screenshot: NBC

When Nicki Minaj took the stage to perform her hit song “Chun-Li” on the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live, “callout Twitter” rumbled with accusations of cultural appropriation and the fetishization of Asian culture.


While some, including a few Asian Americans, accused the rapstress of using stereotypical Asian imagery as a costume, others defended Minaj’s stage performance as harmless and inoffensive. The question remains:

Is Minaj guilty of appropriating Asian culture?

As The Root has previously discussed, there is no universally accepted definition of the term. Everyone has their own, sometimes conflicting, definition of what constitutes cultural appropriation, but it generally relates to the use of the art, artifacts, symbology or anything of cultural significance to a minority or nondominant group of people by a person who is not in that group.

Again, what separates cultural appropriation from a cultural exchange or paying homage is when someone “borrows” an item or symbol of cultural significance without acknowledgment, attribution or permission. The determining factor usually depends on whether the person, intentionally or not, otherwise demeans or makes fun of another culture by using something meaningful or traditionally associated with the minority group in question

We often get this wrong. When white people wear blackface to mimic black skin, it is impossible to separate the imagery from the demeaning history of blackface. Most discussions of this issue never include an acknowledgment that black people are often not offended by blackface as much as they are puzzled by it.

It is important to note that black people’s reaction to distasteful actions doesn’t usually rise to the arm-folding fury often displayed by white Americans when they feel their cultural landmarks have been disrespected (e.g., the Confederate flag or the national anthem). We would exist in a perpetual state of agita if we were outraged by every incident of white people’s offhand racism. But just because it doesn’t anger us doesn’t make it insignificant.

But it always raises a question: Why, though?

First, we should examine precisely what we are referring to about Minaj’s performance. Her presentation began with her being flanked by male dancers wearing variations of a traditional Chinese costume, including the conical hats worn by Asian farmers. She was soon joined onstage by female dancers wearing Asian-inspired clothing, including chopsticks as hair accessories.

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.]

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?


hocuspocusoctopus says wash your damn hands

Also, let’s not forget that her performances on SNL were just straight up bad and the songs are bad and this new era of Nicki is tragic.