thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Swagger Going Swell: M.I.A., Nicki Minaj, and the Blurriness of Cultural Appropriation

In race on February 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Melissa Sexton

Between the infamous middle finger that flew at the Super Bowl and the culture-colliding, controversy-stirring video for “Bad Girls” that dropped in early February, M.I.A. has been back on the cultural radar in a big way. And if The New Yorker’s assertion that M.I.A. should not have apologized for her television flip-off isn’t proof enough that her “swagger’s going swell,” then just consider the  infinitely danceable “Bad Girls” video as further evidence:

If you’re looking for swagger, you’ve come to the right place. While the chorus repeats a familiar bad bitch theme (“Live fast, die young – bad girls do it well”), there is something powerful about the video that goes beyond the usual rapper assertion of being “the best bitch doing it” – something about the dancing crowds and the spinning cars that makes me feel caught up in a moment of celebration. And yet, the general Internet response has not been to put this video on repeat and dance. Instead, bloggers and journalists have launched into a discussion of whether M.I.A.’s video is an example of cultural appropriation, even Orientalism or Arab-bashing. The question, as Faisal Al Yafai articulates so clearly in his Al Bawaba article, is what thoughtful people should “make of a big budget music video that depicts Gulf Arabs as anarchic, gun-toting, stunt-driving street-dancers?” He continues to frame a number of possible interpretations: perhaps the video is “a condescending take on a misunderstood culture through an Oriental lens,” but alternatively, the video might be “an interesting cross-cultural attempt to address social norms” and an example of “encouraging cross-cultural pollination.” In her defense of the video, Dina Dabbous admits that it is “laden with crass stereotypes” ranging from “Arabian horses” to “Arab men watching women misbehaving.” But she reclaims the video’s value for two reasons: first, the video’s accurate depictions of hagwalah racing culture; and second, its “original and fresh” translation of the usual “hyper worlds of gangsta culture” to “Arabia.” In other words, at least M.I.A. is doing something new with the old tropes of excess and debauchery, and at least she gets that new world right.

East-meets-West-hip-hop-gangstas? Or stereotypes of gun-toting Arabs?

But that very translation of hip-hop culture from American to Arabic streets (the video was shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco) opens up all kinds of questions  about the differences between appropriation and translation; about the fluidity of cultural tropes in an age of globalized music and exchange; and about the authenticity of ethnic and cultural identity in pop music. Why is it that translating gangsta culture to a Middle Eastern setting is a praiseworthy re-imagination of hip-hop stereotypes, but reversing that direction of exchange and using Middle Eastern cultural tropes like hagwalah to sell hip-hop is an insult to Arab culture? M.I.A.’s video points to one of the exhilarating and troubling qualities of pop music: the way it borrows from everything it can get its hands on, with varying degrees of self-awareness and caution. In the process, appropriation can and often does happen; cultural images get mobilized in ways that are reductive and offensive. Yet such appropriation can also be radical, creative, or community-building; it can challenge existing stereotypes by pointing to the richness of sub-cultures like hagwalah.

I believe that M.I.A.’s video can show us that automatically classifying cultural borrowing as reductive “appropriation”  limits our understanding of pop culture. Looking beyond strict separations of pop cultural identity into purified, “authentic” racial categories can help us see the double-edged potential of cultural borrowing: on the one hand, the use of cultures other than one’s own can constitute a form of  imperialism, where any culture can become grist for the capitalist money mill, a simple indicator of otherness or novelty. On the other hand, such borrowings can open up a liberating potential, expanding our notions of what beauty, success, and celebration can look like.

Racial Blurriness: The “Orientalisms” of Nicki Minaj’s Harajuku Barbie

The impetus for this post began before I saw M.I.A.’s video, when I was mulling over a comment from my recent post on Kanye and Chris Brown. In a thoughtful question, Sarah. S asked me to consider how race plays into my gendered responses to hip-hop misogyny. Specifically, she asked about “the question of white listenership.” This comment had me thinking about the limits to the black/white breakdown when we approach present-day hip-hop culture; this breakdown makes it tricky to talk about artists who defy such categorization, like the Sri Lankan Tamil M.I.A.. If we’re going to make headway in understanding cultural translation, we have to recognize that “blackness” and “whiteness” can function as constructed simplified poles or constructed identities within pop cultural representation, just like gender can. We see this playful fluctuation in the Black Barbie phenomenon that Sarah Todd describes, when rappers like Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj alternate between “black” and “white” identities. In such a formula, Sarah explains, “mainstream” success means acceptance by white audiences and hence, to some level, the internalization of white standards of beauty. But she also shows us potential for resistance in this appropriation: by situating yourself in a mixed racial space like the “Black Barbie” image, you insert yourself into a formerly exclusive category. You put blackness into the boundaries of white beauty.

Such negotiations of power and appropriation become even more complicated when we recognize present-day hip-hop’s connection to many more racial categories than black and white. A black/white breakdown of hip-hop listenership elides the almost global appeal of hip-hop culture in the present day. I’m not a scholar of hip-hop, so I don’t feel I can meaningfully comment on the way cultural definitions of “blackness” have intersected with the rise of hip-hop; I just feel like hip-hop has become so socially central in countries throughout the world and so many hip hop artists of mixed ethnicities have taken the stage that it is becoming increasingly difficult to think about 21st century hip hop as only or primarily “black” music. And as hip-hop becomes more global, I think we see more artists queering their racial identifications, fluctuating between white, black , and other ethnic identities.Racial and ethnic identity seem to function as fluid personas for some artists, playfully mobilized just as female artists playfully jump between super-sexualized femininity, Barbie femininity, and tough street-swagger.

So, for example, with Nicki, we don’t just get “Black Barbie” as a mixture of white and black identities. We also get “Harajuku Barbie,” an ambiguously Asian persona:

Harajuku Barbie in a K-pop, VR dance-off with will.i.am

Because of her Harajuku Barbie persona, Nicki has been accused of Orientalism, too. In her deconstruction of Nicki’s Asian alter-egos, blogger Jenn points to the use of a samurai fantasy world in Nicki’s “Your Love” video and to the imitation of K-pop in “Check it Out.” But while she reads these videos as two equally appropriative mis-uses of Asian cultures, the videos struck me as quite different. I buy that “Your Love” participates in a modern Orientalism, with its use of “Yellowface eye makeup to give the appearance of slanty eyes” and “the [stereotypical] use of silk in every goddamned scene.” But the use of K-pop in “Check it Out” feels different, perhaps because K-pop does not contribute to a misty-eyed, Western nostalgia for an authentic Asia-long-past. K-pop is a thriving pop cultural industry in its own right, and one which appropriates hip-hop and pop culture to sell its own fantasies of materialism and celebrity. “Check it Out” hit the airwaves not long after will.i.am worked with K-pop superband 2ne1, a girl group with candy-sweet hooks and plenty of cultural appropriation of their own in their trippy, dance-synth videos:

From 2ne1's video "Fire": Asian Orientalism?

What we see in 2ne1′s video for “Fire” could be considered Orientalism as well – Indian images juxtaposed against American hip-hop and Korean pop. I point this out not to justify Nicki’s Orientalism because 2ne1 did it too; my point is that present day pop music troubles authentic ethnic identity. 2ne1 is a commercially successful pop music phenomenon that draws from cultural images, sometimes in troubling and sometimes in benign ways. What seems clearly troubling to me is when pop culture taps into exotic nostalgia – using samurais or Indian goddesses as part of a simplified system of reference.

But part of the discomfort of such representations involves a desire to protect “purified” “authentic” versions of “non-Western” cultures from American pop. And thus, the difficulty of thinking about appropriation in the age of global capitalism. There’s something troubling about the invasive qualities of American culture – something imperialistic about the spread of American music, videos and films. But such imperialism is a lived reality for many artists and consumers: to be a successful mainstream artist in the present day is to recognize and strategically participate in a global system of heterogeneous cultural images, just as female rappers strategically participate in white beauty. And the result? Heterogeneous cultural identities that resist nostalgia or purified authenticity.

For example, in “Check it Out,” Nicki goes from blond to Asian to black, switching hair colors and skin tones as quickly as she switches costumes. will.i.am is not far behind, declaring himself “ni@*#$iffic” in one verse and then using a weird visual effect to erase his skin color completely, whitening himself out into a glittery virtual reality icon devoid of race:

will.i.am’s glittery whiteout is a racial sleight-of-hand reminiscent of Nicki’s rap from the Gucci Mane remix of “Five Star Chick.” There, Nicki situates herself between black and Asian stereotypes, rapping first, “I was in my chair, I was gluing my weave in” and then,  “Harajuku hyphen – Barbie – I’m hot – I think it’s time to put some rice in.”  Her double-reference to stereotypes of  Asian and black identity highlights the constructedness of racial identification. What matters in “Five Star Chick” is the female rapper’s economic status – her ability to buy her Louis bags and keep her nails fly. What “Five Star Chick” and “Check it Out” both suggest is the way hip-hop celebrates the game of global capitalism and the way capitalism encourages a dream of racial fluidity, where one’s race becomes one more exploitable resource in the construction of a salable image. This is not to ignore the ways in which race still correlates to economic disadvantage or to deny structural imbalances in ethnic groups’ access to wealth; it is to recognize the ways that successful hip-hop artists today aim to sell globally, and thus try to capture fluid racial images with global appeal.

Thus, will.i.am and Nicki shift racial identities in “Check it Out,” and this flexibility becomes part of their claim that they are on top of the game. The rappers shift between races as quickly as they shift between technological identities, seeming to be, in turn, virtual reality projections, television images, iPod songs, and actual people, wavering unreally before the eyes of their audience. Theirs is a fantasy projection of fluidity, giving them the option to become whoever they want to be, offering them more and more highly artificial options to choose from as they cater to a global audience.

A Truly World Music: Orientalism or Resistance in “Bad Girl’s” Drift Culture?

While “Bad Girls” lacks the self-conscious post-modern constructivism of “Check it Out,” it deliberately occupies a similar point of cultural overlap, colliding hip-hop swag with the drag racing culture of Arab youth. It’s a world that refuses to see hip-hop as an American or a black phenomenon and that also refuses to treat Arab culture as a pure, nostalgic ethnic identity. This recognition of pop culture as a place without racial or ethnic purity has earned M.I.A. cultural praise as well as censure. In her recent retort to M.I.A.’s post-Super Bowl critics, Sasha Frere-Jones praised M.I.A. for “turning the noxious generalization of ‘world music’ into an idea that represents life as it is lived,” repeating praise that Frere-Jones offered in 2004, when she called M.I.A. “an example of actual, on-the-ground world culture: synthetic, cheap, colorful, staticky with power.” For Frere-Jones, M.I.A. is valuable because she challenges the category of “world music” as something pure – a move that is itself Orientalizing, asking non-Western music to serve as a noble “other” to counter the cheap, immoral world of the American pop cultural machine. But when videos mobilize cultures like K-pop or hagwalah, they showcase the truly global qualities of pop culture and hip-hop. They show cultures that do not passively receive American pop culture but that appropriate American music, too.

This is why I find arguments about the authentic representation of hagwalah culture in “Bad Girls” to be convincing counters to accusations of imperialism. Like K-pop, hagwalah seems like a space where people sort through globalization and multiculturalism on their own terms. It mixes Tokyo drift stunting with its own twists, replacing Tokyo’s hyperurban streets with sandy highways and the souped-up dream cars of Tokyo street racers with older models -” ‘90s BMWs, Mercs and one dirty Alfa Romeo 156, all spinning like tops through the desert” according to jalopnik.com.

This portrayal of hagwalah challenges stereotypes of Arabic culture: while there is an Arabian horse galloping through the desert, skidding cars quickly overtake horse and rider amidst billowing sand; women and men dance together in the street, difficult to distinguish in their mixture of fatigues and head-scarves. As Dabbous points out,

“[M.I.A.]‘s turning the oriental fantasy on its head when she has Arabian women dressed in khaki styled, though still Arabian, dress or gear, toting guns and strutting their stuff with a swagger unknown to the conservative female society that has women closed off or ‘haremed’ from the male gaze.  M.I.A’s girls are a far-cry from the harem-veiled subversive mysterious women of the oriental fantasy in their floaty feminine veils, if we’re accusing her of feeding stereotypes. She’s toying with the militarized West infiltrating Arabia. Sexing it up a notch to have her ‘bad girls’ taking male guns and aggro. And rap-artists have the prerogative to sexualise and play with stereotypes, do they not?”

Thus, M.I.A. takes Western stereotypes of Arab cultures – the controlling men and the submissive-yet-mysterious women – and destroys them both, uniting men and women in a world of speed, sand, and swagger.

No floaty veils in sight. Just stunts.

M.I.A. replaces the stereotypes of submissive women and anarchic men with a desert bad-bitch. What makes these girls so bad is that they’re doing what the five-star chicks and baddest bitches do in hip hop videos – but they’re doing it even better. It’s a one-up in the game of swag, and these girls win without any evidence of excessive money. Such a move works, as far as creating swagger goes; when M.I.A comes riding in on a side-tilted car – a stunt called shal in the slang of the United Arab Emirates – she is probably the coolest person I have ever seen.

Such moments of swagger epitomize pop culture: they take coolness from wherever they can find it, and they invite the viewer in, encouraging us both to take from and to participate in non-Western, non-white identities. To “recognize the value” of a culture that was previously absent from the pop-cultural lexicon is two-fold: it can mean recognizing its cultural value and granting it space in the spheres of representation, or it can mean recognizing its economic value and finding a new way to bank on its appeal.

But it certainly is limiting to think of such representation as only or primarily an appropriation. There is plenty of radical potential in hagwalah, and the swag M.I.A. sees in it is not just injected from American hip-hop. For instance, as I was showing this video to my housemates, my friend Urooj commented on how she had seen almost identical drift-racing exhibitions during her stay in Palestine. Such racing served as a point of resistance and community-building; men and women of a variety of ages came and watched the stunts, all within view of the partition wall. Urooj commented on the keffiyahs that can be seen throughout the video, noting the keffiyah‘s affiliation with Palestinian resistance. Read in this context, hagwalah has a resistant, political swagger all its own, reminiscent of but completely independent of hip-hop’s gangsta culture or Tokyo drifting’s gearhead culture. To use such cultural resistance as a backdrop for hip-hop attitude is no more or less troubling than the mobilization of gangsta street culture: it simultaneously aestheticizes and validates real political problems. The danger is that such moves can elide the politics, reducing everything to a pool of potential coolness; the power of such moves is their ability to make resistant cultures part of a larger audience’s awareness.

Maybe part of what “Bad Girls” does is show us the way that swagger always relies upon appropriations and displacements of some kind. When we look at misogyny in hip-hop, we see that the transitive power of attitude often comes from asserting one’s dominance over others; too often, in the move to overcome racial exclusions from power, these others we swagger over are those that are barred from power due to their gender. But female rappers show us a complicated relationship to this misogyny as they occupy misogyny, both disavowing and reappropriating it. When we look at cultural appropriation in pop culture, I think we can see something similar. “Bad Girls” provides a complex cultural response to a world where purified ethnic and racial identities are a fantasy that can themselves become oppressive tools, excluding cultures from mainstream economic and representational participation. Appropriation and re-appropriation may not be the only tools available to combat such exclusion, but they are efficient tools that give once-excluded groups and individuals access to cultural power and swagger.

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  1. [...] with an eye toward women’s perspectives. It’s very smart and a lot of fun. Check out Melissa Sexton’s post on M.I.A., Nicki Minaj, and cultural appropriation. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe [...]

  2. [...] and the development of their collaboration. For me, Iggy raises all over again questions about what distinguishes appropriation from play in the globalized age – when hip-hop has stopped being a purely local, loyal practice and has become international. While [...]

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