The Booty and the Beat: Hip-Hop, the Female Rapper and Her Body

I had been anxiously waiting for the 2010 BET Hip-Hop Music Award show to air for several reasons. And for several reasons, including feeble attempts to adjust to my new and busy schedule, I missed it.

Luckily enough, I caught a clip of the show on YouTube in which Nicki Minaj, hip-hop’s newest and most popular female rapper, accepts the award for Best Female Hip Hop Artist. Minaj, who is never lacking in animation, was not in rare form. She sauntered across the stage wearing a blood orange wig, dramatic eye makeup, and a long, crème-colored waist-cinching ball gown. I waited impatiently for her to finish her acceptance speech, hoping that when she turned around to walk off stage, I would catch a glimpse of what is arguably her most popular – and controversial – asset, her butt.

Her derrière, not small by any measure, has garnered attention not only because of its size, but because of questions surrounding its authenticity, as rumors – and pictures – suggest that Minaj’s most prominent lower extremity is the result of plastic surgery. An examination of the character of Miss Minaj provides much fodder for critical inquiry into hip-hop feminism, hip-hop gender politics and hip-hop sexuality (she is an openly bi-curious female rapper). But as I watched her, intrigued by both the black blogosphere’s two-year long fascination with her bottom and my own preoccupation with it, this one Minaj question seemed to outweigh all others: what is in Nicki Minaj’s butt?

It’s no secret hip-hop is a testosterone-laden artistic and cultural space- hip-hop, its glorification of masculinity and its misogynistic attitudes have long been part of its discourse. The interesting twist though is that hip-hop, which finds its beginnings with the marginalized and “powerless” minority groups in the US, now mimics the power structures of the same mainstream society it intended to rage against. In the same way that men who occupy powerful positions in society often influence ideas and dictate what is physically attractive, men in hip-hop determine what kinds of black female bodies are most desirable, and the size of a black woman’s bottom is central to that ideal. It’s evident in the lyrics and in the visual images created in hip-hop that the most coveted female frame is one that includes a large butt.

And this matter becomes more complicated when it is related to female hip hop performers. According to Stephens & Phillips (2003), females who participate in hip-hop beyond the role of spectator or consumer, often consciously or subconsciously adopt a sexual identity- the Diva, Gold Digger, Freak, Dyke, Gangster Chick, Sister Savior, Earth Mother, and Baby Mama. Stephens & Phillips view is that these eight identities both inform and mirror beliefs about African American women’s physical attractiveness. In listening to her music and her interviews, Minaj’s character seems to be a masterful mix of the Diva, Gold Digger, Freak, and Dyke, which forces me to ask myself how much of a role her butt plays in the adoption of these identities.

While it is difficult for me to speculate about Minaj’s new body, it is representative of physical characteristics that have been historically attributed to black women in American popular culture. And historically, a large black butt has been a visibly unavoidable indication of heightened sexuality, which lends itself well to the sexual identities she may have adopted. In Minaj’s case, if there is any truth in the rumors, then perhaps Stephens & Phillips hold true in that female performers must choose a sexual identity in hip-hop. And if there is any indication in the several rap verses written by men that reference Nicki Minaj and her attractiveness based on the size of her butt, men in hip-hop still work to dictate what constitutes an attractive black female body.

As a woman and a lover of hip-hop, the character of Minaj only complicates my already complicated questions. Does hip-hop legitimize and reinforce black female stereotypes? Or does it speak to and celebrate elements of the black body that some black women genuinely possess? But most importantly, considering hip-hop’s space and influence in the larger black culture, how do all of these reflect on our own self-images? I’m uncertain, but I believe that Nicki Minaj embodies some important complexities between race, sex, gender and black cultural productions- all of which I will pay special attention to throughout the school year.