fame is not a safe space, ask nicki minaj
August 21, 2018
We do not know the celebrities we dissect on the internet. We know a selected segment of their public persona and performance, and from this space, the public creates narratives. This is where we create conversations online based of what we think we know for our own entertainment. There is no way to truly know the truth of who a famous person is because a huge part of celebrity culture is maintaining fantasy. And the most essential parts of sustaining this fantasy is ensuring partly—or fully—the public believes the fantasy as the entire reality and so does the celebrity in question.
It was Tuesday afternoon when I was invited by Genius Media Group, for an intimate chat with rapper, Nicki Minaj. Her fourth studio album, Queen, just dropped and the event was a chance to dive into her lyrical abilities on the album and her past work. I’ve always been a fan of Nicki Minaj, so I was excited for the rare opportunity to interact with the star in a more intimate environment. As people are transformed into superstars, a huge part of sustaining the fantasy becomes distance. The closest you get to the superstar is through a stadium or social media posts. Closeness to superstars does not happen often, and Nicki Minaj is one of the few celebrities that transgresses this. She wants her fans to feel like family and her fans want her to know, desperately, that she is family. She is a friend or a penpal, at the least of some sort. This, too, is fantasy. This power dynamic through wealth and fame is too big and conditional for any semblance of family or friendship to actually exist. If the condition of family and friendship is based off of your support, perhaps even obsession with a person, this is not either family or friendship. This is a transactional business arrangement like one between inventor and investors. Like between patrons and artists.
As the hours crept closer, the opportunity to see Nicki Minaj was getting more alluring. It became less about just seeing a superstar rapper in an intimate environment, and more about seeing the superstar at the height of the most controversial and scandalous moment of her career. The headlines of that week were shared almost exclusively between Omarosa having tapes about our current administration referring to “us” as “dogs” and using the n-word, and Nicki Minaj making bold statements in interviews and on social media about other artists, her own past, and her place in the music landscape. Nothing she said strayed too far from the truth—or at least a reasonable truth for her that should be able to be understood by those who may not agree—but controversy still followed the rapper. It was how she said the things she said, not what she said: She was loud, erratic, animated, and seemingly hostile. This is not the behavior we anticipate from our celebrities. Celebrities, especially ones that have reached the level of stardom as a Nicki Minaj, are usually supposed to adopt “the royal and the public” approach. Sustaining a hierarchy and a distance from both the public and criticism to appear unbothered and poised at the same time. This serves the celebrity in two ways: it reduces the time a scandal is relevant when the famous person ignores it and it also gives off the appearance that someone is removed from regular, daily discourse because of their level of fame and wealth. This adds to the mythology of their celebrity.
The problem is “the celebrity” is a myth in and of itself. People don’t go from unknown people to celebrities; people go from being unknown people to people that are experiencing celebrity. They are still humans that are connected to this Earth with history and trauma. When the celebrity or the public forgets this, dangerous assumptions can be made. When both parties seem to forget this, the PR hell that has been following Nicki Minaj is the result.
Nicki Minaj entered the Genius headquarters at around 1:00 AM and the crowd exploded, including me. She’s a petite beautiful woman that looks fun from her styling to how she moves. She repeated many of the things that attracted scandal to her earlier in the week. In person and in close proximity, it felt different. The room felt safe. Cell-phones were in locked cases. Nicki Minaj ordered pizza and soda for the crowd of less than 100. I almost believed the fantasy that Nicki Minaj was a friend. And, I believe, she did too.
I think in many ways Minaj has not reconciled the fact that her public speech and actions are not just inconsequential impulses by a human being experiencing an emotion, but a chance for headlines, higher traffic, viral tweets for folks to gain more social media attention, and subject matter for critics, like myself, to use to explore their ideas using your choices as pedagogy. Fame is not a safe space.
It may be easy to think once you are person experiencing celebrity that you are at least being protected by those that support you, defend you publicly, and give you their money, but this is not true. It can’t be true. You can’t truly desire to protect someone or something you don’t know entirely. You don’t know how to do it. The relentless attacks of the fanatic towards folks that dissent against the artist is not about the artist. It is about the fanatic. The artist represents ideas and desires that the fanatic desperately needs to believe in, and when someone attacks that idea, they’re attacking their sense of reality and security. If the artist represents talent, hope, beauty, meaning, and the possibility for the fanatic’s own glory, then dissent against that artist is not just simply an opinion on an artist. It is an attack on the fanatic’s self-esteem and worldview. That is not family. That is not friendship. That is not support. That is parasitic.
In the dark room as I watched Nicki Minaj speak, I began to be grateful for my general anonymity in a way that I’ve never been before. I’ve always wielded the little popularity I had to get more money, better jobs, and maybe a free drink. Fame never seemed that bad in theory, until I observed how deeply reality and fantasy become intertwined; an attempt to separate one from the other is like attempting to separate sand and water. This seems like no honest way to live.
Because of Nicki Minaj’s behavior and scandal, many people insisted she was having a mental breakdown. She needed to be committed, placed on medication, or at least remove herself from social media. The public began to pathologize her behavior as “insane” when in reality we are looking at a person react normally to an irrational situation. When the livelihood of yourself and of the people around you revolves around your self-project, you begin to interact with the world this way. When a large amount of people in and outside of your industry are attacking you at once out of jealousy or a desire to reduce your wealth, you can begin to think this is the reality of everyone who dissents against you. Nicki Minaj’s voice broke and made me emotional when she spoke earnestly about her beef with Lil’ Kim, “You’re never not going to make me unable to feed my family.”
What does one do when feeding the ego also feeds the village?
When the survival of yourself, your family, and esteem of your fanatics — whom you’re convinced are your family — all sits on the project of self, the ego, then it is not insanity to begin to react in ways that seem irrational and erratic. You are in an erratic and irrational position in society. The more interesting idea isn’t if Nicki Minaj is or isn’t losing her mind or on drugs. It is to explore why “sanity” as people who see themselves as a part of community and who are relatively anonymous is not available to the people who experience fame.
This somehow feels especially true for Black artists. Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Prince have all been lost to drug overdose. We experienced the deterioration of greats like Nina Simone and Etta James in real time. Earlier this Summer, we all had our eyes on Kanye West speculating was his behavior going to conclude in self-harm.
It may be the fact that Blackness is already a type of spectacle—be it on the auction block to the corner to a stadium stage—and the visibility Black folks experience is already unnatural and intersecting that with celebrity creates spectacular messes both privately and publicly. The anonymous can only assume and the famous can only attempt to explain, but moments like what we are witnessing with Nicki MInaj still proves the gap of understanding and empathy is wide.
The saddest part about Nicki Minaj, or untamed celebrity in general, is you must relinquish the warmth of being a part of something bigger than yourself and interior growth for delusions of grandeur. These delusions are not just thoughts, but must be a part of your brand and business model. Fame and celebrity force you to center yourself and your own ego in ways that are unhealthy to profit. Delusion and the ego is survival. Nicki Minaj tweeted about Harriet Tubman early Monday, “She said she could’ve rescued more slaves had they known they were slaves. I fought for streaming services to count toward billboard when alotta niggz stayed quiet.” Clearly, Nicki Minaj is still in business.
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