The artwork for Nicki Minaj’s latest single is floating around the internet, and I am not happy about it. What you see is Brother Malcolm Little Shabazz peering out of a window while holding a rifle in sepia filter. Above his head is the title of the song, “Lookin Ass N*gga, in which Nicki calls out folks who have bitten her style or perpetrated a fictitious lifestyle. The lyrics have absolutely no historical value or context to be linked to such a photo. Plain and simple, it’s catchy bullshit.
In a time of Photoshop-palooza where anyone with a laptop can take a photo and spin it for comedic value, we’ve become accustomed to taking historic photos and figures and putting our pop culture stamp on it. Especially this month, you’ll find pictures of trailblazing African-Americans with captions that read, “YOLO” or “The first black person to yell, ‘Turn up!’” And now, this.
This kind of thing makes me lose faith in us. Culturally, we’ve been a people who use comedy and light-heartedness to get through the tough times. We joke, we laugh, but at what expense? This whole thing reminds me Dave Chappelle’s exodus from the limelight after a bought with instant fame. He tackled racism and sexism in such an in your face way, but he realized laughter has a duality that can affirm and dismantle us. He said in an interview, “So then when I’m on the set, and we’re finally taping the sketch, somebody on the set [who] was white laughed in such a way—I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me.” Word, Dave.
When you pair history with pop culture, we often get the bad deal morally. We don’t know our history, nor do we know where we want to go beyond notoriety or the number of zeros behind the decimal. Should you know every piece of our rich history? It’s impossible, but you should know the basics, and Malcolm X is apart of that.
If anyone on her creative team knew the weight of our history, they’d know that photo, though the origin isn’t known, is symbolic of many of Malcolm’s principles and teachings. It’s often associated with his famous quote about the demand for justice, “by any means necessary.” He was a strong proponent of self-defense against the oppressor whomever he may be, hence the rifle in his hand. Maybe he was looking out of the window for the Ku Klux Klansmen who set his home afire or maybe those who sought to assassinate him. Perhaps, he was looking for the white men who kept him down with discriminating laws, mental abuse and violence, and yes, they called him and us “niggers.”
Again, I don’t know what Nicki was thinking. She’s not the first though.
KRS-1’s cover for By All Means Necessary was a depiction, instead he was holding a handgun dressed in a leather bomber jacket. Yo Gotti, my fellow Memphian’s latest album, I Am, depicts the sanitation strike in Memphis where strikers wore signs that read “I AM A MAN.” That strike brought Dr. King where he was assassinated in cold blood on the Lorraine Motel balcony.
Is nothing sacred anymore? We are more concerned in creating a buzz for a dollar while selling out our own history in the process. Have you ever seen a non-black person negatively depict or use a photo from the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor bombing or even 9/11 in such a public way? I’m willing to bet that they’re few, far and in between. They protect their history, pass it down by oral history, conserve it in museums or in old memory books. Their families know about prominent and unsung heroes . They talk about their journeys. In their homes, in their circles, they talk about it.
We don’t talk about our history enough. Either it’s too painful for some of our elders to rehash or white folks are telling us tumultuous events were figments of our imaginations, and if they weren’t, they didn’t matter much anyway. When we do discuss our history with laser focus, it’s during Black History Month. With every year, if you base its value on media exposure and general knowledge, it’s diminishing. Forget the fact that it’s not taught in schools. We have to fill in the blanks because ultimately, we’re responsibility for ourselves.
So thinking your fluffy, purposeless “art” has the right to be paired with events and images that represent the struggle is insulting to those who did the treacherous work from which you now reap the benefits.
The old saying goes, “When you know better, you do better.” Maybe it’s time for us to stop and learn before we begin to do without thought. Our history and our respect is at stake.