In a memorable "Saturday Night Live" sketch called “12 Days Not a Slave” Jay Pharoah plays Cecil, a former slave who, just 12 days after having been freed, tries to hang out in a local, predominantly white watering hole. As his one white friend tries to help him navigate this new space, Cecil begins to make the grave mistake of dancing in public. Zachary warns him, “Do not let white people see you dance! Once they see you dance, they will try and dance like you... They’ll try and they’ll try. And when they do it will be a catastrophe.” Cue white women dancing awkwardly. Cue guest host Miley Cyrus, twerking.
Miley Cyrus may have been in on that particular joke, but there’s a good chance that she does not actually believe that she really is the white person showing up to a dance party that was started by black people, and making a fool of herself. Although she’s likely unaware, she’s certainly not alone. And while it’s easy to criticize Cyrus, it’s just as important (more so, in fact) to acknowledge the many others who join her—especially those respected intellectuals, public media figures and journalists who invite themselves into a culture without having any historical context or education. In the past year we’ve borne witness to countless journalists who, whether they knew it or not, were twerkin’ away from the unbelievable heights of their ivory towers.
Vanessa Grigoriadis is the reporter behind one of the most condescending and intellectually offensive pieces of journalism written on a subject this year, “The Passion of Nicki Minaj." For Grigoriadis, the pop music scene is like a “national telenovela,” and she begins her feature rightfully likening Nicki Minaj’s recent clashes with Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus (followed by the VMAs where she made up with and performed with the former, but asked the latter, “What’s good?”) to a “three-act revenge drama.” It’s a fair comparison and of course, there is a performative nature to any public dispute. It’s easy to simply dismiss it all as mere fodder for the drama-ravenous public, unless of course you’re a journalist and your job is to work within the highs and lows of pop culture—to, for example, uncover the real issues of cultural appropriation being highlighted by a celebrity feud.
And Grigoriadis does this, to some degree. She lets Nicki Minaj address the ongoing issue with Cyrus, which resulted in the most quoted part of the interview so far:
‘The fact that you feel upset about me speaking on something that affects black women makes me feel like you have some big balls. You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important? Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.’
The rapper might as well have been speaking directly to the reporter with this lesson in cultural appropriation; in this moment the rapper is one more Amandla Stenberg-like voice crying out in the wilderness of white women showing up to a dance party created by black men and black women. And like those other voices, Minaj’s words go in one ear and out the other. Everything about the rest of the article proves that Grigoriadis has shown up, not to learn about or learn from the black woman at the center of piece, but to enjoy the fruits of this woman’s labor and cast judgement, even as she participates. In twerking from her ivory tower, Grigoriadis exposes herself to those of us who, at the very least, know that you can’t twerk if you never knew how to dutty wine or back that azz up. In other words, Grigoriadis’ very limited knowledge of hip-hop past and present is the real subject of an interview that was supposed to illuminate the passion of Nicki Minaj. One of the first major clues to her blatant cluelessness is this paragraph, in which the journalist explains that “bitch” is now—because of songs by Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Madonna—a word that is embraced by women:
There’s nothing new about female artists struggling with issues of power and control, but we’re far today from the 1990s, when Queen Latifah proclaimed ‘‘every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho/Trying to make a sister feel low/You know all that gots to go.’’ ‘‘Bitch,’’ in music, used to be an insult, a sneer, and it still can be. But female empowerment is a trend, and the word has been reclaimed — by Minaj, in many a track; by Rihanna, in ‘‘Bitch Better Have My Money’’; and triumphantly by Madonna, in her recent track ‘‘Bitch, I’m Madonna.’’ This is good for business and either good for women or not good for women at all.
That she goes from 1990s Queen Latifah, to 2015 Nicki Minaj tells informed readers that she has no business writing a feature on a rapper, be that rapper a crossover success or not. Grigoriadis—and many others like her—may not believe it, but hip-hop has a complex history, and Nicki Minaj stands on the shoulders of giants who already attempted to reclaim the word “bitch” (whether or not they were successful is a different question). For example: Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Missy Elliot or the baddest bitch (who also did her part, alongside Trick Daddy, in reclaiming the word “hoe” ) Trina. Songs like “Ill Na Na,” “Big Momma Thang,” “She’s a Bitch” and “Nann Nigga” (specifically Trina’s unforgettable verse) may not have had the success of “Anaconda,” but Nicki Minaj’s hit wouldn’t exist without these songs—Nicki Minaj wouldn’t either, and any journalist stepping into a room with her should know that and be well-versed in at least some of the long, complicated and fascinating hip-hop history that played a big part in the birth and subsequent passion of the Nicki Minaj machine. The very fact that Grigoriadis expresses amazement at her subject’s ability to define “her vagina with more words than I thought existed, and then amplifying its power by rhyming those words,” tells informed readers that she’s ill-informed about the aforementioned rappers, otherwise she wouldn’t be so impressed with the lines blurred between vulgarity and empowerment by Nicki Minaj.
Grigoriadis further embarrasses herself when she brings up hip-hop radio (which she inexplicably describes to the reader—as if hip-hop radio is a strange, new and foreign concept—as “the dominant journalistic genre for the art form”), and attempts to expose Nicki Minaj for speaking with “a Queens accent... with Caribbean flair,” when she’s on these shows, but not during this “New York Times Magazine” interview. Indeed, the authenticity of Nicki Minaj (and, apparently, hip-hop itself) is under attack in this interview. On the one hand, it’s fair to attack Nicki Minaj, who has been known to embrace a variety of different accents in her music. However, if Grigoriadis is so ignorant to black culture, that she doesn’t know that there is such thing as a “white voice”—AKA the voice one might employ when conversing with those most likely judging you from the heights of an ivory tower—then she has no business conducting this interview. If she doesn’t know the difference between how people conduct and present themselves in front of those who speak their language, and how they present themselves to “company,” she has no business interviewing someone outside of her own culture.
But the most problematic moment of the interview came when she made the mistake of suggesting that Nicki Minaj was both enjoying and thriving off of the “drama” between Meek Mill and Drake, and the very real (and violent) feud between Lil’ Wayne and his father figure, Bryan “Birdman” Williams. Nicki Minaj immediately cut her down, and—as so many offensive white people before her—Grigoriadis attempts a pathetic apology in her piece that only further highlights her ignorance. That she did it in print proves that she remains ignorant to her real faults:
As soon as I said the words, I wished I could dissolve them on my tongue. In pop-culture idiom, ‘‘drama’’ is the province of Real Housewives with nothing better to do than stick their noses where they don’t belong. I was more interested in a different kind of drama — the kind worthy of an HBO series, in which your labelmate is releasing endless dis tracks against your boyfriend and your mentor is suing your label president for a king’s ransom. But the phrase I used was offensive, and even as I tried to apologize, I only made matters worse.
From Grigoriadis’ ivory tower, the attempted murder of Lil Wayne is like something out of “Game of Thrones” or “The Wire.” It’s high-brow TV—more fascinating and worthy of her attention than petty pop, reality show-esque beef, but still not something real and tangible. Putting aside the fact that she is asking about personal relationships—fair game in most celebrity interviews— Grigoriadis is admitting that she asks, not because she’s interested in the mechanics of these two hip-hop feuds, but because she assumes they are fictionalized narratives that exist for her to enjoy, consume and binge. It’s more than just a journalistic faux pas—it’s one more terrifying example of how much the black experience is “other” to much of white America. Hip-hop beef—violent and otherwise? How strange, how fascinating! Grigoriadis is simultaneously playing both bad anthropologist and off-beat white girl at the black club. That New York Times Magazine chose to embrace and publicize this performance with the publication of her offensive article should serve as an embarrassment to the magazine as well. That no editor on staff knew or cared enough to correct her misspelling of both “diss tracks” and “gold grills” is further proof of co-signed intellectual ignorance.
And like Grigoriadis, they are not alone. Back in August, The Atlantic published a ridiculous article on the politics of Beyoncé’s stringy hair, in which Megan Garber exposed herself as another white woman who doesn’t understand black hair, culture and high-end weave—and as someone who missed this piece, otherwise she wouldn’t have waited eight years to write about the significance of stringy hair on a magazine cover. And Kerry Howley, the writer behind “The Unretiring Serena Williams,” also took a somewhat problematic approach in her opening—poking fun at her subject selling pieces from her own fashion line on HSN. It’s an unnecessary undercutting of black women at the top of their game—a way of saying, “Yes they’re great and they’ve done the unthinkable, but let’s not forget about all of the things at which they do not excel. For Williams, it was sales. For Nicki Minaj, it’s politeness—or at least, willingness to let a reporter finish her interview.
These aren’t simple journalistic errors that can be explained or apologized away. Say what you want about Nicki Minaj and/or her music, but she was smart enough to tell Grigoriadis—right before dismissing her—“...you know that’s not just a stupid question. That’s a premeditated thing you just did.’’ Indeed, some of these articles and misrepresentations of black women and black culture are just plain ignorant and stupid. But the machines behind this ignorance—the passion and power behind those twerking from their ivory towers—are finely-tuned and then consumed by the masses. So, while, it’s always going to be funny to see white people trying their best to dance at the black clubs, and it’s always going to be funny when “SNL” takes note of it, the same world that encourages the Mileys, the Vanessas, the Megans and the Kerrys to show up at these clubs, needs to listen carefully when black women—whether they’ve seemingly gone pop or commercial, or whatever else—finally get fed up and put them on blast, authentic Queens accents in tow. To paraphrase Nicki Minaj, if you want to write about, participate in and critique our culture, “then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us.” But you can’t learn those things if you’re too busy treating the culture as merely other, merely a form of entertainment.
So, Vanessa Grigoriadis, now that you’ve twerked and condescended and embarrassed yourself in front of the world—what’s really good?