I can honestly say I’ve never thought about writing down the following combination of words: Nazi hip-hop dystopia. But Nicki Minaj’s new video for the track “Only” has forced me to do so. In the video, we see a cartoonized Minaj in tight leather, lording it over an army of what look uncannily like Waffen-SS soldiers. While there have probably been subtler uses of Nazi imagery at skinhead rallies, it seems beyond daft to accuse a black woman of promoting white supremacy.
So what’s actually going on here? Minaj has rolled out a nebulous apology for the video on Twitter, claiming that a) she’s not an anti-Semite because one of her best friends (and a co-creator of the video) is Jewish, and b) the video wasn’t even inspired by Nazism. It’s hard to believe that Minaj signed off on this bizarre animation without noticing any references to the Third Reich. The initials of her record label, Young Money, appear, in black, in a white circle on a red flag. And we’re supposed to believe that Minaj failed to recognise this as a swastika pastiche. Hmm.
It pains me to use that think piece stalwart, the word “problematic”, but, unfortunately, Minaj’s video is exactly that. In the fifties and sixties, there was a craze for pulpy Nazi-themed erotica. Images of sexy SS women in knee-high boots were, apparently, just the ticket for dealing with generalised post-WW2 burnout. For some, it seems, the best way to cope with the overwhelming horror of Nazism was to masturbate over it. Minaj’s “Only” video harks back to a time when the perpetrators of genocide were socially acceptable wank-fodder. Although I can almost guarantee that no single member of Minaj’s fan base is suddenly going to think that Nazism is cool, the video is still tasteless and irresponsibly flippant.
On the other hand, I’m sure that neo-Nazis will be furious to discover that the video’s four black artists, Minaj, Drake, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown, have appropriated their iconography. And, if Hitler could be resurrected for no purpose other that to watch this video, I’m certain that he’d simultaneously shit, vomit and cry. What we have here is pretty rare: a piece of art that’s offensive to absolutely everyone. If there’s one thing bound to unite neo-Nazis and Jews, it’s hatred of this video. Meanwhile, Minaj is claiming that it was inspired, not by fascism, but by Metalocalypse (some cartoon about a metal band) and the film Sin City. Yeah, I’ve heard that one before, Nicki.
In 2010, MIA released a similarly controversial video for her single “Born Free”. Here, we see some kind of fascistic system in which, er, ginger people are sent to concentration camps. But, importantly, the difference between the two videos is that MIA’s is very obviously political, while Minaj’s is not. MIA uses far-right imagery to make an anti-fascist statement, while Minaj’s “Only” (both the track itself and the video) is about absolutely nothing. The lyrics are apolitical at best, utterly meaningless at worst. I mean, Drake, for some reason, appears in the video as a bishop. This isn’t conceptual, it’s just silly. All the Nazi stuff is pure decoration. And referencing Nazism, for aesthetic purposes, is a terrible idea.
Minaj most probably isn’t an anti-Semite. Not just because she claims to have “a Jewish friend”; I genuinely don’t think she meant to offend anyone with the video. At the same time, shrugging off any blame because the video’s creators are Jewish makes for an anaemic defence. The overall message of the video (if there is one) is that it’s absolutely fine to be flippant about genocide. What’s more, expecting a hyper-mainstream hip hop artist not to make sexy visual references to the Third Reich doesn’t seem like an especially big ask. Let’s just hope that this video remains an anomaly.