“Independent women only!” Dropping it low in a sheer, bejeweled bodysuit, flanked by female dancers in black leotards and yellow tights, Nicki Minaj changed the lyrics to her single “Only” to give a shout-out to independent Angolan sisters when she performed Saturday at a holiday concert sponsored by phone company Unitel. Unitel is controlled by Isabel dos Santos, daughter of Angolan president Jose dos Santos and Africa’s richest woman and youngest billionaire.
Minaj performed despite protests from the Human Rights Foundation, which wrote a letter demanding she refuse to perform for a government “involved in gross human rights violations.” Citing the dos Santos regime for economic corruption and suppression of free speech, HRF also lambasted Isabel as “the largest beneficiary of the country’s deadly trade in blood diamonds.”
When Minaj nonetheless accepted the invitation to perform in Luanda, she joined Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Nelly Furtado, Erykah Badu and Kanye West in a list of artists reprimanded by HRF for performing for African and Eastern European “tyrants” in exchange for seven-figure paychecks.
It’s nearly impossible to argue with the foundation’s statement titled “Nicki Minaj Shouldn’t Be Performing for Dictators.” But in touting this self-evident platform, the foundation and other human rights watchdogs leave several important questions unasked:
When we talk about politics in Africa, why do we move so quickly into inflammatory terms?
The Human Rights Foundation calls dos Santos “brutal,” “a cunning tyrant” and “ruthless,” among other terms. Please be clear: I make no apologies for dos Santos’ regime, which includes the rise of deadly income disparities, arrests of nonviolent protesters, and a spike in child mortality rates. But brutal, cunning, ruthless—rather than detailing Angola’s political situation—perform an ad hominem attack that echoes imperialist rhetoric about Africans’ savagery. The idea that Africans are too “brutal” and “ruthless” to govern themselves has been the irrational underpinning for numerous imperialist interventions into Angola and other African states, including the U.S.’s backing of Angolan guerilla group UNITA, funded by Western governments opposed to the then Marxist-Leninist state.
Why don’t we apply the same lens to ourselves?
This isn’t the language usually employed to talk about North American and European rulers, but why not? In the United States, nonviolent Black Lives Matter protesters were arrested in Boston and Minneapolis, while Sandra Bland’s death under dubious circumstances in a Texas jail in July remains obscured. Our infant mortality rate is the developed world’s highest and the rate for Black infants double that of Whites. Why doesn’t HRF protest artists who perform at national events, or at state events in Massachusetts, Minnesota, or Texas? And let’s not forget, dos Santos’ regime continues because, since Angola has become a capitalist state and Africa’s second-largest oil producer, the U.S. and Western Europe support his dictatorship to retain access to the country’s oil.
If we let go of the idea that African countries are more savage than ours, can we ask:
When we talk about politics in Africa, how seriously do we take Black women’s voices?
Long before she asked “What’s good, Miley?” Minaj rose to the status of Black feminist icon. When Vogue asked her relationship to feminism, she replied: “I think of myself as a woman who wants other women to be bosses, and to be strong and to be go-getters. I’ve always said that, since I came in the game.” She framed her meeting with Isabel dos Santos in those terms, too. Her Instagram picture with Isabel reads: “She’s just the 8th richest woman in the world. (At least that’s what I was told by someone b4 we took this photo) Lol. Yikes!!!!! GIRL POWER!!!!!”
You can agree with Minaj’s version of feminism or not. But a high-profile chance for a Black Trinidadian woman who lives in the United States to be in conversation with Angolan women about what empowerment means to Black women in diaspora: That’s a valuable moment.
Does anybody think it’s coincidence she surrounded herself with Black women on stage, or that she chose to amp-up her girl power lyrics? Muhammed Ali fought the “Rumble in the Jungle” in repressive Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) partly to connect with Africans about Black empowerment. Why don’t we think Minaj’s conversations about Black woman-power are as important?