When choosing cover art for her 2013 single Lookin A** Ni**a, Nikki Minaj selected the iconic picture of Malcolm X holding a rifle while looking out his window. The song—intended as a devastating critique of hip-hop culture’s treatment of women—is a profanity laced tirade disparaging black men. Although she apologized after the predictable backlash, Minaj later defended her use of the image during a radio interview, calling the picture “a parallel” for hip-hop’s treatment of women.
Last year, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (who at 56 should really know better) posted a parody video on his YouTube channel which featured an actress pretending to be abolitionist and Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman. The actress was portrayed filming sexual escapades with her slave master in order to blackmail him. After multiple complaints, the video was removed. Simmons responded to the outrage, telling the Huffington Post, “…but I still maintain that comedy should push the edge. I misunderstood the underlying implications and I'm deeply sorry for that.”
What Wayne and Simmons do not seem to understand is that there is a difference between being edgy and just being obscene. The “underlying implication” Simmons apparently misunderstood was that portraying a courageous heroine as a common whore disrespects not only her memory, but also the cause for which she risked her life. And sadly, Minaj does not seem to be able to discern the difference between a husband and father trying to protect his family and the men who abuse and abandon them.
Fortunately, countless Americans denounced Wayne, Simmons, and Minaj for their extraordinary breaches of decency. Some have speculated that Wayne et al have no reverence for those who paved the way for their success because they haven’t truly experienced the struggle themselves. This may be partially true. But I think it is more likely that the current struggle so many black Americans face has changed from the days of slavery and Jim Crow. The fight is no longer about material lack or legal discrimination as much as it is about a toxic deficit of self-respect. Because to mock and belittle the people fought for one’s own liberty is to disrespect oneself.
The good news is that enough Americans reacted with the appropriate level of outrage and the wrongs were corrected. What I fear is that we are headed for a day when such antics will no longer generate any backlash at all.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.