May 24, 2012
Whatever's Possessed Nicki Minaj? One Rapper's Riff on the Demonic
— David Mihalyfy
Rapper Nicki Minaj's new album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded debuted at the top of the Billboard Charts and is still selling strong in its seventh week of release. Thanks to its success and its titular alter ego Roman Zolanski, the talented and audacious Minaj is creating a new yet contradictory conception of the demonic through the incorporation of gay self-realization tropes.
According to her publicized biography, the Trinidad-born Minaj moved to Queens at a young age and developed alter egos partially to escape tensions at home. One, "Nicki Minaj," would replace her given name "Onika Maraj." Another, "Harajuku Barbie," is a colorful, over-the-top feminine persona that manages to be both robotic and wide-eyed, and has been channeled for many videos and public appearances.
For years, her alter ego Roman was a run-of-the-mill demon displaying anger, vulgarity, and supernatural phenomena upon possessing Minaj. In the 2010 song "Bottoms Up," she approached the singer at a club, then threatened other women with "my Louisville slugger" in a distorted voice before becoming suspiciously innocent and claiming she's "really such a lady" who gives "a lot of money to the babies out in Haiti." Likewise, in Kanye West's "Monster," Minaj insulted herself in the third person before declaring in a little girl voice that "Bride of Chuckie is child's play." Odd outbursts, too, characterized "Roman's Revenge" from her major label debut Pink Friday, while vulgar taunts dotted "Roman in Moscow," a promotional single for Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded.
Until quite recently, then, Roman matched portrayals of demonic possession in American popular culture. Most famously, in the 1973 movie The Exorcist, the young Ouija board-playing girl played by Linda Blair interspersed cries for help with raspy threats and crude sexual acts performed before her mother, doctors, and the clergy.
Roman also would not have surprised contemporary Christians who have revived the practice of exorcism. As scholar Michael Cuneo has argued, Malachi Martin's 1976 book Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Living Americans also influenced such groups. In the book's first case study, for example, a young Polish-American woman led astray by nihilism is increasingly taken over by a demon that lives in disarray and picks up strange men for degrading sex, ultimately assaulting the attendant priest with howls and filthy curses.
Minaj's infamous exorcism-themed Grammy performance this February, however, was a turning point for Roman. Much was familiar—at least at first. Initially singing bits of "Roman's Revenge" at a grimacing priest before grotesquely bursting out into West Side Story's "I Feel Pretty," Minaj then premiered her new album's opening track "Roman Holiday" amidst exploding stained glass windows, dancing monks, and an Exorcist-inspired finale where she levitated high in the air while rapping out the concluding lines.
A video interlude, however, intimated that Roman was a young gay male whose sexuality caused his mother to call in a priest. In the clip, Minaj eerily croons more West Side Story, pausing on the last word of the phrase "pretty and gay" while letting a tube of lipstick linger in her mouth and suggestively laughing. Although back in "Roman's Revenge" Roman's mother accused him of insanity and risking imprisonment, here she calls him "sick" and tells the priest "we didn't know where else to turn."
Roman's subsequent appearances have never resolved this contradictory development: although Minaj is pro-gay, her character displays signs of the supernatural, including roosting on the ceiling as he bellows at the intruding priest. Such signs are usually considered definitive proof of the phenomenon at the heart of exorcism, an alien being inhabiting a human body and imbuing it with a personality and powers beyond its own. This possession is wholly antithetical to Minaj's most recent narrative, that of the nascent self-realization of a weird and troubled gay male despite the opposition of authority figures. How can Roman self-realize, if his authentic self is a demon suppressing his actual personality and displaying powers not otherwise available to humans?
Minaj herself only reaffirmed the contradiction in a post-Grammies interview where she termed the performance Roman's "coming-out party" and related that his mother sought to "rehabilitate" him because "people around him tell him that he's not good enough... not normal and... not blending in with the Average Joe." Attributing fear to unfamiliarity, she effusively declared that not only is Roman "amazing," "sure of himself," and "confident," but also that "he's never going to change... and be exorcised." Oddly, she then addressed Roman's supernatural powers, adding, "Even when they throw the holy water on him, he still rises above."
Ultimately, Minaj's alter ego Roman Zolanski is a misstep; his evolving persona as a gay male displaying the hallmarks of demonic possession is a confusing and disappointing offering from a fresh, original artist. Inasmuch as her audience remembers and remains untroubled by her contradictory character, however, Minaj's valorization of the demonic through its identification with a persecuted, sympathetic minority has already begun to displace the typical cautionary tales of possession. Even at less than her full powers, Minaj may be permanently expelling negative connotations of The Exorcist.
Trey Songz, featuring Nicki Minaj, "Bottoms Up," on Passion, Pain & Pleasure, Atlantic (2010).
Kanye West, featuring Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver, and Nicki Minaj, "Monster," on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Def Jam (2010).
Nicki Minaj, featuring Eminem, "Roman's Revenge," on Pink Friday, Cash Money (2010).
Nicki Minaj, "Roman in Moscow," Cash Money (digital download available as of 2 December 2011).
Nicki Minaj, "Roman Holiday," performance at the 2012 Grammy Awards, Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA (12 February 2012).
For the Nicki Minaj interview by Ryan Seacrest on 102.7 KIIS FM (13 February 2012), click here.
Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (New York: Doubleday, 2001).
David Mihalyfy is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Christianity at the Divinity School.