Last week Nicki Minaj announced she will be executive producing and appearing in an ABC Family comedy based on her family’s emigration from Trinidad and her experiences growing up in Queens. Finally, seven years after she released her first mixtape, we get to meet Nicki the Trinidadian: the Nicki we rarely see and barely know. In Complex‘s January 2014 cover story, different Nickis are hinted at: “Mixtape Nicki,” “Pop Nicki,” “Diva Nicki,” “Theatrical Nicki,” “Fashion Nicki,” “Alter Ego Nicki a.k.a. Roman.” “Immigrant Nicki” is missing from the list. She is not as open or as visible as her counterparts. Nicki doesn’t always rap about her experiences as an immigrant and references to her homeland are few and far in between; for many, news of the sitcom was the first they heard of her immigrant background.
As a woman who, like Nicki, migrated to the United States as a child in the 1990s, I don’t blame Immigrant Nicki for hiding from us, for being cautious in revealing herself. After all, immigrant bodies are highly scrutinized and policed in public spaces — especially when they are black or brown. The immigrant experience, especially for children who grow up in both worlds and never really belong to either, is marked by immense trauma and loss. It is understandable why she would be ambivalent about introducing this part of herself to the world. When she has opened up about her immigrant experience, for example in MTV’s 2010 documentary My Time Now, the picture she paints is nightmarish:
I thought [the United States] was gonna be like a castle. Like white picket fence, like a fairy tale. I got off the plane and it was cold. I remember the smell. I could always remember the smell when I got out of the airport of the snow, and I had never seen snow. I remember the house. I remember that the furniture wasn’t put down. It was, like, piled up on each other, and I didn’t understand why, ’cause I thought it was gonna look like a big castle.
When I arrived to this country, I was just as lost and lonely as Nicki describes and deeply missing the warmth of Argentina. On that December day when my family landed in the United States, I too was greeted by snow, something I had never seen before, as foreign to me as the language spoken by those around me. My parents, my sister and I moved into an apartment without furniture, poor and markedly different from families around us. I understand why Nicki shies away from this past. Sometimes it is easier to repress the memories that have caused us so much pain.
Yet, even when she avoids explicitly mentioning her island roots or her immigrant identity, her lyrics tell the story on their own. The confidence she owns in songs like “Hov Lane” and “I Am Your Leader,” the body positivity she promotes in “Anaconda” which challenges Eurocentric ideals of feminine beauty, the liberatory sexual agency she embraces in “Come on a Cone,” “Get on Your Knees,” and “Boss Ass Bitch,” are all messages tailor-made to the immigrant woman’s struggle in the United States. She speaks both to our inner battles and to the societal pressures that opress us.
Nicki starts off Pink Friday, her debut studio album, with an ode to herself: her resilience and her brilliance. Any immigrant woman can understand where Nicki is coming from, how difficult it is to claim self-worth in a society that tells you aren’t beautiful, you aren’t worthy, you are an outsider, you are disposable. When your humanity is constantly questioned and every day is a struggle to name yourself beautiful despite a history and culture that tells you otherwise, launching your mainstream musical career with a song that proclaims your place at the top, as the best, is both radical and important. Her confidence, body-positivity and mantra of self-worth have since defined Nicki’s career.
“I’m the Best” is more than simply an ode to Nicki’s willpower and strength. Her family, especially her mother, take center stage in the second verse. She raps: “I remember when I couldn’t buy my mother a couch/ Now I’m sitting at the closing, bought my mother a house. You could never understand why I grind like I do/ Micaiah and Jelani, why I grind like I do.” Nicki’s hard-won battle to build an empire, to share the Yankee stadium with Jay and Kanye, to turn her nays into yays, is a story of collective struggle and success. It is for her brothers and her mother, for her family members in Trinidad who may be physically absent but always present. In “All Things Go,” the first track from her latest album, the narrative of unconditional love and loyalty to her family continues, but from a different place –- one of guilt and disconnect from those she loves, a sacrifice that comes with success — a balancing game immigrant children know too well.
Maybe the reason I love Nicki Minaj so much is because I see myself -– my realities, my experiences, my struggles –- reflected in who she is. I understand why she shies away from her complicated immigrant identity; I imagine how intimate the release of “Trini Dem Girls” must have been; I identify with the woman who sings “How could it be, little me/ Had the power to be the best B, in the league,” because I know what it’s like to be teased and taunted for my confidence in spite of my brownness. When I watch behind the scenes footage of her music video for “Pound the Alarm,” shot in her homeland, I see a free Nicki, dressed in a festive carnival costume and dancing in the streets with her fellow Trinidadians. But I also see an American struggling to reconcile her multiple identities — part island, part ghetto Barbie. I see my immigrant body reflected in hers and I hear my immigrant story through her music, even if I have to dig beneath the surface to find the messages. They are there. They always have been.
Barbara Sostaita is a Yale graduate student whose work focuses on migration and religion. She writes about Latinx migration issues, popular culture and women in academia. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraSostaita.