Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj are two of the biggest names in Pop music right now. Both women have made outrageous, risqué imagery their calling card. However, as media goddess and public intellectual Esther Armah recently pointed out to me, Gaga’s nudity and provocateur antics are hailed as performance art, where as Miss Minaj is discussed as yet another bawdy female rapper embarrassing the women of her race. Let’s ask ourselves homegirls (and homeboys): Why is that?

I see a few reasons. For one, where Gaga’s antics may spawn a few industry copycats and some imitators running the streets of New York (and as a resident, I can tell you that you could call “chicken” or “egg” when it comes to a lot of the Gaga-esque characters here), she’s not really having a profound influence on her listening audience. On the other hand, there are a whole lot of young sisters running around calling themselves “Barbies” behind Nicki. And an influencer is naturally going to be subject to a different vein of criticism, particularly when the group looking to her is relatively young.

While Gaga’s imagery is highly provocative, her music is pretty benign. On the flip, Minaj gives you a lot to look at (surgically enhanced out of this world curves, over the top outfits) and an earful at the same time. Both women are bisexual, but Nicki is the one talking to women the same way male rappers have spoken to us for years . . . like we’re bitches and hoes.

So while I can come up with a number of reasons why Nicki would be getting a bit more criticism than Gaga, there is still an uncomfortable reminder that hits me when I look at the two women’s aesthetics and how they are critiqued. In society, as it stands today, a Black woman’s near-nudity is not going to be called “artistic” (to be honest, I’ve seen a lot more of Gaga’s actual nude frame than I have Nicki’s). She’s gonna be called a freak. And while the rub here may be that the rapper is claiming the “freak” title . . . she was gonna be called that no matter what.

Could there be a Black Lady Gaga? Could a sister be free in the public space to be sexual and unclothed in that way? Can we get away with doing “artsy shit” like that? I don’t think so. I don’t think it would be possible, even in 2010, for a Black woman to escape the trappings of being a representative for the women of her race. And if there was one willing to take that step, I don’t think our folks would receive her so well. I can’t see a Grace Jones (do your homework—Madonna is not the only one Gaga is borrowing heavily from) doing well with Black audiences today. Erykah toes the line, but so much of her fan base had already “bought in” when she looked fresh from a poetry set . . . it’s hard to say how she’d be received if “Window Seat” were her debut video.

I’m not without my personal criticisms of Nicki Minaj; you can find some of them in the first half of this essay, and we don’t have time to get in to the rest of em (most of them have to do with adult imagery being peddled to child audiences). I’m also not Lady Gaga’s biggest fan either; I don’t love “art for art’s sake” and a lot of her shock value antics are kinda lame to me. However, I long for the day when a sister can be as absurd and naked and bold as she pleases without so much worry over the dignity of the race.

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