It’s tempting to freak out about the unstoppable Nicki Minaj’s new Nazi-influenced lyric video for the single “Only,” if only (ha!) because Nicki Minaj (and gifted director Jeff Osborne, who also did a truly delightful lyric video for “Anaconda”) very much want us to freak out about it. Take a moment to check out the gorgeously-wrought but disturbing video for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.
A few folks online asked, “Does this include Nazi imagery?” and “Did Nicki mean to include Nazi themes in her video?”
Please, before we go any further, let’s dispense with the idea that this is anything other than a postmodern riff on classic German WWII propaganda films. Specifically, it draws from one film in particular.
The first time I watched the video for “Only,” I thought I was watching some kind of hip-hop homage to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi film Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl’s magnum opus was a beautifully shot, brilliantly edited, and chillingly effective piece of evil commissioned by Adolf Hitler himself in order to chronicle the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. So while Leni’s film had a lot of this:
Nicki and Jeff’s video has a lot of this:
Nicki’s video deliberately opens with an old-timey feel.
Leni Riefenstahl’s film opens with an old-timey feel because, well, it was made in old-timey times.
Nicki and Jeff’s video uses a lot of red and black. The Nazis used a lot of red and black, though that isn’t apparent in black-and-white stills from Triumph of the Will.
And just like Hitler’s film, Nicki and Jeff’s video has a military demonstration.
Both Triumph of the Will and the video for “Only” contain plenty of images of planes, tanks, and other military vehicles. If the film contains a document of a gigantic Nazi party meeting, the video seems to contain a document of a gigantic Nicki party meeting.
This still from Triumph of the Will could just as easily be from Nicki and Jeff’s video, if you switch up the iconography slightly:
And I’m not even going to get into the gas masks. Well, hell, yes I am. Because this was the image where I said to myself, “Fuck. This.”
I was willing to believe it was all about the pageantry and spectacle. Then Minaj and Osborne make a direct reference to the gas chambers where countless innocent women, men, and children perished. But it’s sexy, right? Because it’s Nicki Minaj! Wheeee!
All this is just to say: yes, Nicki Minaj’s new video features Nazi imagery. It is specifically inspired by the most famous war propaganda film of all time. But to what end?
When Charlie Chaplin co-opted Nazi symbols and images in his 1940 film The Great Dictator, it was to satirize what he saw as the foolishness and general hubris of Hitler and his cause. At the time, Chaplin had no knowledge of the atrocities committed against European Jews by Nazis; in his autobiography, he later wrote that he wouldn’t have made the film — critical of Hitler though it was — if he’d known about the horrors of the concentration camps.
Minaj and Osborne don’t have that excuse. But it’s an enormous leap — and, I think, an incorrect one — to call this video anti-Semitic, though it uses symbols associated with the greatest mass murder of Jews in history. That gas mask shit was way over the top to me, but I stop short of calling it anti-Jewish. I would instead call it enormously disrespectful, cavalier, and stupid.
To me, the video appears to advance an idea that Nicki and her friends Lil’ Wayne and Drake and Chris Brown are all-powerful and should be worshiped and obeyed as rulers of all they survey. Okay. I get it. It’s a cool concept and fits in with the historic braggadocio/self-aggrandizement that characterizes the rap game.
The problem is that in relying on Riefenstahl’s film as inspiration, Osborne and Minaj don’t achieve their probable goal, to subvert imagery of a fascist Aryan empire by putting a woman of color and two men of color in charge of an imagined kingdom of followers. I see what they were aiming for, and in a sense I admire the attempt to do something daring, wild, and provocative. But when your song lyrics are mostly about how you definitely did not fuck Lil’ Wayne and you definitely did not fuck Drake but they definitely would still fuck you if you wanted them to fuck you, it seems careless, reckless, silly and ultimately really fucking stupid to utilize such painfully loaded imagery.
I’m not an advocate of censorship, but I do recognize that words and symbols and images carry weight and meaning. If you’re going to pull out the big guns, you’d better bring the big ammo.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of Great and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She tweets @sarajbenincasa and is currently on tour: dates are at SaraBenincasa.com/shows.