By now you’ve no doubt heard/rocked out to/rolled your eyes at Nicki Minaj’s single “Starships.” I happen to like it, as I am partial to anything that makes me dance like a fool in my car, and I also think Nicki is super cool.
In the song, which you can hear here, she says, “My name is Onika/You can call me Nicki.” (Cue it up to minute 1:40ish to hear the lyric.) Makes sense: People call me Car or Carlita or on occasion Carl, which I dislike. Now, maybe even if you’ve heard the song, you still didn’t know that that’s her name because it’s a little hard to understand. Or maybe you don’t know because you’ve only heard the song on the radio, and the radio version bleeps it out.
I’ll admit, the first time I heard the song, when I got to the lyric in question, I paused for a moment. Nicki’s fierce rapping can be hard to suss out, and for a hot minute, I thought she was *maybe* using a racial slur. That word (the one the lyric kinda, sorta sounds like) makes me exceedingly uncomfortable, even though it’s de rigueur for loads of great rappers to use it, so I did some research. And guess what? Nicki Minaj’s real name is Onika, and that’s what she’s saying. Mystery solved.
Only, let’s return to what I mentioned before: I have now heard the song on both Z100 and WKTU (respectively 100.3 and 103.5 in NYC), and both stations BLEEP OUT THE MOTHERFUCKING LYRIC. On one hand, I just said it sounds like Nicki’s saying the N-word. But on the other (more well-researched, reasonable, not-jumping-to-conclusions) hand, we’ve established that she isn’t in fact saying it, that she is just saying her name. Horrible words and words that sort of sound like horrible words aren’t one and the same. (See also: niggardly, which once famously led to the resignation—then rehiring—of a D.C. mayor’s aide.) So what gives?
I assumed the censoring lay with the radio stations, which perhaps don’t have enough money for Google, like I do (I’m so braggy!), but I spoke with Jim Clerkin, Music Director of Boston’s Kiss 108, a Clear Channel station (like Z100 and KTU), who told me that the label provided the version they’ve been playing and the stations haven’t altered it. So it’s Nicki’s record label, Young Money Entertainment, that’s presumably behind the bleeping. Mmmkay.
I reached out to Nicki’s agent, management and PR team for comment but heard nothing back, so I’m left to draw my own conclusions about what happened. The first possibility is that Young Money, which also reps Drake and Lil Wayne, made a mistake, thought no one would notice and didn’t bother to fix it. The more probable explanation is that the label knew exactly what it was bleeping and bleeped it anyway just in case someone misheard it. Quelle drag.
Nicki’s fans know exactly what was bleeped, too—and now they’re wondering why it was. The web is lit up with questions of the “Starships + why is Onika censored?” variety. Go ahead, give it a whirl. You can borrow my Google.
Look, if Mike D spit about how his name is Mike but you can call him Mikey, would I like it if someone at the label scrubbed it from the song because it rhymes with kike? I mean, I don’t think so, and not just because that’s a terrible fucking lyric (and sorry for dragging you into this, Beastie Boys). I’d feel bad on behalf of his artistic integrity and also prefer we not give the word any more weight than it’s worth (especially when it wasn’t even used) because it’s hateful and horrible and I want to live in a world of sunshine and bunnies and no racial slurs. Truly I do (only, I guess, substitute Alexander Wang bags for bunnies).
But scratching out a name because it sounds like something bad is Band-Aid work. It’s an appease-the-establishment-in-a-boneheaded-way endeavor. It’s an avoid-a-controversy-without-doing-anything-real-because-it’s-easier attempt. And it’s really fucking stupid. And insulting.
Because now stations that happily play Chris Brown (censor that asshat, why don’t you) are also playing a track that ERASES NICKI MINAJ’S REAL NAME. It’s a random connection, but not an insignificant one. While the record industry (and Nicki, too, I guess—she disappointingly features him on her “Right by My Side” track) throws its arms around a girlfriend-beating, window-smashing, puppy-selling misogynist angerball because he seems like such a cool guy (read: he makes people gobs and gobs of money), what they won’t do is let Nicki Minaj say her name—because it sounds like something else that makes people uncomfortable. In the realm of priorities, these are fucked-up ones.
So let Nicki say her name, record company. And have faith that your listeners are smarter than you give them credit for being. They’re paying more attention than you realize.