This is why we can’t have nice things. After announcing two singles this week, Nicki Minaj found herself under fire for perceived cultural appropriation after dropping the artwork for “Chun-Li.” The title refers to the character from Street Fighter II, the first female character in a fighting game, while the artwork depicts Minaj decked out in Fendi and sporting Chun-Li’s signature “ox horn” hairstyle.
Let’s start with the obvious: we’re talking about a character in a videogame. If we consider Minaj’s new single appropriation, we would implicitly be accepting the premise that Chun-Li is somehow a Chinese cultural touchstone, despite being programmed by a group of American and Japanese men with little regard for political correctness. As NPR noted in 2014, Street Fighter is filled with racist caricatures and ethnic stereotypes, from Russian characters who fight bears to Indian ones who fight with yoga. While Chun-Li’s character design sees her wearing a revamped qipao (a traditional 20th century Chinese dress), her cultural connection is superficial at best.
Secondly, the song itself barely focuses on Chun-Li at all. Much like 2015’s “Shanghai,” Minaj’s lyrical content is preoccupied with flexing and stunting, notably free of cringe-worthy Orientalism present on songs like Migos’s “Chinatown” (Quavo’s “ching-chong” adlib is painfully ridiculous). The track uses Chun-Li as an avatar of female power, placing her in the company of Lara Croft and Storm. This lends itself to a much more benign reading than Minaj’s detractors have intially suggested.
Third, and perhaps most critically, accusing Minaj of cultural appropriation mistakenly suggests the power dynamics at play are the same as when Katy Perry dressed as a geisha or Iggy Azalea put on a blaccent. Antiblackness is rampant in Asian communities, and Asians in the West tend to lean in on the myth of the model minority in order to gain standing under white supremacy. Consider the recent incidence of blackface on Chinese state television, salt in the wound of China’s economic exploitation of various African nations. To suggest a black woman has the privilege to appropriate Chinese culture seems inane at face value, let alone after critical analysis.
While some have defended Minaj by citing her Asian heritage, this strikes me as misguided; born in Trinidad and Tobago, Minaj’s heritage traces back to South Asia, rather than East Asia. Even considering cultural diffusion across the continent, I cannot in good faith suggest that Minaj has any more “right” to Chinese culture than I do as an American of Indian descent.
This conversation highlights the ways social justice discourse has, for better or worse, permeated online culture, and how the buzzword-ification of various topics has led to their dilution, being tossed around without proper understanding of their origin or context. Feel free to get up in arms when the music video drops and is chockful of Orientalist stereotypes, but until then, let’s just revel in the return of the queen.