When rapper Nicki Minaj took the stage towards the end of last night’s Grammy Awards, she delivered a performance that must have been long in the making. Channeling The Exorcist, flanked by faux-stained glass windows, and accompanied by a troupe of dancers dressed as members of the Catholic clergy, it was far and away the most outrageous spectacle in a night that featured a series of stripped-down performances, particularly in tribute to the late singer Whitney Houston who passed away on Saturday. Watch it:
The routine would have made headlines at any time — Minaj, a talented rapper, might have been dinged in another year for stealing a page from Madonna’s Catholic-tweaking playbook. But Minaj’s performance capped off a week when the Catholic heirarchy was elevated in the media in a way it hasn’t been in years after President Obama announced, and then amended, a rule that would have required religious organizations to offer insurance that covered contraceptives to their employees. And as a result, Minaj is likely to get more than the usual media buzz out of her appearance on the red carpet with a man dressed like the Pope and her turn as a victim of demonic possession, and Catholics have yet another piece of evidence that they’re targets.
But on closer examination, it’s hard to see Minaj’s performance of “Roman Holiday” as particularly sacrilegious — and even harder to see it as a progressive jab at the church. Roman, the alter ego Nicki takes on in a number of her songs, and who she was claiming to exorcise tonight, is supposed to be a gay man. And the performance, which was not exceptionally salacious as these things go, could be interpreted at minimum as suggesting that demonic possession is real, and at most, that gayness is something that can be driven out of a person with the appropriate spiritual intervention (it’s not entirely clear that said intervention worked on the Grammy stage). Minaj occupies an interesting space in hip-hop: she’s appeared on the cover of Out, and been coy about her sexual orientation and deployment of her Roman persona in a way that’s allowed her to build a strong following among LGBT hip-hop fans, who are not exactly rolling in out artists to support. But it says something about the complexities of that position that Minaj may have simultaneously embodied a gay man last night, and suggested that you can pray away the gay.