Let’s talk lyrics—specifically, those of the latest collaborative song, “Hey Mama”, brought to us by Nicki Minaj, David Guetta, and Afrojack.
This song sets women back AT LEAST 50 years.
As a woman and a human being with a little musical and cultural history under their belt, I cannot ignore this song’s presence in the current Clear Channel rotation. Nor can I allow it to go without remark.
First, just a cursory glance of the lyrics tells a deeply unsettling story; that of a human doormat. After the initial hook, “borrowed” from a chain gang song (a point we’ll get to later), the opening lyrics are;
“Yes I’ll be your woman
Yes I’ll be your baby
Yes I’ll be whatever that you tell me when you’re ready”
Nothing about this suggests equality or of being heard. The “woman” is just that—an interchangeable sexed object with no identity and worse, the willingness to have none until it is bestowed upon her when the man is ready to do so. In the course of three lines, Nicki Minaj reduces herself to nothing, going from a woman, to a baby, to a “whatever”. One may argue that she attempts to reclaim her position by going from “girl” to “lady” in the next two lines, but the damage has already been done. As the final line of the stanza states, she is “down for” him no matter the position he assigns. This contingency of her identity is reiterated in two later stanzas when she tells him, “Gimme the word I’m no good/ I’ll be bad” and promises to “be a lady and a freak”. Both lines relate directly back to the angel-devil dichotomy that has unfairly labeled and painted women into corners for centuries, labels men created to oppress women through sex, while they, themselves, escaped similar vilification.
It is clear that her wants are never part of the equation. The repetitious chorus hammers this point home. Its key line—from which the song’s title is drawn—is “I wanna hear you calling my name like ‘Hey ma ma mama’”. Although she clear states she wants to hear her name, she accepts his “hey mama” instead, which verifies her namelessness, inferior position, and her replaceability. To him, she is a generic reproductive body whose wants are irrelevant. While some may counter this by pointing out her later assertion, “That’s how it be/I come first like debut,” these lines are ironically the last two in the second-to-last stanza and they follow lines about him climaxing first, “your dick came the truth/my screams is the proof”. What’s more, she has to ask him to tell off “them bitches” that might steal him away with, “tell ‘em to make a U”. She is so powerless and voiceless, her wants so insignificant, that she lacks the authority necessary to tell other women to step off. Furthermore, the only way she has of wielding any power is by being derogatory towards her own sex, thus validating the sexist treatment she, herself, is receiving.
But all this is just simple name-calling and objectification. The bridge and the next stanza, wrapped around the chorus, shift the song into even more antiquated waters, where the male partner’s sexual needs are delineated as more important than the woman’s right to her own body.
“Best believe that, when you need that
I’ll provide that, you will always have it
I’ll be on deck, keep it in check
When you need that, I’ma let you have it”
She will keep “it” “on deck” and “in check” so that (just like in the first stanza) when he makes the decision to need it, he can “have it”. In the final stanza, the double entendre “make sure I’m on my toes / On my knees / To keep him pleased” speaks to her subservience and willingness to be on-hand at all times for his benefit. A worse interpretation of these lines suggests she is telling him to “make sure” she follows through on these guarantees, as if she is a robot that needs controlling or is so incapable that she requires constant surveillance. One may argue she is in control, as she says she will “provide” it and “let” him have it, but all of this is undermined by two things: 1) the Cro Magnon-level belief that a man’s “need” for sex cannot be fulfilled by any other means, nor denied, and 2) by the third stanza, which reads more like misogynistic wedding vows of yore than anything that would be remotely acceptable today—yet here we are.
“Yes I do the cooking
Yes I do the cleaning
Plus I keep the na-na real sweet for your eating
Yes you be the boss and yes I be respecting
Whatever that you tell me ‘cause it’s game you be spitting”
If you are female, and have any pride in your abilities aside from your supposedly “innate” ability to be a better housekeeper than a man or to be unwaveringly obedient, then by now you’ve definitely got your rage on. But let’s break it down further. She will not only do the bulk of day-to-day household chores without his assistance, she will also regulate the internal workings of her body to please him, respecting “whatever” he tells her because she has NO WILL or POWER of her own. She is an automaton, not a fully-developed human being. He has complete control of her actions and her selfhood, all the way down to her vaginal secretions. And before you think she is powerful for articulating that she will be the one to do these things (as if it’s of her own accord) keep in mind that line, “Yes, you be the boss,” as well as her grammar throughout the stanza. Her use of “I” instead of “I’ll”, “you” instead of “you’ll” and “be respecting” along with the repetitive “yesses”, all smack of the language of slavery and its more “recent” blackface iterations.
Want further proof? Let’s look at the last stanza, the chorus again, and that hook mentioned earlier. In the final stanza, she will “make sure that he’s getting his share”, as if she is completing work for him (sharecropping anyone?) or owes him a part of her by default. She is not a person. She is property. It’s this objectification, in fact, that the chorus begins with, when we learn she is a drum he gets to “beat” with his “dirty rhythm”. Worst of all, the hook comes from “Rosie”, a 1947 Mississippi chain gang recording, “captured” by the white American folklorist and ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax.
In his lifetime, Lomax made great efforts to travel globally and record authentic folk songs and stories within their communities. The sounds he helped to preserve are often featured in PBS specials and are archived in the Library of Congress. Yet, while Lomax is still celebrated today, the performers themselves are not. They have been largely forgotten, as Lomax did not always record their names and they were not reimbursed for what they provided—what a fitting tie-in to the nameless woman charged with being the continual provider of comfort to the man in Nicki Minaj’s song.
To continue, if you know anything about race relations in the South in the 1940s, then it should be easy to understand why this “lifting” of forced labor song lyrics into the modern-day canon is so inappropriate. Mississippi State Penitentiary, known then as “Parchman Farm” in many ways resembled a pre-Civil War plantation. At the time of the recording, complete segregation of the workers was a given, and their labor was employed 10 hours a day, six days a week. The work force Lomax recorded was captive, and it is highly doubtful they had any say in the recording. It’s unfortunate that the only place this sampling has been given credit is in the online music sampling community. But that Nicki Minaj, David Guetta, and Afrojack would choose this piece, of all pieces, to round out a song that in so many ways reinforces how contemporary women still find themselves controlled by men is the most unsettling.
This is not what people in the 21st century should be hearing. It reinforces the worst, most dehumanizing aspects of male-female relations of the past and makes light of the historical divisions of race, authority, and appropriation that the U.S. has been battling for the past 150+ years. Music is meant to enlighten, to celebrate, to cast a critical eye on current events: “Hey Mama” brings nothing new or positive to the table.