poetry & tsismis: emily's blog

February 12, 2012

Why I Couldn’t Watch it Twice: Nicki Minaj’s Grammy Performance and the Effect of Superstition

Getty Images / Billboard.com

Why I Couldn’t Watch it Twice: Nicki Minaj’s Grammy Performance & the Effect of Superstition

by Emily P. Lawsin

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Like everyone else who came of age on Whitney Houston songs, I watched the Grammys tonight to see Jennifer Hudson belt out an “I Will Always Love You” tribute to Whitney, barely 24-hours after the Pop Diva’s sudden death. Hudson did a fabulous rendition, which in the close-ups, you could tell was extremely emotional for her to do. That was to be expected; what was not expected (despite the announcer’s annoying “stick around” warning before each commercial break) was Nicki Minaj’s performance of her new single “Roman Holiday”. It was the most theatrical, mind-blowing Grammy performance I have ever seen: complete with her levitating amidst the backdrop of stained glass windows, and a video of an exorcism with an actor dressed as a priest (who was also Minaj’s date for the evening, dressed earlier as the Pope). Did I mention the flames and the smoke on stage?

My jaw dropped at the whole spectacle, which even had a dramatic black-out where the whole stage went briefly dark. At first I thought maybe the producers had pulled the plug on the whole show, but realized that maybe this was actually her “moment of silence” so Minaj could climb up to a higher riser. Afterwards, viewers (including me) lamented about how confused they were by it all.

Now if I was a “pure” cultural studies theorist (rather than a public historian/Pinay poet), then I might be inclined to pore over, rewind, and dissect the hell (pun intended) out of Minaj’s performance. However, I am more “Puro-Pinay” – a Filipina American – who was raised with so many superstitious beliefs beat into me from my Pinoy family and my best friend’s Creole family that I was frankly, a bit scared to even sit through the live TV broadcast. And I do mean scared.

The kind of hide-behind-the-pillow scared. The kind of “I’m-going-to-stay-up-all-night-and-work-or-write-about-this-so-I-don’t-have-nightmares” scared. The kind of “what-the-hell-was-she-thinking-she-got-hella-nerve” scared. The “Oh-no-she-didn’t-just-start-speaking-in-tongues” scared. The “oh-yes-she-did-scared-of-you” scared. Snap, snap!

See, I kind of understand where Nicki Minaj was coming from here, as her Indian and Afro-Trinidadian parents hail from a colonized island nation (Trinidad), like mine hailed from the colonized nation of the Philippines. It is this familial understanding of the legacy of centuries of empire, Catholicism, and Spanish colonialism that make me want to see Minaj’s performance as a critique of the church’s efforts to exorcise all demons. The title of the mini-movie shown, “Exorcising Roman”, refers to Minaj’s alter-ego Roman Zolanski (not to be confused with the infamous filmmaker Roman Polanski, director of horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and psycho-mysteries like Chinatown). The minute the word “EXORCISING” came on the screen: that’s when my superstitious instincts should’ve known something crazy was about to go down.

Yes, I know that sociologists argue that superstitions function in society to control behaviors. However, that does not easily erase them from one’s brain. I should have known something was up when Minaj strolled up the red carpet in a stunning red Versace robe-like gown looking like a cross between a devilish nun and a possessed Little Red Riding Hood. My Filipino elders always told me to wear red at night to ward off ghosts and evil spirits (or bangungot), especially after someone in the family has just died. So when the Roman character was zapped into the corner of the ceiling during the mini-movie, I almost screamed. Same for when the priest’s beady eyes looked like the reflections of the devil’s flames. Yeah, I know it’s all special effects, but damn, Nicki, why did you have to go there? Especially the night after Whitney died?

Maybe Minaj was just trying to push the envelope over the edge here with a multilayered homage to the occult? Or was it indeed a critique of the church, pro-life advocates, or their stance on homosexuality? Or was it a statement about exorcising our silence around multiple personalities or mental illness? Or was it just a shock-and-awe kind of campaign as she was nominated for this year’s Best New Artist?

I’m not sure what it was; all I know is that now I can’t sleep. I’ll let you guess what color I’m wearing to bed.

* * *


Update – February 13, 2012:

 Nicki Minaj explains the performance in her own words, as told to Ryan Seacrest by Jocelyn Vena on today’s MTV News website:


September 16, 2011

Saturday 9/17: 1st Annual Blair’s Crowded House

 I am honored to be performing at this. Come out and support if you can. Still missing you, Blair.

 1st Annual Blair’s Crowded House

 Saturday, September 17, 2011

 7PM to 2 AM

@ Tangent Gallery / Hastings St. Ballroom

715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit, MI

Admission: Sliding Scale Donation ($5 to $50)

In honor of Blairs legendary Crowded House events, friends and family are launching an annual Blair’s Crowded House, on the weekend of what would have been his 44th birthday.  Featuring videos of Blair, a photo exhibit, a time for writing remembrances, and 40 Performers, including Emily P. Lawsin, The Boyfriends, Alison Lewis, Monica Blaire, Jamaal Versiz May, Airea Dee Matthews, Khary Kimani Turner, Mike E, and Invincible.  Proceeds go towards the David Blair Memorial Fund to help Detroit artists in times of crisis; donate online here: www.dblair.org 

Find us on Facebook, HERE.

To read my poems on Blair, click HERE.


May 26, 2011

‘Queen of Jazzipino’ Charmaine Clamor Performs in Michigan thru Saturday

Last night, I took our kindergartener to see Charmaine Clamor perform at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms and of course, we both loved it. The 5 ½ year old loves to sing and is proud of being a “Pinay” = Filipina American female, so she was really excited to meet the “Queen of Jazzipino”. She swayed and sang along through Charmaine’s 60-minute set, which included “Doodlin’ in Taglish” (half Tagalog, half English), a traditional harana (Filipino serenade), a Duke Ellington song, a cover of U2’s With or Without You”, and so appropriate for Motown: “Feelin’ Stevie” (a tribute to Stevie Wonder). My favorite song of the night was when her musical director Abe Lagrimas (yes, Pinoy from Hawai’i) broke out the ukulele with Charmaine singing the classic Tagalog love ballad “Minamahal Kita”. Even if you are not fluent in Filipino, you should learn that title, which means: “I love you very much”. I surprised my American-born-self by being able to translate most of the Filipino verses for our daughter and our non-Filipino sistahfriend Deborah, who joined us for “Girls Night Out”.

The Dirty Dog Jazz Café is an intimate, classy restaurant, with white linens and candle lanterns adorning each table. (Being from Seattle and the daughter of an Alaskera [salmon cannery worker], I am pretty picky about my salmon: theirs didn’t need the seafood velouté sauce, but it was pan-grilled perfect, and their bread pudding with cherry port reduction was divine.) It was fun for our daughter to get gussied up and practice her table manners, since she has taken a liking to reading all of the Fancy Nancy books (about a young girl who loves all that is French and fancy). As we do for all entertainment outings, I prepped her for the show by letting her watch some of Charmaine’s videos that are on her website and YouTube. Her favorite videos are “My Funny Brown Pinay (a spoof on “My Funny Valentine” with a good message to be proud of our brown skin and flat noses. “Hey, I have a flat nose too!” she said) and Charmaine’s latest video “Flow” (about the need for potable water and how it affects women). In “Flow”, our daughter loves seeing other children singing along in the studio clips. During the live show last night, she said, “I don’t think all of those kids will be performing with her like on the computer.” And then later, “Are YOU going to perform a poem, Mom? I could sing my songs from my recital.”  I shook my head and wondered if other performance poets who are also parents get similar questions from their precocious kids. 🙂  Now, I’m not recommending that every parent take their little kid to a jazz club, but hey, it’s not every day that a little Asian American girl is able to see talented role models who look like her, especially in Detroit/Grosse Pointe, where Asians make up far less than 2% of the population.

After the show, we bought CDs and a cute “Funny Brown Pinay” tote bag. The 5 ½ year old greeted Charmaine with a hug and the traditional “mano po” blessing of the hand; she was so happy to meet her and get her autograph. During our conversation, we realized we have many mutual friends in Los Angeles (Pinay extraordinaire Prosy de la Cruz is the one who connected us prior to the show). I was really surprised to discover that Charmaine attended California State University Northridge the same years that I taught there – and she said she minored in Asian American Studies (my home department)! Do any of you CSUN FASA alumni remember her from back then? Of course, she said she was in PCN (Pilipino Cultural Night), but I forgot to ask her if she sang in it, because how could I have forgotten her voice if she did?

Braving the rainstorms on a school night, we went to the early show so I could get the kindergartener back home in time for bed, even though I wanted to stay for the next set. I highly recommend everyone go see Charmaine Clamor while she is in town; it is a rare treat to have a Filipina artist – all the way from Los Angeles —  perform in Michigan!

Charmaine Clamor and her trio (Andy Langham [piano], Dominic Thiroux [bass], and Abe Lagrimas, Jr. [drums and ukulele]) will be performing two shows a night — 6PM and 8:30PM — at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, 97 Kercheval in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, tonight through Saturday, May 28, 2011. Thursday shows are only $15, Friday and Saturday shows are $30. www.dirtydogjazz.com Call for availability: (313) 882-5299.  www.charmaineclamor.com  


Charmaine also appeared on Detroit’s Fox2 Morning Show on Wednesday. You can watch the video here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqAbktvaBhc 




Emily P. Lawsin is a poet, lecturer, and co-author of Filipino Women in Detroit: 1945-1955.

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