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2018 MTV Video Music Awards - Show

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Nicki Minaj has been continuously hit with the dreaded “canceled” label by social media detractors, but when her Queen album debuted on August 10, she was apparently rebooted. Nicki stirred anticipation for the album with a Queen Radio show on Apple Music. She was trending on Twitter the entire day, GIF-laden tweets were excitedly championing Queen songs, and any talk about her being canceled was stifled by articles and blog posts about her raunchy “Barbie Dreams” single.

Her record moved 185K equivalent units in its first week of sales. While she griped about the sales total on social media, the figures are a respectable number that reflects not just the power of her corporate connections, but the devotion of her staunch, cantankerous fanbase, which she calls Barbiez—or Barbz for short.

Last week, Nicki Minaj’s ex-boyfriend Safaree accused the rapper of assaulting him with a knife—a claim TMZ seemingly corroborated by confirming that its producers saw a video of her chasing him with a knife in 2014. It’s just the latest troubling headline in a deluge of missteps for the Queens rapper.

Beyond alienating her feminist fans with respectability politics-laden tweets, she’s called for violence against detractors on Twitter, and sat silently while her Barbz fanbase threatened culture writer Wanna Thompson for a simple criticism of her music. She also did a song called “Fefe” with Tekashi 6ix9ine, who was charged with using a 13-year-old child in a sexual performance in 2015. Undeterred by the stigma of pedophilia around him, Nicki, whose own brother is on trial for sexual abuse of a child, invited Tekashi on her upcoming tour with Future (though he may be incarcerated for violating the terms of his plea deal).

The machinations of capitalism render “canceling” an impotent idea when a dollar is to be made.

Despite Nicki’s repeated offenses, her supporters defend her at every turn and refrain from criticizing her problematic actions. But it’s not just her loyal fans enabling her. Her corporate partners, including Universal Records, Tidal streaming service, and Apple have stayed silent, frequently promoting her Queen album, “Ganja Burns” music video, and Queen Radio. Media outlets and blogs are reporting on her tiff with Safaree by leading with her verbal assault on his hairline—not her literal assault on his person. It would have been shocking for one of her many corporate partners to call her out. The machinations of capitalism render “canceling” an impotent idea when a dollar is to be made.

On the same day that Queen dropped, Twitter was abuzz about Jimmy Kimmel doing on his show what venerable outlets like The New York Times failed to do: challenging Kanye West and rendering him silent as he reflected on his support of Donald Trump. Kanye paused when Kimmel asked what made him feel like Donald Trump cared about Black people. Before Nicki Minaj’s trainwreck of an album rollout, Kanye followed 2016’s The Life Of Pablo circus with an even more self-sabotaging promotional period for his Ye album. He called Donald Trump his “brother,” wore a MAGA hat, and surmised that “slavery was a choice” in an interview with TMZ.

ABC's 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' - Season 16

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While the sales of his Ye album were lower than ever, he still reached the top of the Billboard charts. Kanye’s unrelenting belief in his own genius fostered a self-fulfilling prophecy that fans figuratively and literally bought into, while years of American media outlets lauding him as a genius has made him infallible to his most devout fans. The cult of Kanye was cultivated much like that of Nicki and every other American superstar—with popular media, labels, studios, and brands working together to make him appear larger than life to consumers—all while looking to cash in on the hysteria they engineered. Why is Kanye such a hot topic at every social gathering? Not just because he’s a springboard for discussions on identity and race, but because his every exploit is heavily covered for every demographic.

In the heat of the furor over Kanye’s comments, Adidas CEO Kasper Rørsted turned the other cheek by noting that “Kanye has been, and is, a very important part of our strategy and has been a fantastic creator.” He added, “I’m not going to comment on every comment he or somebody else [is] making.” There are thousands of slaves who never had the chance to impact American culture like Kanye because they were in bondage, but apparently, his current prominence supersedes their legacy in the eyes of Rørsted and other executives who continue to do business with Kanye.

There are thousands of slaves who never had the chance to impact American culture like Kanye, but his current prominence supersedes their legacy.

Empire Records founder Ghazi Shami said something similar while looking the other way about the late XXXTentacion’s abhorrent conduct when he admitted to The New York Times that he didn’t care about the recently slain rapper’s “public perception.” Empire reportedly signed the troubled artist, who was shot dead in June, to a $10 million contract—even though he had an open case for abuse claims against his then-pregnant ex-girlfriend. Shami didn’t care what the general public thought of XXXTentacion because he would force feed him to them regardless.  

XXXTentacion was another prime example of cancel culture’s ineffectiveness. He wasn’t a tenured superstar like Kanye West or Nicki Minaj with a cult following who grappled with no longer supporting him. While hip-hop fans and journalists called for him to be canceled, the 19-year-old Floridian conquered. With just a SoundCloud account and an adoring fan base who related to the mental health struggles he discussed in his music, he vaulted into the hip-hop underground, and then the mainstream with his chart-topping albums 17 and ?. He was invited to perform at festivals like Rolling Loud and his hit “Look At Me!” was added to Spotify’s star-making Rap Caviar playlist. An April Billboard article shows that radio program directors were starting to warm to him, despite the cold actions he was accused of.

Gunman in XXXTentacion murder arrested, Sheriff's Office says

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Many of his fans looked the other way on his abuse, frequently attacking detractors on social media, and denying his actions against his ex with purported hospital documents that they believe absolved him. They even removed his ex from a memorial vigil on the night that he died.

With a $10 million investment, it’s likely Empire would have done everything in its power to use its media, radio, and streaming service connections to ensure XXXtentacion’s next albums succeeded. As DJ Booth’s Drew Millard said about Travis Scott, his music would have been “propped up by the record industry because they’ve spent so much money developing him [that] they need a return on their investment.”

Scott faced his own criticism from the LGBTQIA community for removing transgender model Amanda Lepore from his Astroworld cover, but the calls to cancel him for transphobia may have fallen on deaf ears as the critically acclaimed album accrued over 500,000 equivalent units in its first week. Another marginalized group’s concerns and movement to cancel an artist was basically null and void.

R. Kelly is among the most toxic. The beleaguered Chicago singer is arguably cancel culture’s biggest victory in the entertainment world, and even he still earns a subsistence-level living on the fringes of the industry. He faced a #MuteRKelly movement this year, yet he remains signed to RCA Records, which apparently OK-ed him to release a song called “I Admit,” in which he reflects on his transgressions but denies sexual abuse.

R Kelly Special Appearance

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In May, Spotify removed him, XXXTentacion, and controversial rapper Tay-K’s music from its playlists as part of a new “hateful conduct” policy. The decision was quickly rescinded after internal discord and pushback from Sony, Warner, and Universal Music groups, who all have financial stake in Spotify. TDE Records boss Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith voiced the concerns of major label bigwigs by labeling the policy “censorship” and threatening to pull his artists, including superstar Kendrick Lamar, from the streaming service. Ultimately, Spotify did away with the policy, noting that “we don’t aim to play judge and jury.” Apparently, they also don’t aim to upset their primary stakeholders.

Kelly’s career as a top-tier act continued for over a decade after his sex tape with a 14-year-old girl was leaked. Nicki Minaj’s album seems to be doing fine despite alienating her feminist fanbase and costing one woman undue drama over an innocent observation. Kanye West threw the entire African-American experience under the bus and made money off of it afterward. Pusha T publicized a puzzling photo of Drake in Blackface in the heat of their feud, which sparked outrage and calls to cancel him—but by the time his Scorpion album released, his face was ubiquitously advertised on the Spotify app. He even had the gall to rap about being “light-skinned but a dark nigga.” He knew he was too big to fail, as do so many of us resigned to the seemingly immovable vessel called capitalism.

It’s seemingly impossible to hold prominent artists accountable. From misguided veterans to abhorrent upstarts, artists with corporate backing and a devoted fan base will always weather social media outrage if not thrive amidst it. Media outlets and blogs will cover them, and capitalistic institutions, few of which are run by people of color, will always look to capitalize on their visibility. Canceling that cycle is like lighting a match in a windstorm. The deficiency of the cancel is rendering it a hollow spectacle of semantic satiation, ambiguously overused by many to the point that it’s completely irrelevant to an artist’s demise, and in some cases, helpful to their progression. All publicity truly has become a net positive in an echo chamber where artists long for any edge to make the ephemeral news cycle.

If those who consistently call for artists to be canceled really want artists to be held accountable for offending marginalized groups, it’s best to halt piecemeal, cherry-picking calls to cancel artists as they offend and uproot the entire environment by advocating for seismic changes. Don’t leave the spotlight merely on the artists, call out the heads of labels and corporations. Engineer collective boycotts to affect them in the only manner they care about: monetarily. Let’s make the people in power outraged for a change.