Rapper and pop singer Nicki Minaj made headlines after her Sept. 13 tweet about her as-of-yet unidentified cousin’s friend in Trinidad, who was dumped at the altar by his wife-to-be because “the vaccine” — presumably for COVID-19 — allegedly made his testicles swell. Trinidad and Tobago’s health minister said two days later the claim was debunked after being investigated.
MSNBC political commentator Joy Reid expressed concern for Minaj’s 22 million Twitter followers, arguing Minaj used her platform “to put people in the position of dying from a disease they don’t have to die from.” Speaking directly to Minaj, Reid added: “As somebody who is your fan, I am so sad you did that.”
Minaj’s international anti-vaccine fiasco does more than reveal the troubling intersection of entertainment and politics. It reveals the life-and-death stakes at the heart of normalizing a culture of political tribalism.
Minaj also tweeted on Sept. 13: “They want you to get vaccinated for the Met. (I)f I get vaccinated it won’t for the Met. It’ll be once I feel I’ve done enough research.” Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s event, which Minaj did not attend, required vaccination.
But what began as a tweet soon dominated headlines as mainstream media pushed back against Minaj’s unverified storytelling. Minaj, (with her fans, “The Barbz”), pushed back.
While Minaj did tweet that she would eventually get the vaccine to go on tour, her recommendation that others get the vaccine in order to work because a “lot of countries won’t let [people] work w/o the vaccine” reflects the anti-vaxx criticisms against vaccine mandates created to save lives.
What the fiasco has made clear is the troubling intersection of entertainment and political tribalism, highlighting a culture where cults of personality reign and critical thinking is discouraged.
Unpacking political tribalism and its spillover into entertainment means understanding how communities have come to be shaped under pressures of uncertainty in a neoliberal era of globalization. British environmentalist and activist George Monbiot highlights how neoliberalism has contributed to a culture of competition by redefining “citizens as consumers whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling.”
As argued by feminist author and scholar Sara Ahmed, emotions play a part in building community spaces and their boundaries. Ahmed asks: What happens when one doesn’t believe in the same set of emotional and cultural ideas that would make one a “legitimate citizen” of a given community?
For example, marginalized individuals are expected to carry the same beliefs and feelings as dominant society. As such, “happiness” and “belonging” act as forms of emotional coercion. To be happy is to follow the script. To follow the script is to belong. Those who can’t or won’t follow the script can be seen as strangers or even as threats to the community.