Yesterday, a student of mine, herself a lapsed Catholic now more of a yoga and meditation practitioner, rather indignantly asked me what I thought of Nicki Minaj's performance at the Grammy Awards last week.
Minaj performed her new songs, "Roman's Revenge" and "Roman Holiday." The staging and extras were filled with religious imagery, especially Catholic, including a priest and a depicting what appeared to be an exorcism. Apparently, my friend was joined in her indignation by The Catholic League which very vocally expressed its displeasure at the performance.
I gathered from my students question that I was supposed to sympathetically agree with her about the terrible blasphemy of it and perhaps couple that with a "tut tut" about the state of popular culture and the general lack of spiritual awareness among the population.
Alas, as it so happens, I happened to watch the Grammys and saw the performance as it went down. It hadn't occurred to me to be offended or that there was even that much worth discussing, which is why I didn't even think to write this post until days later. The only thing that truly offended me about Minaj's performance is that songs just aren't very good.
I think we've developed an over-sensitiziation about these things. Usually, I've found that the people most upset by other people's ideas and opinions are in essence expressing their own insecurities and well, lack of faith. What Nicki Minaj or any other being on the planet thinks of mine or your religion -- and as a Jewish -Hindu I've experienced as much prejudice and misunderstanding as anyone on Earth-- just shouldn't matter. Other opinions of what we believe or practice should only matter if they are actively persecuting us or somehow preventing us from practicing our chosen faith. That is completely unacceptable and must be resisted at every step.
But that's clearly not what Nicki Minaj -- or most other artists -- are doing.
What I saw in Minaj's performance is first of all, like Madonna and Lady Gaga and thousands of other artists before her, an attempt to attract attention through controversy. But I think there's more to it than that. After all, there's a lot of ways to attract attention and all kinds of topics aside from the religion-spiritual that could generate controversy. In all likelihood, Minaj chose these songs and this performance because it had at least some degree of meaning to her. The details of what that might be are known only to her. But the larger point is: this is what we all do, we try to work through our understanding of life's big issues using whatever tools are at our disposal. We talk to others, we write, we pray, we meditate, we produce art -- song, painting, sculpture, film, books -- as a way to explore who we are, our place in the world, and what it all means.
One of the most fundamental things we all must do is to come to terms with our spiritual selves. This inevitably encompasses grappling with the role of religion, it's meaning and forms, and attempting to figure out which, if any, religion to follow. We need to understand that meaning of the claims of each of the religions, weigh their merits, compare them to our own life experiences, think about them, feel them, practice them, live them.
This is fundamental to what it means to be human. If you're not grappling with your spirituality and religion at some point in your life, then you're not a very conscious or thoughtful being.
Artists, most especially, grapple with these things in public ways. That is both their "job" and their own internal process. Art is the tool and vehicle to which they're drawn, or been given, as they way for them to work out their inner feelings on these topics and then share their process and discoveries with others. Their process is just more public than most. But ultimately, whether public or private, it's the same.
There is nothing blasphemous about this. Even had Minaj (or anyone else) concluded that any particular religion--whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Native American, Taoist, Wiccan, Zoroastrian, Baha'i, or whatever-- was flawed or even false, that's still not blasphemy.
Real blasphemy occurs only when we succumb to evil; when we become vehicles for evil, give ourselves, our lives, our service, over to it wholeheartedly, when we allow it to dominate our consciousness. It is when we turn our back on all forms of goodness, meaning, light, or truth. When we not only deny but actively try to destroy our own Highest Potential within. Blasphemy begins with what's in our hearts, mind, and spirit. While it can and does spill over into the external world, manifesting as genuinely evil actions, it's always grounded in an inner debasement, born of hopelessness and despair.
And that most assuredly was not what Nicki Minaj was doing at the Grammy Awards last week. That wasn't blasphemy, that was a woman publicly grappling with religion, spiritual meaning, and her own inner self--and, yes, probably trying to get some attention and sell some records, too. Courting controversy or not, at least she's thinking about these things, trying to come to terms with them, figure out who she is and what she believes. Admittedly, it might look like a jumbled mess right now. Minaj is young. In all likelihood, we saw a woman at an early stage of her journey. But the point is she's trying to consciously take that journey. And for that I give her credit and encouragement, not scorn and disapprobation.