On the 20th Anniversary of Aquemini: ‘Rosa Parks,’ Artistic Expression, and Nicki Minaj

The process of choosing an album’s first single is similar to determining the first move in a game of chess. It’s the first of a series of decisions that one hopes would garner praise and attention and eventually lead to an upcoming victory. It’s a decision that is meant to make a statement either about the artist/person or their upcoming moves.

Twenty five years ago, with two albums already in the can, Outkast was sure of the message they wanted to send with their third studio album, Aquemini. They set the tone of what to expect with their lead single, “Rosa Parks.”

The song begins with the sounds of a DJ’s scratching, before breaking into the chorus and perhaps the only few lines of the song actually related to the civil rights activist for whom the song was named after.  Outkast is heard singing…. Ah ha/Hush that fuss/Everybody move to the back of the bus… a metaphorical use of Mrs. Park’s refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus, but an announcement to those in music at the time: they had arrived and were ready to conquer the landscape. The single would go on to become Grammy nominated make an appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit #14 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts, but the legal battles they’d face would end up outliving  the success of the song itself.

On Wednesday March 31, 1999, attorney Gregory Reed filed a lawsuit on behalf of Rosa Parks, demanding $25,000 and the removal of her name from products, for defamation, false advertising and trademark infringement based off the appropriation of her name and use of profane language in the song.  

The defendants used the First Amendment to protect their right to artistic expression, making clear that their intention was never to disrespect or defame Rosa Parks or her contributions to this country. Outkast members Big Boi and Andre 3000, then released the following statement: “Rosa Parks has inspired our music and our lives since we were children. The opportunity to use our music to help educate young people about the heroes in the African-American community is one of the responsibilities we feel we have as music artists. It was, nor ever hasbeen, our intention to defame a woman who we consider a role model and a civil rights pioneer. We hope to be able to work out this situation amicably.” The case would make its way out of court with a dismissal and back in, first with an appeal and second when Reed refiled, dropping Outkast as co-defendants in a new $5 billion lawsuit.

There were concerns that the lawyers were after financial gain. Rosa Parks, at the time, was diagnosed with dementia, and many of her relatives weren’t even certain she was aware of the lawsuit. “I’m not a doctor, but I know, dementia or not, my auntie would never, ever go to this length to hurt some young artists trying to make it in the world,” said Rhea McCauley, Parks’ niece. The judge appointed a new guardian for Rosa and shortly after, the case was settled. Under the settlement, Outkast agreed to work with the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development to develop educational programs.

In Parks vs. LaFace Records, LaFace fought for Outkast’s right to artistic freedom. The song was and still is, in its own way, a teachable moment for those who come across it. It may not have detailed the incident, but a quick Google search of Rosa Parks or scroll through the lyrics on Genius will provide answers to any inquiring minds. It was not the way Mrs. Parks wanted the message relayed. It was just Outkast’s way of relating to the historic moment, which brings to mind Nicki Minaj.

In an episode of  Nicki Minaj’s Beats 1 radio show, Queen Radio, she explained that the existence of streaming services come after people like herself, bit the bullets and stood up so artists would get credited and not have their music stolen.

“Harriet Tubman had to shake s–t up; Rosa Parks had to shake s–t up. Rosa Parks probably had the worst day of her life when she said, ‘no, enough is enough,'” the 35-year-old said on her radio show.

Following her statements were many tweets from those who couldn’t understand the juxtaposition between she and the civil rights leaders she’d compared herself to. “Did you just compare yourself to Harriet Tubman? Perhaps you can find the underground railroad to more record sales,” Twitter user @thejournalista said. “AYE YA’LL SHE THINK SHE A REVOLUTIONARY,” read another Tweet.

 

Perhaps the context in which she made her statement contributed to her attack. In the same interview, she’d expressed her dissatisfaction with Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD taking the #1 spot, and the alleged actions she claimed robbed her of this position , among other things. Some simply she was doing too much for the rollout of Queen, which is currently over a month old.

Considering the right to artistic freedom that Outkast fought for their hit “Rosa Parks”,  I wonder whether Nicki’s words have been interpreted differently had she communicated her thoughts in a song. In any case, like Outkast, Nicki might not have related to Rosa Parks in the “most acceptable,” way, but she everyone relates to things and people in their own way. Who are we to judge?

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