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Abe Beame rightfully wonders if anybody outside of Houston city limits actually likes the Astros.
One thing about me is I’m an older music writer who long ago lost the intense passions of youth. As a function of age and exposure, I have watched several generations of music cycle through, and gotten accustomed to the circadian rhythms of pop: the thrilling emergence, the meteoric rise and fall, etc. Being jaded forces you to strive for a kind of objectivity. I’ve tried to train yourself, as a listener, to not get too caught up by or overwhelmed in the moment. To learn to call the proverbial “balls and strikes” of culture, to earn your readers’ trust.
But once, I too was young and overly invested in the artists I loved. I’d get in fights with friends, or family members, or strangers in bars over the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or Biggie. Sometimes I was “wrong,” and sometimes I was “right,” but what mattered at the time was I felt my position, and my passion for the artist I had very deeply stood up for. And so I have more than a little empathy for so called “Stan Culture,” because if I had a digital platform at that age, let alone one I walked around with in my pocket I could call up on impulse, who knows what kind of footprint I may have left behind, or what strange tribal allegiances I might have formed.
In the unlikely event you may be unfamiliar, “Barbz” a colloquialism for Babies, are the collective name of a militant group of posters across platforms who support Nicki Minaj. They are a global shadowy cabal who have taken up their banners and sworn allegiance to the now 39 year old rapper and pop icon from Port of Spain by way of Fiorello H. LaGuardia Performing Arts High School. Their reputation online, which before beginning research on this piece I only really understood as an intimidating subculture I hoped to steer clear of in my work, was akin to how people must’ve felt about the mafia in Lower Manhattan in the mid-20th century. They are regarded in the popular imagination as extremist thugs who use harassment in numbers to do battle with any and all rivals, real or perceived, of their pink deity.
“Stans” and their respective Eminems, are as old as pop music, but social media forever escalated and warped this relationship. Even those fans seared into the institutional American imagination, screaming and fainting in the front row in old Beatles concert footage, couldn’t conceive what it’s like having the sensation of whoever runs their beloved artists accounts granting them a follow, the technology that allows us all to post to our heroes and in the back of our minds, imagining that just maybe, our idols are following along. The way these once distant, impossible obelisks now live in our heads as a constant presence and friends we think we know. The Beyhive, The Lizzbians, The Swifties, The Beliebers, The Navy, The Barbz, these aren’t new and frightening developments. They’re logical conclusions.
In September, a YouTuber named Kimberly Nicole Foster criticized Nicki, which led to the flaming Sauron eye of Barbz Nation being directed at her. What followed was alleged threats of sexual violence, kidnapping of family members, and death via DMs, texts, and public Tweets, leading to Foster sueing…… the fanbase? But how do you take up arms against a nation that knows no borders, has no face, and no name?
I decided I wanted to reach out and attempt to open a line to the Barbz, to attempt to get a feel for their philosophy, worldview, how they think about the internet and their relationship to the artist they’ve built their online identities around. Barbz Nation is a hierarchy with customs and traditions like any other society. I wanted to talk to one of the army’s many generals, the so called holders of the conch on this remote island, so I reached out to several high follow fan accounts, one of the anointed few that Nicki follows, which is something you’d know because they will mention it in the heading of their Twitter bios.
The first response I got was from a young woman who wished to be identified as Calz. She was kind enough to take her lunch break on a Friday afternoon, and speak to me, via Zoom on her phone as it rested on her car’s dashboard. Calz currently has 12,000 followers, which is somewhat misleading, as she will describe, and has been a Nicki superfan since 2010. She was exceedingly polite and thoughtful in our discussion about what her experience as a Barb has been like, and what Nicki, and the community she has made, means to her.
There were certain issues of the way Nicki is perceived and treated that I didn’t particularly agree with her on, and there’s a degree of vitriol for Nicki’s enemies, on Nicki’s behalf I don’t even think I could’ve connected to as a young Biggie fanatic, as well as an adoration that borders on potentially unhealthy worship and unquestioning allegiance, but I understood that those points could be attributed to the defensiveness, the protectiveness of a true fan as she dealt with me, a neutral interloper, which comes from a place of love, which I have to respect.
In Almost Famous, written by the director and former music journalist Cameron Crowe, a character he wrote named Sapphire, a kind of veteran groupie called a Band Aid, laments the coming of a new generation that has lost sight of fandom. She says, “They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. You know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” And you could argue that this current generation has gone a touch too far, but you certainly can’t argue they don’t feel that love, or understand that pain.
(Author’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed to make me sound like less of an asshole)
What motivated you to start a Nicki fan account?
Calz: I became a Nicki Superfan in 2010. I’ve been doing this for a while and I just thought that would be the best way to show my love and support to her. Why not have a page?
You said you got into her in 2010. What is it about her specifically that has made you a superfan? Why did you join Barbz Nation? Is that an okay way to refer to it?
Calz: Yeah, absolutely. The first song of hers I ever listened to is “Your Love.” And I just fell in love with her voice and the way she wasn’t just that song. And so I went and looked her up on the internet, and I just started getting deeper and deeper into it. And when I noticed, her personality was just so grabbing. Everybody gravitates towards her because she’s so kind, she’s so loving, and the way she treats her fans is on a whole other level. When you’re a Nicki Minaj fan, you’re a part of her. She really makes it feel like a family.
Could you give me some examples or an example of how that sort of fan service works?
Calz: She always takes time out to Tweet us. Some other celebrities, they’ll just Tweet or whatever, but they don’t really interact with their fans. If she’s in New York or wherever she’s at, and she sees Barbz on the side of the road, she’s going to stop and she’s going to talk to them. She just always goes out of her way to make sure we are appreciated because she knows that she has to have us.
What’s your listening diet when it comes to Nicki?
Calz: I probably listen to Nicki about three to four hours a day. I’m constantly streaming because that’s just her music. It really gets me in the mood. If I’m feeling sad, I’m listening to Nicki. If I’m feeling happy, I’m listening to Nicki. And it always makes me feel better.
Do you have a project that you go back to the most? And would you say that Barbz Nation has a consensus best project that everybody kind of agrees is the best?
Calz: I don’t think we can all agree on one album. I think that Queen is her best album, but I think the top two Barbz usually say is Queen or The Pink Print.
Your account has been set up on Twitter for five years. You have 12,000 followers and from what I could tell, you had 10,000 followers less than a month ago-
Calz: I actually had an original account from 2013 and I had 18,000 on there, and I got suspended. And so that’s why it jumped so quickly, because I was like, that’s my new page. But Nicki always interacted with me on that page, and when she noticed I got suspended, she took time to go to my Instagram and follow me on Instagram so that I would still be connected to her, because she knew that I was upset about it. So that’s just another example of her looking out for us.
What did you get suspended for?
Calz: I got mass reported.
Could you explain to me what that means?
Calz: In Stan Twitter, when a group or fan base doesn’t like you, or they don’t like your page because they see how well you’re doing and how much support a person that they don’t like is getting, they will go in group chats and they will send Tweets, like it could be like a curse word or whatever. So they’ll find any Tweets that they feel like will work and they’ll all report the same Tweet. Twitter will see it as a flag and they’ll suspend the account.
So they trick the algorithm to get you suspended? Was it a rival fan base or was it other Barbz?
Calz: Mostly a rival fanbase, Cardi fans, but also it is a few Barbz because, you know, jealousy is a thing, right? So there’s always going to be a couple. Even though they know how much I do supporting Nicki, they just wish it was them, so they just report it because they’re jealous.
What are your goals for your account? If you had a dream scenario for what happens with the account, what would it be?
Calz: I don’t really have any big plans, as long as I just have a page. All my dreams kind of already came true. I never thought I would have a page with over 10,000 followers. I never thought Nicki would notice me. It took me six years for a follow, so really I just do it for fun now.
One thing that I do want is a Nicki quote. She’s ReTweeting me, but I want her to quote. That would be a cool thing to have. But, yeah, I’m happy where I’m at.
For accounts like the one that you run, are there any financial opportunities that could potentially come along at some point? Do you know of anybody who has parlayed their fan account into a career, or at least some kind of side hustle?
Calz: As far as my page and a few other really big pages that have way more followers than me, the biggest thing that I’ve seen is people paying for promotional tweets about their page or about something that they want to get out there. So a lot of times it’s, “I’ll pay you this. Can you post this?” But as far as actually starting a career, I’m sure it happens, but it’s probably a rarer thing.
Do you think there’s an art to fan posting? When you’re evaluating these different fan accounts, what do you think differentiates a kind of boring or sort of run of the mill account from a really interesting account?
Calz: I think for me, I put myself into it. And that’s actually what drew people to my page because I’ll post funny videos of me dancing to Nicki and sh*t. And so I put a personality to the fan page. Some people just post pictures of Nicki, and that’s fine. That’s cute. Some people just like to do that. But attaching a personality or doing a certain thing, posting certain charts, everybody has one thing that they do on their account. That is why people follow them.
Something I noticed is that the Barbz are really intensely invested in how Nicki charts. What does it mean to you to see that she has a song go to number one?
Calz: So I’m not a chart Barb. There are some that go super hard for that. We went number one with “Super Freaky Girl”, and that was an accomplishment. But I think Barbz go so hard for that because they know that the system is broken and they know that it’s set up for artists like Nicki to fail. It’s all generated by the industry, and the industry doesn’t like Nicki Minaj. So for us to chart, we have to go super hard. The industry doesn’t like Nicki because they cannot control her. So as far as the charts and some award shows and stuff like that, they’re going to set it up so she doesn’t succeed. So when we charge up songs like “Super Freaky Girl,” we bought the crap out of it. And because of that, we went number one. Of course, there’s radio and other things that play a part, but Nicki doesn’t get radio like the average artist because of the industry.
You think she’s blackballed?
Calz: Yes, absolutely. But I do think it’s getting better. Like, this is not as bad as she was blackballed in 2018. We can’t get rid of Nicki Minaj. They have put up all these walls she’s had to jump through. And she always does it because she has us and we’ll always support her. We’ll do whatever we have to do to make sure that she gets what she deserves.
So when a song like “Super Freaky Girl” goes viral on TikTok and ends up at #1, the base takes it as uniting and beating the system, a triumph of populism over the machine?
What is the weirdest or most upsetting thing that ever happened to you running the account?
Calz: Because of the quote unquote success that I’ve had on my page, of course there are people that don’t like me. So sometimes people will make fake messages, fake DMs to try to cancel me or whatever, but it’s always debunked because people realize, oh, that’s Photoshopped or this or that.
My number got leaked one time. That was crazy. And Cardi B fans were texting me and calling me and I was like, what the heck? But it’s all worth it at the end of the day.
So I saw you refer to doing a couple in person meetups. When you meet other Nicki fans, would you say there’s a type of person that comprises Barbz Nation in terms of demographics? Is there something besides the obvious baseline love of Nicki that you would say Barbz personalities have in common?
Calz: From the people I met over the years, we’re always just fun and really hilarious, and I definitely think we get our humor from Nicki. And Barbz are very fashionable. You can look and tell if somebody is a Barb from the way they carry themselves. And I think that’s also because Nicki instills a lot of confidence within us to have confidence for ourselves.
Can you walk me through your Nicki tattoos?
Calz: I have a Barbie tat to match Nicki on my wrist, just like where she has it. And it’s the same pink, just like hers. And then this one is probably the craziest one. I have her name, because her birth name is Onika, tatted on my ribcage. And then I have a Queen tattoo, it’s in the same font as the font that’s on her album, because Queen is my favorite album, but I’m definitely planning on more tattoos one day. I might get her face tattooed, but I have to be very careful with those because the person might not do it right.
When Nicki gets in beefs with other artists, how do you feel about those artists? Do you immediately take on a personal dislike of them because Nicki doesn’t like them?
Calz: Absolutely. And not all Barbz are like that, but the hardcore Barbz are like that, because that’s my mother. If you have a problem with her, you have a problem with us.
This isn’t really a question. I just wrote down, “Clear out so Calz can share her thoughts about Cardi B.”
Calz: I actually have a personal situation with Cardi B because back when I had my old page, her fans have always come to me and they use the Sid the Sloth picture because they said that’s what I look like, right? But I posted a video of her when she was telling people at her party to do cocaine. And I was like, why would she do that? But she literally told them to do cocaine and I posted it.
So she posted and she said, don’t listen to Little Miss Short Bus, and she put the sloth picture up, and that was to me, because a blog posted it with my picture and said, this is what Cardi said about this person.
So I never liked her because she went against Nicki, but now that she came for me personally? I would never like that woman. I cannot stand her and she’s a fraud. I mean, her whole career is built on sucking dick for a check. And she doesn’t even write her own raps. How are you a rapper and you don’t write your raps?
Does Nicki ever do or say things that you don’t agree with, and how do you handle it online when that happens, or if that happens?
Calz: Well, it’s never really happened to me because I’m kind of just whatever Nicki says, I’m going to be like, okay, because usually me and Nicki think a lot alike, so she doesn’t really do things that I don’t agree with. But that does get messy with some of the Barbz sometimes, and especially because I usually always agree they’ll say, “Oh, you’re just like her Yes Man, you’re just saying whatever Nicki wants to hear.” No, we just think a lot alike and we agree on the same things usually.
But yes, some Barbz will be like, you need to be real with Nicki and be able to disagree with her. But that’s just not how I feel about it.
Who’s your second favorite rapper of all time?
Calz: Probably Lil Wayne.
Could you possibly imagine anything Nicki could do that would make you stop being a fan of hers? Like, say she did something way out of character, if she murders a person, if she murders a child. Sorry, I’m trying to think of the most extreme thing possible, something that would make you say, “If she did this insane thing, I wouldn’t like her anymore.”
Calz: No. Some people are probably going to think that’s crazy, but, you know, to me, Nicki is for real my mother. Like, yes, I have a real mom, but I put Nicki on that level and I have so much respect for her that even if she did something that was out of character, there was a reason for her doing it. So no, I would never not be a fan. She could not do anything.
Some people, when she blocks them because they said something that she didn’t like or whatever, if she unfollows them, they’ll be like, oh, forget Nicki, I’m not doing anything with her anymore. But she could unfollow me and I would still support her.