Hip-hop star Nicki Minaj has posted an apology online after coming under fire for using an iconic image of civil rights leader Malcolm X on the artwork for her new song.

The Starships hitmaker stirred controversy on Wednesday (12Feb14) when she released what appeared to be the cover art for the track Lookin' A** N**ga on her social networking pages, depicting the late activist holding a gun and peering through curtains - a photo which was first published in Ebony magazine in 1964.

Critics took aim at Minaj for tarnishing his legacy by using the snap for her expletive-laden tune, in which she attacks a man for objectifying her, and community activist Kevin Powell even launched a petition on Change.org requesting Minaj remove the picture and stop "disrespecting Malcolm X, Black History and Black People".

The outcry prompted the rapper to take down the image early on Thursday (13Feb14), but now she is firing back to defend her actions, insisting she meant no harm.

In a lengthy post on Instagram.com, she writes, "What seems to be the issue now...? That was never the official artwork nor is this an official single... It is in no way to undermine his efforts and legacy. I apologize to the Malcolm X estate if the meaning of the photo was misconstrued. The word 'n**ga' causes so much debate in our community while the 'n**ga' behavior gets praised and worship. Let's not. Apologies again to his family. I have nothing but respect an adoration for u (sic). The photo was removed hours ago. Thank you."