• Raquel Rosario Sánchez

Cardi B and the Invulnerable Woman of Colour Trope

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Cardi B is wearing a crimson, silk suit. Her jacket covers a delicate blouse which is partially lace but mainly silk. Her long hair in a dusty blonde shade and her demeanour restrained. She is seated on a white couch next to Ellen DeGeneres, who is quizzing her about her upbringing. Cardi is known for her larger-than-life personality and her sexually inappropriate banter but, the interview comes across as stifled and subdued. When asked if she always wanted to be a rapper, the Grammy-award winning hitmaker admits with a coy smile that she always wanted to be an artist but initially gave up on music because, at the time "music wasn’t paying my bills.” Without missing a beat, DeGeneres zooms in on the question everyone wants Cardi B to answer: “So that’s when you became a stripper?”

Born in Washington Heights, New York in October 1992, to a Dominican father and a Trinidadian mother, Belcalis Marlenis Almanzar has gone from being fired from a supermarket to taking the music industry by storm in less than a decade. Her debut album Invasion of Privacy, released in April 2018 received universal critical acclaim, has been certified triple platinum and was named by both Rolling Stone and Time magazine as the best album of 2018. Her video for ‘I Like It’, a tribute to Caribbean and Latin American culture, has been viewed more than a billion times, on YouTube alone. According to Apple Music, last year, Cardi B had the most streamed album of the year by a female artist globally. She received 12 nominations for the MTV Video Music Awards, taking home three by the end of the night. At the 61st Grammy Awards, she was nominated for Album of the Year, Best Rap Album and Record of the Year. After performing that night, she became the first female rapper to win Best Rap Album.

Reviewing Invasion of Privacy, the New York Times wrote:

And though it’s a debut album, it’s by no means a debut: Cardi B has been famous for years already, first as a libertine social-media slice-of-life comic, and later as an effervescently campy reality-television standout. Both of those sorts of fame are relatively young, though. Succeeding in music has generally been thought to require something more than the natural vim and charm that she’s deployed to this point.
And yet, that is partly a hip-hop myth deployed by gatekeepers. Cardi proves it’s a lie: The skills she has been deploying to hilarious effect in her other careers are exactly the ones that make her music so invigorating. Few artists of any kind are so visibly and infectiously enthused. As a result, the appetite for her is insatiable, and the career milestones are coming fast and furious.
Thaddaeus McAdams/Getty Images

While stripping, her captivating personality opened doors for her: she documented her adventures on Instagram, gaining a large and faithful following. Music magazine The Fader described her public persona, prior to Invasion of Privacy, thusly: “Her penchant for real talk—she speaks shame-free about having been a stripper and a self-avowed hoe, and makes effortless, hilarious connections between sex, money, and power, three of society’s most taboo topics—has earned her a vast, devoted fanbase and a singular position in today’s cultural landscape” Or, as Cardi B herself described it: “I’ve been a dancer ever since I was 19. When I was 21, social media, they fell in love with me. The hood was fucking with me and now the suburbians is fucking with me, too. I would never ever thought that so many people could relate to the things that I say. It has taken me to another world.”

But what people really want to talk about is how she was a stripper for three and a half years. Cardi B’s past haunts her, even when she owns it.

Her popularity on social media grew continuously, but the one video that took her from niche Washington Heights and Bronx personality to viral star was a 13 second clip of her talking about stripping: “People be asking me, ‘What do you does?’,” Cardi says in the clip, laughing. “‘Are you a model? Are you, like, a comedian or something?’ Nah, I ain’t none of that. I’m a hoe. I’m a stripper hoe. I’m about this shmoney.” A star was born. With that fame, she landed a role on VH1 reality TV show Love and Hip Hop, where audiences soon fell in love with her too.

On the Ellen DeGeneres show, Cardi is asked “Did you liked being a stripper?” to which she responds “Hell yeah!” prompting loud cheers and applause from the audience. This is the woman the public wants to see and she knows it. She perks up, elucidating: “A lot of people want me to be like ‘Oh I hated it, I don’t recommend it to nobody’. I don’t recommend it everybody because its not for everybody but it made me money, it payed my bills, it got me my own apartment, it got me my boob job. It just helped me a lot, you know.”

Stripping for Cardi B was always about making money, a clarification she returns to time and time again…if we care to listen.

In a culture which constrains women of colour through implacable tropes, Cardi B turns them all on their head by living her life as if the stereotypes didn't exist. Women of colour's pain is oftentimes ignored and made subservient to the pain of white women. Yet when she feels in pain, she voices it regardless. Likewise, the stereotype of the strong black woman who can endure it all is oftentimes used to dehumanise and trivialise the burdens placed on them. She rejects it out of hand by complaining about the double standards, anyways. Accutely aware of all the stereotypes that surround her, she makes the decision to capitalise on whatever is most beneficial for her. This may justify her reasoning, but it doesn't absolve society for still trying to reduce her to tropes and boxes.

On YouTube, the segment was titled ‘Card B Liked Being A Stripper’, which is befitting of the trope both the audience at The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the general public wanted to see: the giddy stripper doing it all for the dollar bills. That trope, and the drive to capitalise on this narrative is why Cardi B is currently promoting her debut movie Hustlers about a group of New York strippers who scam their wealthy Wall Street clients.

People confining her to her stripping past has been the one consistent factor in Cardi B’s career. On Love and Hip Hop, producers had hired her to be a supporting cast member, not a central character until they realised that viewers were attracted to her, more than any of the other reality TV stars: “Them motherfuckers (the producers) really doubted me. I’m telling them like, ‘Yo, I have a brand. I’m not even an artist and I fill out clubs. But they didn't care about that. They just wanted to make me look as the stripper, a struggling stripper.”

The higher she rises, the more constricted the space becomes for an alternative narrative about her. Her glorious rag to riches anthem ‘Get Up 10’, which she chose to open her much anticipated debut album, starts by staring down those who criticise her for her past:

Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose
Used to dance in a club right across from my school
I said ‘dance’ not ‘fuck’, don’t get it confused
Had to set the record straight ‘cause bitches love to assume

Overtly vulgar and with a firecracker personality that most people would describe as ‘not safe for work’, its easy to see how her entrance into mainstream culture meant a sacrifice of the fullness of her character and versatility. But should it?

Behind the whip-smart quotable statements and the eye-catching outfits, there’s a woman who has always been outspoken not just about how much she loves money but about her reason why: getting money was her escape route out of a violent life.

Growing up, Cardi B went through a violent upbringing, at home and in the streets. The pressures to fit in led her to become involved in gang culture. She had a difficult relationship with her mother, and moved in with a boyfriend who ended up physically assaulting her. She was enrolled in a community college studying History and Political Science, but it was impossible to continue with her full-time shifts at her low-paying supermarket job. She wasn’t making enough money to leave her abusive boyfriend and felt stuck. Scared and embarrassed to ask her mum to take her back to escape domestic violence, she saw stripping as her only way out.

In January 2016, she was asked by VladTV, a YouTube channel for urban artist and athletes, what led her to become a stripper: “I was poor as hell. I was living with my ex-boyfriend who was beating my ass. I had to drop out of school, I was living with his momma, two pit bulls and a bedroom. It was crazy. You know all these little, young girls, they so quick to move with they boyfriends and then is like, once you do, you gotta deal with cooking for them everyday, doing everything right for them every day, getting your ass bet every day. It’s like, yup.”

Like countless women who become involved in the sex industry, Cardi addressed the following questions with answers familiar to researchers and shelter workers worldwide. She is asked if anyone tried to pull her out of that situation and bluntly replies that nobody intervened. When asked how she got out, she answers: “Stripping. Getting my own money and leaving. How was I gonna leave if I made $200 dollars every week? Ain't no way.” Did stripping saved your life?, she is questioned and replies: “Yeah, you know what? It really did, though. It saved me from a lot of things. A lot of people focus on the negative but when I went back to stripping, I went back to school.”

She told her parents she was babysitting “for some real rich white people.”

Would the audience at The Ellen DeGeneres Show cheer and applaud this Cardi? There is space in mainstream culture for abused women who reclaim their power and become inspirational role models… almost exclusively, if they're white women. The angelically blonde victims of the world who use their pain to uplift others. For them, there is authority and respect in being openly vulnerable. Regardless of the "equality" discourse, within a patriarchy, space is carved out for white women to feel sadness, disappointment and despair, while also being able to turn around and display strength, confidence and power.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Cardi B, it seems no matter how many barriers she breaks, society will still force her to choose between two unpleasant alternatives: the downtrodden stripper from the marginalised community escaping violence or the happy-go-luck woman of colour on the pole, making money like crazy and loving every second of it.

In April 2019, an three-year old Instagram Live video resurfaced in which Cardi is seen admitting that she used to drug and rob men she met while stripping, who wanted to sleep with her. The video was captioned: “Cardi B is an evil woman and a disgrace to humanity. How dare you rape anyone then cry for sympathy #SurvivingCardiB.” The hashtag was a reference to the six-part Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly which was screened earlier this year and detailed allegations of sexual abuse of teenage girls against the singer.

In the video, a defensive and visibly shaken Cardi addresses her past, stating: “Niggas must have forgot the shit that I did to motherfucking survive. I had to go strip, I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to fuck me? Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I drugged niggas up and I robbed them. That’s what I used to do. Nothing was motherfucking handed to me. Nothing.” The short video ends with her despondent, crying out of frustration.

The confession that most women in the sex industry oftentimes make difficult decisions to get by would be considered common-sense if society understood Cardi B for what she is: a woman who used to strip to escape violence. But by turning her into an invulnerable, sexed-up caricature, that facet of her life has been cut off. And the ensuing backlash was fierce.

Cancel culture pounced with glee. The criticism against her grew so significant that the rapper was forced to issue a statement on the matter. She wrote on social media:

So I’m seeing on social media that (an Instagram) live I did 3 years ago has popped back up. A live where I talked about things I had to do in my past right or wrong that I felt I needed to do to make a living. I never claim to be perfect or come from a perfect world wit a perfect past I always speak my truth I always own my shit. There are rappers that glorify murder violence drugs an robbing. Crimes they feel they had to do to survive. I never glorified the things I brought up in that live I never even put those things in my music because I’m not proud of it and feel responsibility not to glorify it.
I made the choices that I did at the time because I had very limited options. I was blessed to have been able to rise from that but so many women have not. Whether or not they were poor choices at the time I did what I had to do to survive. I have a past that I can’t change we all do. All I can do now is be a better me for myself my family and my future.

Instead of abating the fire, her response intensified the fury directed at her as the #SurvivingCardiB social justice warriors demanded a grovelling apology which she refused to give. The giddy stripper was not playing her part. On the contrary, she stood up for herself and the boundary she set around her body.

I have thought for a long time about why the backlash against Cardi bothered me so much. I keep asking myself: what was the alternative? When faced with a so-called choice of either being raped for money or drugging the men and taking their money, a working-class woman desperate to escape violence took the path that prevented her from being raped. Would it add to her street cred as a rapper if she had confessed to accepting money in exchange of rape? Or would it only serve to fortify the invulnerable women of colour trope who does anything to survive?

Crucially, amidst the furor nobody pondered about the morals of the men who wanted to pay an unwilling woman for sex. These men cannot possible disgrace humanity since theirs allows them to rationalise that, of course, the woman on the pole will sleep with them and if she doesn’t want to, they can force her by paying her. In a patriarchal society which thrives on male sexual entitlement, any such woman having the gall to not only refuse to have sex with them but also take their money regardless has committed a heinous heist.

Her smart ass rapping notwithstanding, in the moment of truth Cardi B wasn’t willing to do anything for money: she set a firm boundary around her body and stood by it when pressured, both by poverty and by the wrath of the public. Remind me again, why was this condemned?

Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps this is an opportune time to confess that I love Cardi B. This is in spite of the fact that, on occasion, she promotes two of the issues that I am most preoccupied with: an unjustifiable glamorisation of violence against women and of the sex industry. Nevertheless, I know the lyrics to all the songs on Invasion of Privacy, and in true Dominican fashion, I sing them aloud when I’m doing housework, using the cleaning products as my microphone. I find her charming and relatable.

More than her music, I love the fact that she managed to get herself out of a toxic, unsustainable situation where she felt trapped, leaving her abusive boyfriend and the strip club behind. She did it all while outsmarting everyone who underestimated her and being her authentic self… sorry, as Cardi would phrase it “being her own God damn self.” Under the aggressive and unabashed rapping style, there’s a childlike glee about the way she steers her life, messing with people who can't handle her just for fun and owning her success.

To me, it makes perfect sense that there’s nothing in the world that she loves more than money (aside from her baby daughter Kulture) because money was the only thing that got her out of abuse. But the Cardi B I see is not the Cardi B showbusiness loves. Consumed by pain and fury, during the backlash, the media saw a reinvindication of the impossible tropes placed on women like her (the angry woman of colour, the strong woman of colour, the invulnerable combination of both...), which benefited societies own biased prism; not hers.

Ignoring the pain of women of colour is a medical phenomenon backed by research. Multiple medical studies have shed light on how, despite showing the same symptoms than white women, racial bias in pain recognition means that black women are often underdiagnosed, when not fully ignored and dismissed. A venting, crying Cardi was interpreted as a loudmouth not knowing her place, when in fact she was a woman who was suffering and needed help.

Similarly, a patriarchy demands that women’s fury must be controlled and trivialised. As Soraya Chemaly argues in Rage Becomes Her, the dismissal of women’s anger is both political and purposeful:

In expressing anger and demanding to be heard, we reveal the deeper belief that we can engage with and shape the world around us- a right that, until now, has almost always been reserved for men. Saying "I'm angry" is a necessary first step to "Listen." "Believe me." "Trust me." "I know." "Time to do something." When a girl or women is angry, she is saying "What I am feeling, thinking, and saying matters." As the treatment of our anger and the state of our politics confirm, this is not an assurance that we can take for granted.
This is the real danger of our anger: it makes it clear that we take ourselves seriously. By effectively severing anger from 'good womanhood', we chose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protect us against danger and injustice.

Cardi B always wanted to succeed not only for herself, but for her family. "I have a big pressure on my shoulders. I can't sleep good at night, me living in a condo in Edgewater but my parents are not. My parents can’t be in the Bronx working regular-wage jobs. I have to do something," she told The Fader a couple of years ago. And she did.

Cardi B's all-conquering reign on the music industry continues. But regardless of her success, it seems that the young woman, working her way from a Bronx supermarket to global stardom to escape abuse and lift her parents from poverty is far less appealing to mainstream media than the tantalising image of the half-naked Caribbean vixen clad in breast pasties so that men could throw money at her.