If I had more time on my hands, I’d gather stories of the first time that people discovered Cardi B. For some, it was last night, when she both performed her hit single “Money” at the Grammys and, more importantly became the first female solo artist to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album for her debut, Invasion of Privacy. Others first heard about her for the biggest performance she did not give, turning down a spot in last week’s Super Bowl halftime show in solidarity with blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Still others learned about her (and the phrase “dog walk” lol) from her brief Twitter feud with conservative pundit Tomi Lahren.
I remember the first time I heard “Bodak Yellow,” (video NSFW, and a little Orientalist) Cardi B’s big label debut single. I was taking an Uber to pick up my son from daycare and this song came on the radio. I couldn’t make out most of the lyrics, but I could tell it sounded different from what was being played on radio those days. The woman rapping delivered her lyrics without the polish that accompanied mainstream rap, especially for women rappers. In a word, it was hood. I didn’t know if I liked it, but I was intrigued. I wanted to hear it again and find out who this was.
Eventually, I heard it again, many many times (the song topped the Billboard charts, the first time a solo female rapper had done that in almost 20 years) and grew to love the song, and the artist who performed it. I learned that the woman I heard was a Bronx native Afro-Latina artist named Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar, better known by her stage name Cardi B -(this is a play on the rum brand Bacardi, which doubled as Cardi’s nickname as given to her by her sister Hennessey. Cute? I’m going to go with cute). She had apparently been a breakout star on the reality show Love & Hip Hop: New York (sadly, I had only watched the Atlanta version, which was quite entertaining for a while), which she leveraged into her big label record deal. By all standards, she’s made the most of her shot.
Cardi has not just become an incredibly popular musician; she’s become a sort of brand (seemingly appropriate for someone named after a brand). What’s more interesting, though, is that she made a brand of herself by not being a brand. In a world where stars carefully craft their personas, including the moments made to look as if they aren’t managing their image, Cardi has gone the opposite route. She, seemingly unfiltered by publicists or anyone else, shares everything: her raw feelings on motherhood, her opinions on politics, her drama with other artists, the extreme ups and downs of her relationship with (formerly?) estranged husband and fellow rapper Offset, and details (oh so many details) about her own body.
When Cardi talks about her journey from stripper to reality TV star to music superstar, she does so in a way that’s neither a sob story nor an over-glamorization of her previous life. She pragmatically and unapologetically reflects on her time as a stripper as providing her money and opportunities to advance her career. She openly shares her faith (yes, NSFW again), a very personal version of Catholicism, and even credits God with bringing her to the strip club as a way of escaping an abusive relationship. So when she opened up backstage after the Grammy win, it was in usual Cardi fashion: she thanked “God, my n***a, … for always being there, for covering me with the blood of your Son” (here’s the rest, still NSFW, unless your office doesn’t mind cursing).
Sometimes, to quote comedian Chris Rock, keeping it real goes wrong, as when Cardi got into a shoe-throwing fight with rival Nicki Minaj at a New York Fashion Week party last year. Yet, as she’s redirected her no-nonsense point of view towards larger social issues, it’s that realness that has caught the eyes of the political world. When Cardi spoke passionately in a Twitter video about the government shutdown and its effects, it did more than go viral; people listened to her points and virtually nodded in agreement, refreshed that someone could clearly and passionately express the frustration that millions were feeling while government officials played political chicken with one another.
Cardi B’s unfiltered, common-sense approach has an air of authenticity that is often lacking in politics, which is why politicians have been eager to latch on to her: while there was handwringing among Democrats in Congress over whether to retweet her colorfully worded anti-Wall government shutdown comments, the Democratic Party of the key constituency of Polk County, Iowa has already invited her to speak to them, and she’s been open to the idea.
In the last couple of year, even formerly reluctant music stars have embraced political action like no time in recent memory. At the risk of alienating part of her fan base, Taylor Swift endorsed Democratic candidates in Tennessee’s 2018 Congressional elections, and created a massive spike in voter registration as a result. Swift’s once rival Kanye West, meanwhile, has certainly alienated many of his fans with his overbearing (but surprisingly thoughtful if you actually look at what he’s saying) embrace of President Donald Trump. And both Kanye and his former partner in rhyme Jay-Z (who has teamed up with fellow rapper Meek Mill) have, in their own ways, worked to push criminal justice reform.
So while Cardi currently doesn’t have plans to run for office, I wouldn’t be surprised if she finds herself advocating for issues she finds important or ends up on the campaign trail on someone else’s behalf (Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are apparently fans of her music and her messages). Regardless, whether its politics or personal, real life or entertainment, Cardi B has established herself as a voice of her generation – Washington and the Grammys are just now catching up.