Cardi B is Thriving in a System Not Meant for Her

Heroines celebrates women across a variety of fields who are breaking barriers and creating change. This is the first profile in a five-part series.

In so many ways, the entertainment industry is broken. It is racist, homophobic, and misogynistic; a system in which the wealthy and powerful few feel perfectly entitled to others time, energy, labor, and even their bodies. The many who have made it their work to call out and disrupt this systemthe creatives, the critics, and the survivorsare heroes, people who have been building pressure and breaking silences long before Time gave them a cover. But while all of this deserves to be applauded, its also important to recognize the artists who have worked hard to make a name for themselves outside of the systemnot the A-listers who use their platforms for good, but the counted-out visionaries who built their own platforms.

Right now, Cardi B is one of the biggest stars on the planet. Shes also someone who was denied a conventional trajectorygiven nothing by an industry that largely expected her to fail. Cardis story, stretching from the South Bronx to community college to strip clubs to social media to reality TV to the Grammys, is one of merit shining through in an industry and a country thats far from a meritocracy. If theres a mainstream artist right now who can say shes truly earned it, its Cardi. In the process, shes proven to the industry who she istalented, real, fearless, funny, feminist, un-fuck-with-ableand what theyve been missing.

Belcalis Almanzar is a bloggers dream. Having somehow managed to parlay authenticity into fame, she retains all of the charisma and zero of the fucks that most famous people have. Shes the breakout star of 2017 who went from stripper to rapper to ousting Taylor Swift; the queen of fashion week who got political; one half of a new generation of hip-hop royalty; everyones favorite catchphrase generator. Cardis rise has taken her to heights unimagined not just for a former reality TV star turned rapper, but for anyone. Shes the third act and the very first rapper to have her first three Billboard entries place in the charts top 10 simultaneously. Shes also the first woman who can claim to have had five of the top 10 hits in a single week on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. To put it another way, she beat Beyonc.

Any artist will quickly become accustomed to describing, in great detail, the obstacles that theyve overcome, whether thats a traumatic childhood or a bad haircut. But Cardi Bs story of blocks and breakthroughs speaks to a larger narrative of thriving in a system that wasnt built for her, as a woman in the rap industry and an Afro-Latina. Cardi has the gift of storytelling and specificity but her struggles, from a toxic ex whom she started dancing to escape to reality TV producers who wanted to confine her to the struggling stripper archetype, have larger implications. In a 2016 interview, Cardi told Dazed, Ive always been underestimated. She continued, A lot of people think Im just that hood girl from the Bronx that probably dont have an education because, you know, English is not my first language. And I talk the way I talk my dialect, my Ebonics. I know people probably feel like. Oh, she aint gon be shit, shes a dumbass, and Im really not. Im very well calculated. I plan everything and people dont see that. So its like All right, ya underestimate me, but when I getcha

The bulk of Cardis careful planning concerns wealth accumulation: I dont want ya man, I just want this shmoney. While she says shes always dreamed of making music, Cardi didnt grow up with the privilege of prioritizing personal aspirations over pragmatism. When I was stripping, she recalled in 2016, I never thought I would be Instagram famous or on reality TV. I never thought that because, originally, I thought I wanted to be a video vixen. But I quickly learned theres no money in that field. Cardi B has seized on any and all available mediums to capture her charisma and commoditize her growing celebrity, from shaky videos taken at the club to catchphrases coined on the reality series Love & Hip-Hop. Shes made numerous paid appearances, shilled waist trainers on social media, and cashed two seasons worth of VH1 checks, all the while preaching her gospel of shmoney-making to the masses (namely, her 18.8 million Instagram followers).

While Cardi B has always unabashedly put Cardi B first, shes also been hailed as an intersectional feminist icon. Cardis feminism is sex positive with just a touch of femdom. Her politics of female empowerment is constantly entangled with her lust for capital, teaching women to flip gendered scripts and use whatever tools are available to them to take back what they are owed. While other pop stars carefully weigh whether or not they can afford to identify themselves as feminists, Cardi is sharing tips on how to squeeze cash out of men like particularly brainless piggy banksan anti-patriarchal Robin Hood.

Feminism, in its most mainstream, recognized forms, is too often inaccessible, catering to and dictated by wealthy, educated, cisgender white women. Cardi doesnt have time for that. Or as she told i-D, Some people are smart but they dont have no common sense. They think feminism is great and only a woman that can speak properly, that has a degree, who is a boss, a businessperson they think only Michelle Obama can be a feminist. She added, being a feminist is real simple; its that a woman can do things the same as a man. Im equal to a n—-. Anything a man can do, I can do. I can finesse, I can hustle. We have the same freedom. I was top of the charts. Im a woman and I did that. Cardis politics have led her to take a stand for Colin Kaepernick, criticize Donald Trump, and educate on the issue of colorism in strip clubs. While Cardis obsession with wealth and the superficial trappings of a good life is illustrative of our current culture, her unique perspective is a shock to the systemand one that the industry has undeniably benefited from.

By not asking for permission and accomplishing the near-impossible, Cardi B has graduated from the heroine of her own life to a role model for others. Or as Cardi puts it, You thought I was going to stay in the strip club forever?

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