The video for the very explicit song “WAP” by Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion just came out, although in the video and radio edit the lyrics were changed to ‘wet and gushy’ (still pretty explicit if u ask me) rather than “wet ass pussy”, which is the title acronym.
Yeah. I know.
It reminded me of a post that’s been sitting in my drafts for a long time, and about a conversation I once had with a woman who said she didn’t really understand Cardi B. “I mean, I know she’s not for me of course”, said this person, an older white woman, and she had no problem with personas like Cardi’s simply being in the world, but she just didn’t understand the appeal or the need. I want to be clear that there’s nothing wrong with expressing that you don’t understand something, in fact I wish people would be honest and do that more. It just had me thinking about how best to explain it.
I found myself thinking a lot about that comment, even though it was by far the least important thing that happened that day. At that time, September 2019, I was under siege on the internet, and I was worried random people might find my address and break into my house. This was because I had chosen to speak out about an individual at MIT, who was later kicked out, and though I had never intended it, the post I wrote went viral. A lot of people called me ‘brave’…I wasn’t sure. Though I had challenged leadership at my alma mater, it was not in my department, I had no idea the post would go viral, and I had already graduated.
But what got me through the rest of that crazy time was a playlist of female rappers.
Female rappers allowed me to turn my fears into righteous anger and grounded me in the realities of the world. Female rappers were, in a way, soothing. You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation says Beyonce in “Formation”, and sorry I ain’t sorry in “Sorry”. Those were lines that, for that specific time, I needed. I was able to take a deep breath and hold fast to my resolve. The more abrasive lyrics, too, I needed. I listened to Rico Nasty’s “Poppin” on repeat:
I’m a poppin’ ass bitch let me remind ya
Don’t hide, I can always come and find ya
Ain’t no bitch in me bitch, come proper
In an Audi going fast, you behind us
This flipped the script on how I was feeling — people were allegedly trying to find me on the internet, but really, I could imagine, they were the ones who were in danger.
Of course, there’s a time and a place. On the outside, I hope that I projected seriousness and grace in handling the situation. I was not messy or unreasonable. I tried to be fair, and do things the right way — following up with clarifications when media got some facts wrong, listening gently to other alumni and other women who came forward, being resolute but still taking the high road. I did not speak publicly about the online harassment I faced until now — a version of this post sat in my drafts for a long time. I did not want to embrace negativity, I didn’t want to feed the trolls, and I wanted to keep the focus on the real issue of heinous, rampant sexism in tech and STEM academia rather than on myself. I’m not saying I was a perfect saint, just that that is what I tried to do, and what I hope I did; I’m not sure if it is what I actually accomplished.
But all these constraints are hard. It is hard and restrictive and suffocating to have to wrap righteous anger in gentle, polite, eloquent delivery. Even that does not come across as gentle, polite, or eloquent; even the most carefully raised criticisms will always sound harsh and brazen to those criticized, particularly when they come from black and minority women.
But female rappers don’t care.
Women live with so many of these constraints on our emotions in society, and female rappers, with their lyrics and songs and lifestyles, just throw all of these constraints out of the window.
Rather than blowing up one or two oppressive norms, why not just blow up all of them, goes the logic. Why not write profane, incredibly sexual lyrics while the world is still on the fence about whether women should be embarrassed to buy tampons in the checkout lane, but we all buy toilet paper with no fuss. Why not be loud, expressive, and angry, even when seen as ‘dramatic’ or ‘messy’, when people will simply use those words anyway when a toe is stepped out of line? Why not use reality TV shows to advance professionally and economically in entertainment, why not be a stripper for money — did anyone believe in little girls from the hood and tutor them and give them scholarships and provide childcare for their siblings so they could become ‘serial tech entrepreneurs’ in Silicon Valley or investment bankers in New York? No? Then why care about what those people think about your career achievements and how you achieved them? In fact, all of that is legal, which could not be said about the choices of certain famous entrepreneurs and investment bankers.
The world is a messy place. I don’t necessarily endorse everything female pop rappers do or how they live their lives — the specifics are not the point. And I don’t want to be reductionist — not all female rappers have the type of persona I’m discussing right now, some, like Sampa the Great, have more “serious” and introspective lyrics and lifestyles.
But we — I — need the openly brazen, confident, Cardi B. and Nicki Minaj-type female rappers, the make-a-lot-of-people-uncomfortable female rappers, because we need examples of how to live as women completely on the outside of the system. It was enough for me to listen and rage internally while sitting in my car. It made it that much easier to compose my public self, to avoid posting rants or respond to negativity, to remain solid. I was far less concerned with any would-be pranksters or people breaking into my house — they had better run if I caught them, I thought. They had no idea what I was capable of, and that music made me feel like I was capable of destroying an army.
Yes, entertainment itself is also a system, and there are certainly norms and nuances within it, too. A cynic might say the sexual lyrics are just because sex sells, the messy drama is just for fame and money, and sure, there is some of that. But we should remember that those styles became popular because they were initially supported by black and minority listeners, that pre-Drake rap and hip hop, actually, used to be not that mainstream, though now I look on perplexed as white teenage girls yell Megan Thee Stallion lyrics through open windows, driving down the street. I still remember when most of my high school friends made fun of me for loving Kendrick Lamar.
And if you bother to look a little more closely, these women are sophisticated too. Those who ‘don’t get’ Cardi B, might have missed her Instagram interview with Bernie Sanders, her frequent ‘get out the vote’ posts, her encouragement to her followers to engage in politics. Megan Thee Stallion, who took sexually descriptive lyrics to new creative heights, remains incredibly proud of her college degree, always inserted a line or two about being a ‘college girl’ and uses her platform to glorify and encourage education, frequently posting videos or photos of herself studying before concerts. One of the lyrics I love from Rico Nasty, who is a little less mainstream, is the line I make my own money and I buy my own weed, and she frequently raps about not needing a man for money. I jokingly repeat that line often to my friends and especially my boyfriend.
Another verse from “Poppin”:
Hey, everyday is lovely, everyday is sunny
I don’t need your money bitch I got my own money
Should’ve seen the shit comin’
Seen that bitch start punchin’
Red Audi fruit punchin’
If we fight you know my niggas gonna jump in
I ain’t scared bitch
Just a whole lot of gang shit
I’m a bear you a mother fucking reindeer
Where I stay you can’t mother fucking stay there
Yuh, and I had to make that shit clear bitch
I could take a deep breath and not be afraid of anything after listening to this, which is what I did frequently during a scary time. Really, I could say with a laugh, everyone else should be scared of me.