Policing Cardi B’s Blackness: A Critical Analysis of “Commonsense” Notions of Race
Updated: Jun 18, 2019
By Shantee Rosado
When Cardi B entered the Hip Hop landscape during Love & Hip Hop: New York, the world seemed more entertained by her loud, humorous persona than her music. So, it didn’t surprise me that her emergence as a Hip Hop tour de force was met with some skepticism. Cardi B, born Belcalis Marlenis Almanzar, is a Bronx-born and raised Hip Hop phenom. If you haven’t heard of her by now, I’d like an escape to the deserted island you’ve been living on, por favor. Cardi is known for many things these days: for her tenuous relationship with fellow hip hop artist Offset, from Migos, for her very public pregnancy and recent birth of baby girl Kulture; and for her awkward, yet hilarious, interviews with late night figures like Jimmy Fallon.
Despite her obvious appeal to listeners, Cardi’s rise to fame was also met with some ridicule and suspicion, as critics took to Twitter to debate her legitimacy as an artist and her appearance as a “racially ambiguous” woman. Public concerns over Cardi’s Blackness are obvious from just a quick Google search. Existing articles include a blog post on Blavity, published last fall, titled “People want to know if Cardi B is Black, but for Afro-Caribbeans, things are not Black and White.” Another article, published on fuse.com early last year, is titled “Yes, Cardi B is Black and proud of it: Why the rapper’s Afro-Latina heritage shouldn’t be erased.” Tapping into similar concerns, a Youtube video published by The Talko and titled “20 things you didn’t know about Cardi B,” uses the first item on their list to “clear up” rumors regarding Cardi’s ethnic background. The video “clarifies” that her parents are Dominican and Trinidadian, but that Cardi was born and raised in the Bronx.
I argue that these concerns about Cardi B’s Blackness elucidate broader conflicting racial views across the African Diaspora, as well as particular concerns about race in a U.S. context. These questions include: Who counts as Black? Is Blackness about appearance, lived experience, culture, politics, or all of the above? And who gets to decide? According to African American Studies professor E. Patrick Johnson, “Because the concept of blackness has no essence, ‘black authenticity’ is overdetermined—contingent on the historical, social, and political terms of its production” (2003: 3. Get his book on the performance of Blackness here). Johnson goes on to quote similar sentiments by Duke University Professor Wahneema Lubiano, who argues that, “The resonances of [Black] authenticity depend on who is doing the evaluating.”
In short, concerns about Cardi B’s Blackness are rooted in questions about her perceived authenticity as a Black woman as well as material concerns over the commodification of Black culture. I will discuss these two themes as they emerge and are contested in online spaces. Specifically, I want to engage with questions about Cardi B’s legitimacy as a Black woman given her ancestry, and to question the ways in which she performs Blackness through her artistic persona and music. I hope my comments provide some material for us to grapple with as we consider the unstable and perhaps unattainable nature of “Black authenticity.”
Conceiving of Blackness as tied to one’s ancestry is a legacy of the concept of hypodescent common in the United States. Hypodescent, or the one-drop rule, states that Blackness is determined by the presence of any African ancestry. It also states that one drop of "Black blood” designates a person as automatically Black (and trust me, any arguments about “blood” are bound to be problematic—did we not fight a whole world war over this?). Scholar Michelle M. Wright argues that we need to move past these U.S.-centric notions of Blackness and forge a more inclusive concept of Blackness that invites those at the margins of U.S. Blackness— and I argue this includes Afro-Latinxs like Cardi B—into our conversations about Blackness and the African diaspora.
Arguments about Cardi’s presumed non-Blackness rest heavily on outsiders’ assessment of her parents’ presumed race. Sociologist Wendy Roth (2016) refers to these assessments as ascribed race and argues that outsiders’ assessments play a big role in how we come to understand our own race—especially given we can’t control how others will “read” our race. Once Cardi released pictures of her parents, many were quick to point out their racial ambiguity. Cardi’s mother is from Trinidad, and her father is Dominican. For some, having a parent that is of English-speaking Caribbean descent was a marker of Cardi’s Blackness. Given her mom is Trinidadian, and Trinidad is a presumably-Black nation, Cardi was, at the very least, half-Black. Or “mixed.”
On the other hand, her father’s Dominican roots marked Cardi as non-Black in the eyes of many. Comments online posited that having a Dominican father made Cardi half-Latina and half-Black. Yet, what makes Dominican Republic a Latino nation and Trinidad a Black nation in the public imaginary? The Dominican Republic is a country where most people are Afro-descendants—some scholars, such as Dominican scholar Silvio Torres-Saillant, argue this number is as high as 90% of the country. That said, Dominicans are notorious for their historic violence against, and distancing from, Haitians, who share the island of Hispaniola with the DR (Torres-Saillant writes about this extensively—check out his work for more). Dominicans are also known for their common disavowal of a Black identity in favor of a “mixed” racial identity. Though this has been changing in the past several years, many in the Dominican Republic view their own race not as Black, but rather as a mixture of African, Spanish, and Indigenous ancestry. Therefore, it’s not surprising why many Black American commentators online approach Dominicans with the view that, “we’re not going to claim you if you don’t claim us.”
The slippage in how Trinidad and the Dominican Republic are perceived by Black people in the U.S. is also relevant on the Trinidadian side. Trinidad has a large population of South Asian and East Asian descendants who were brought to the island during colonization as indentured laborers. Racial demographics on the island today put the population at 40% Afro-descendant and 40% South Asian-descendant, with smaller numbers of whites and East Asian descendants.
Thus, the public imaginary’s conception of Trinidad as a Black nation and the Dominican Republic as a non-Black Latino country are largely informed by nation-building narratives scripted by elites on these islands. That said, we need to acknowledge the reality of racial diversity in Latin American countries such as the Dominican Republic. Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, was the first landing place of Christopher Columbus in the Americas (unfortunately—he was an evil person). To this day, scholars recognize the island as the “Cradle of Blackness” in the Americas, given these colonial invasions and the subsequent kidnap and enslavement of Africans in Hispaniola (see Busey and Cruz for an overview on Afro-Latinx and Dominican racial identity). In other words, there’s no reason to perceive Dominican Republic as automatically non-Black while viewing Trinidad as automatically Black—both statements ignore racial realities on the ground in these countries. Okay, now back to Cardi!
Cardi points to the absurdity of comments concerning her “non-Black” ancestry in her interview with artist Zendaya, who, as a mixed-race black woman herself, has experienced a lot of identity policing on social media. The interview was published in the March issue of CR Fashion Book and is a double feature where Cardi interviews Zendaya and, later on, Zendaya interviews Cardi. In the interview Cardi addresses questions about her ancestry as follows:
Zendaya: Is there anything that people don’t ever ask you that you want somebody to ask you?
Cardi B: One thing that always bothers me is that people know so little about my culture. We are Caribbean people. And a lot of people be attacking me because they feel like I don’t be saying that I’m black. Some people want to decide if you’re black or not, depending on your skin complexion, because they don’t understand Caribbean people or our culture. I feel like people need to understand or get a passport and travel. I don’t got to tell you that I’m black. I expect you to know it. When my father taught me about Caribbean countries, he told me that these Europeans took over our lands. That’s why we all speak different languages. I expect people to understand that just because we’re not African American, we are still black. It’s still in our culture. Just like everybody else, we came over here the same fucking way. I hate when people try to take my roots from me. Because we know that there’s African roots inside of us. I really just want people to understand that the color that I have and features that I have are not from two white people fucking (emphasis added).
Instead of highlighting the mixed-ness of her identity or subscribing to an essentialized notion of Blackness, Cardi argues that her Blackness should be a given, due to the rule of hypodescent and the widespread enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean. In other words, Cardi is using the concept of hypodescent to argue that her Blackness should be commonsense—this is a smart move, considering we live in a country where hypodescent is the primary barometer of Blackness. First, she presents herself through the lens of hypodescent by stating “the color that I have the features that I have are not from two white people fucking.” In doing so, she pushes listeners to consider their own essentialized views concerning who counts as Black and why. Cardi obfuscates our “commonsense” notions of race by not granting a definitive answer to the question “what are you?” Instead, she asks us to consider how “what she is” has already been circumscribed by the one-drop rule. Secondly, she highlights the history of African enslavement in the Caribbean by stating, “I expect people to understand that just because we’re not African American, we are still black. It’s still in our culture. Just like everybody else, we came over here the same fucking way.” These comments emphasize her knowledge of her African diasporic roots while challenging those who equate Blackness with African Americanness.
Cardi’s connections to the Caribbean are emphasized throughout the rest of interview, as well. She brings up her cultural background while explaining her creative process, saying: “You know I have Caribbean parents, so my vocabulary is a little bit different. So, I always ask people, Hey, do this make sense? Can you say this word? Is this even a word? [Laughs].” Here, Cardi’s Caribbean background is presented as a slight barrier to producing music in the U.S., where she has to fit the linguistic parameters of U.S. English. Her inclusion of Spanish lyrics throughout Invasion of Privacy, as well as her sampling of Pete Rodriguez’s “I like it like that” in “I like it,” which also hosts Spanish-language features by Bad Bunny and J Balvin, are nods to her Spanish-speaking Caribbean roots. Yet, these acts, far from connecting her to the Caribbean in the public’s imaginary, reduce her perceived Black authenticity in a U.S. musical context that is commonly tied to Standard and Black Vernacular English. The question here remains, why is Spanish perceived as a non-Black language? What work must Afro-Latinxs do to legitimate their Blackness in Spanish-speaking and English-speaking contexts, even as those spaces both erase and overdetermine their status as Black?
I move now to my second point concerning the policing of Cardi B’s Blackness—her performance of Blackness. As you can see from an excerpt of her song “Ring,” Cardi is not shy about using the n-word in her music:
Nah, nigga now you gon' have to call me (call me) 'Cause I'm lookin' at these messages, they all me (yeah) Actin' like they ain't niggas that want me Let another nigga in your spot, and you gon' be hot nigga, coffee
Online commentators have pointed to this as an issue, especially given her presumed non-Blackness. For example, one comment on Twitter states, “I’m really trying to figure out why the culture lets Cardi B fly with saying “N*gga* lol.” The poster goes on to address Cardi’s ancestry by stating, “looks like you have to go far back to see any black in that bloodline. Look like Spanish settlers blood in that DNA.” These comments take a hard-line stance against Cardi’s use of the n-word and does so by relying on essentialist notions of Blackness as tied to “blood.” It’s unclear what blood has to do with the cultural legacy surrounding the n-word—a legacy that, frankly, should be enough to warrant an outsiders’ respect in either using or not using the word.
The question of whether Cardi should be allowed to use the n-word bring us to how the term has been used in Black spaces and in Hip Hop in particular. Cardi has been asked, on at least one occasion, about her use of the n-word. In an interview with Vlad TV, Cardi addresses issues of race, her past as a stripper, her relationship with her mother, and her upbringing as a poor girl in the Bronx. The interviewer asks Cardi about her frequent use of the n-word and brings up the backlash against Latina artist Jennifer Lopez after she used the word in one of her songs. When asked to talk about her use of the n-word, Cardi stumbles over her words, stating,
“It’s just something that, it’s like a lingo. Like, even if I want to stop saying it, I really can’t stop saying it. Like, I’m, I’m sorry. It seems like it’s something that is like so normal, which is bad, but like, it is what it is. And if it comes to the fact that [Jennifer Lopez is] Latina, you know, I’m, my, my, parents, my father’s side, we’re Spanish, we’re Hispanic and everything. But it’s like, where do them Hispanic people came from? Where them Latina people came from? They mixed people! You know, we, we mixed with African, European, uh, what is it? Uh, Mulatic [sic] and everything. And it’s just like, what am I considered? At the end of the day, like, Latinos and Hispanics, they are considered a minority. Like, you think white folks see Hispanic and Black people like, ‘oh yeah, they’re Hispanic, they’re Black?” No, we are all considered the same to them so it’s like, [pause] you know what I’m saying? (this conversation begins around the 42-minute mark).
This portion of the interview is cringe-worthy—and, in fact, Cardi visibly cringes while the interviewer is posing the question. When she says, “It seems like it’s something that is like so normal,” we might interpret this as a reference to the common use of the n-word in the neighborhoods and social contexts where she was raised—Cardi is very vocal about her upbringing in the Bronx. Thus, Cardi might see her own use of the n-word as legitimated by her experiences growing up poor in the Bronx, as well her physical appearance. In her interview with Zendaya, Cardi mentions her upbringing explicitly.
Zendaya: I’m from Oakland and that is a huge part of my character. How did growing up in the Bronx influence your music and personality?
Cardi B: It influenced the way I see things. In the Bronx, there’s different cultures, a lot of Caribbeans. I didn’t grow up having much, so I didn’t have much to brag about. All I knew was violence, gang relations, and how to hustle. That’s what I mostly rapped about. Now that I’m seeing different things, traveling places, and buying new things, I can rap about all that.
So, should Cardi B be “allowed” to use the n-word? I have no clue. Personally, I do not think she should use the word because it is not tied to her cultural history in the way that it is tied to African American history. That said, we have to take into account where and how a person was raised to understand their use of the n-word. As a Black Latina who also grew up poor, I don’t use the word. But I do have a brother (and other family members) that does use it. The only difference between us is that my whole career involves reading and writing about race. In other words, while I disagree with Cardi’s use of the n-word, I understand where it comes from.
Finally, there was the messy, and very public beef between Cardi and African American rapper Azealia Banks. Banks is no stranger to controversy—to date, she has had very public feuds with figures ranging from Rita Ora, to Pharrell, to Erykah Badu. In an interview with the Hip Hop radio show “The Breakfast Club,” Azealia Banks is asked whether she called Cardi B an “illiterate rat” to which she, after hesitating and blaming the host for being an instigator, says,
When I look at Black women’s culture as like a whole thing, and then you think about the media, the power that the media has, like how the media has the power to get rid of me, the media has the power to make anyone, like, the forefront, “this is what we’re trying to grab Black women’s consciousness with right now.” And, I just, I think that it’s very concerning to me that, this conversation surrounding Black women’s culture…I feel like two years ago, the conversation surrounding Black women’s culture was really reaching an all time high, we were really like, discussing our power amongst ourselves, and you know, Beyoncé came out with Lemonade. There was just this really really intelligent conversation going on nationally, and then, everything just kind of changed and then it was like, Cardi B, you know what I mean?
She later goes on to state that Cardi is a “caricature of Black women that Black women would not be able to get away with.” She continues, “If my spelling and grammar were that bad, I would be cancelled.”
Cardi later responded to these comments on Instagram, stating the following about Banks, “A woman who constantly finds joy in belittling black women (Beyonce, Rihanna, Skai Jackson, Remy Ma), can’t try and stand for them because it’s convenient! The difference between me and you, I’ve never pretended to be or represent someone I’m not! …You busy trying to be a voice of reason and a representative for women of color when you can’t even reason with yourself” (see below for the full post).
It’s important to note that Azealia Banks is famous for feuding with artists and other public figures, including Beyoncé. After the release of Lemonade, Banks tweeted about Beyoncé, saying, “She’s not an artist, she’s a poacher.” Later on, she continued tweeting, stating “She takes food out of darker skinned women's mouths & pretends to be inspired."
In short, Azealia’s comments on both Beyoncé and Cardi B shine a light on issues of colorism and favoritism for lighter skinned Black women in Hip Hop and show-business—something she would know a lot about as a dark-skinned woman often shunned by the music industry. That said, her comments on “Black women culture” in the Breakfast Club interview reflect a “respectable” and U.S.-centric perception of Black womanhood that might not apply to all. For Azealia Banks, is there room for a light-skinned, Black Caribbean woman in her understandings of Black women culture? If not, then who embodies authentic Black womanhood?
Another quote from E. Patrick Johnson drives home these concerns over authentic Blackness and how they matter for Cardi B’s career:
The fact of blackness is not always self-constituting. Indeed, blackness, like performance, often defies categorization. …Blackness, too, is slippery—ever beyond the reach of one’s grasp. Once you think you have a hold on it, it transforms into something else and travels in another direction. Its elusiveness does not preclude one from trying to fix it, to pin it down, however, for the pursuit of authenticity is inevitably an emotional and moral one. Many times, these arbiters of authentic blackness have the economic and/or social clout to secure particular attributes of blackness…as the components of the template from which blackness originates. …I suggest here, however, that the mutual constructing/deconstructing, avowing/disavowing, and expanding/delimiting dynamic that occurs in the production of blackness is the very thing that constitutes “black” culture (Johnson 2003: 2).
In other words, far from driving a wedge in Black culture, these discussions surrounding Cardi B’s race are what make up Black culture. It wouldn’t be characteristic of Black culture—however elusive it might be—to allow any artist who’s willing to do so adopt and profit from the culture. In fact, this is precisely why there has been a backlash against Bruno Mars for what many see as his appropriation of Black musical and performance styles. This is not to say that Cardi deserved (or deserves) Black critics’ ire for her appearance or ancestry. But it does point to how Blackness is inherently a political category that many are invested in preserving and protecting—and for good reason. Cardi challenges her fans and critics to consider their own frameworks of race—insisting that her Blackness should be automatically assumed given “commonsense” notions of race in the U.S. This position, while transgressive, should be supplemented with a commitment to, and investment in, Black culture (though some might argue her mere presence and mainstream fame represent an investment in itself).
In her single for “Money,” Cardi seems to make a deliberate appeal to U.S. Black culture by dropping a line about Wakanda, a fictional land of Black autonomy and liberation in the Marvel Comics universe and the setting of the film Black Panther, one of the highest grossing movies in 2018. (Even here, one could argue that Wakanda is a site of African autonomy, rather than U.S. Black autonomy).
You'da bet Cardi a freak (Freak) / All my pajamas is leather (Uh) / Bitch, I will black on your ass (Yeah) / Wakanda forever
Obviously, one line about Wakanda in one song won’t be enough to appease those who see Cardi as “not Black enough.” And, speaking in more general terms, Cardi and other Afro-Latinx Hip Hop artists should remain mindful of the cultural boundaries that make their Blackness different from that of African Americans. But, to get back to the issue of race as supposedly “commonsense,” we need to ask ourselves, what counts as “Black enough?” And what messages are we sending Black Latinxs about their place in the African diaspora if we constantly measure their Blackness against racial parameters established in the U.S.? Lastly, and to get at a central question driving a lot of my work, how can we expand our notions of Blackness without erasing the political histories that shaped Blackness in the U.S. and abroad?
While we figure all that out, hang in there Cardi. And keep chasing that Clout.
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