Cardi B, My Everywoman
By Jenzia Burgos
I grew up with Cardi. Not the Cardi, Belcalis Almanzar — but I grew up with Her, still. Cardi, like la ruidosa selling quenepas at 186th street and St. Nick’s avenue in the Heights. Cardi, like Keiyana on Lenox, nails dipped in acrylic powder and gel resin. Like fourteen-year-old Sasha, buying a Pele belt for her first boyfriend. Like roll-the-R-Ruby on the Concourse, blow-drying my mother’s hair in the salón. Cardi, like Clara — Mami’s comai, her best friend, my comadre — sitting in the next seat over and gossiping up a storm. Cardi, like me.
Before I learned to say things the right (read: White) way, before I learned to quiet myself, I was Her: loud, obnoxious, with a thick Bronx accent slipping over my fucked-up baby teeth (teeth I would later fix from embarrassment, like Cardi.) Aks instead of Ask; rinks instead of rinse; culculate instead of calculate. Adjustments were made, lessons of conformity learned. I’d pass these onto my mother, reprimanding her English like the teachers and students who had only just reprimanded mine. But Mami’s speech was stubborn, unwavering. I grew up with Her, with women who refused to bend themselves to the world’s demands, who kept on getting long acrylic nails, gaudy belts, burning blowouts, and louder by the minute. Strong women still so tender, still yielding.
Cardi B — the record-breaking chart topper, seven-time Grammy-nominated rapper, mother to Kulture, and gracious wife to a cheating, gaslighting baby daddy — is, above all else, a woman I know. It only took my entire life for the whole world to know Her, too.
But like much of the world, I did not always love Cardi. I didn’t think much of the Love & Hip Hop star when she began to make noise in 2016, chalking her fame up to that of another viral internet sensation. That year, a then-thirteen-year-old Danielle Bregoli (now making music as Bhad Babie) became a viral hit herself, turning into a meme over her infamous threat “cash me outside, how ‘bout dat” on the Dr. Phil show. Cardi, like Bregoli, often felt like a tabloid blip — another money grab, another hustle, another season of melodrama. Yet what set Cardi apart from Bregoli was a certain honest, yearning quality for success. “I’m about this shmoney,” she said in a thirteen-second viral clip that pushed her into our Instagram-collective-consciousness. It was something like what Pitchfork writer Sheldon Pearce suggested, most succinctly, in his review of her 2018 debut studio album, Invasion of Privacy: “Cardi B is the new American Dream.” Yes — but not quite.
Hers is no new dream. Cardi B, born Belcalis Almanzar to a Dominican father and Trinidadian mother in the South Bronx, shares the same old dream of every immigrant-descended daughter born in Highbridge, in the Heights, and in my own Hunts Point: Make enough money one day to get yourself out of the ‘hood; then, get your parents out. “I can't sleep good at night,” she told Rawiya Kameir for the Fader in 2016. “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.” I heard a whisper of myself there: worried, determined, and bound up in my own responsibility to my family. I began to love her then, as I recognized her hustle for the first time as my very own.
I’m not the only one. In a letter penned for TIME’s Influential 100, Golden Globe-winning actress Taraji P. Henson explained, “I identify with Cardi.” Henson accounts for their shared “edgy” quality, the “colloquialisms” that link them. "And when you are cool with who you are, no one can use it against you,” she continues, “[Cardi] knows that too.” Henson, like Cardi, like comedian Tiffany Haddish, arrived at their highest stage of celebrity all too better late than never in my life. My everywomen — how I wish I’d had them fill my early television screens and MP3 days with their presence, suspend my ears and eyes from respectability politics, convince the world-at-large to respect them sooner. Had I only recognized their collective ‘hood-girl power in myself, in my mother, before I began to deny it’s gift to me.
Ask, not Aks; rinse, not rinks. I practiced my consonants in the mirror every morning after brushing my teeth, running late for middle school in the process. Both my mother tongues were fleeing me — the Spanish of my youth, the dragging Nuyorican awhn and awhff of my city. I see myself in Cardi, still: “I be trying to pronounce words properly and without an accent,” she told Caity Weaver for GQ last spring. “'Turn Offset awhff.' There's that 'awhff.' Turn Offset off. Shit like that drives me insane,” she demonstrated. How I wish she listened to Weaver, really listened, when she offered, “But people love that about you.” How I wish I listened to my mother, too, watching me practice from the doorway every morning: “I only wish you heard how beautiful you already sound.”
Cardi, we know, is brazen: loud, sexualized and sexualizing, a jokester, blaringly beautiful, a shapeshifter — from Fashion Nova to blonde wigs to Louboutins. Yet there are parts of myself entirely unlike these traits that Cardi’s radical rise to fame has given back to me, or at least, renewed my peace in: my ‘hood history, and my own doubt. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in The Ringer in late 2017, Cardi’s success has been something of a “fairytale” spun on its head — Cardi’s rise did not start as a ruse, hiding behind the guise of publicity or puppeteering record labels. Cardi — like my mother, like Haddish, like Henson — had to assert her heroine existence into the world. I will have to do the same.
Something about that venture is terrifying. This is where Cardi’s doubt — her visible uncertainty, the tenderness of her worry — makes me feel less like an anomaly. Speaking to Weaver about her partner Offset, Cardi recounted: “He always tells me, 'Stop being afraid. You always afraid of something. Why you always afraid?'” I like to think I understand some of that fear — not the celebrity, or the fame, or the fortune — but that former-‘hood girl fear: the worry that despite your efforts, you may wind up back there. You might let your family down.
I try to think more often now, though, of young girls and women in the ‘hood who get to see Cardi. Like that woman walking with her hair in a doobie, fresh acrylics pointed red, toting a toddler with the kinky ‘fro she’ll braid that night. Like nietas sitting outside a bodega in front of a game of dominos, where abuelos smoke their cigars into humid summer nights. I think of Mami’s and nenas, wearing coats inside, wrapping up under a shared blanket on the couch, broken radiators ticking nearby. I think of kindergarteners with box braids and nameplates and big gold hoops and family rings. I think of how they’ll learn to love it all, to love themselves, before it is too late. And I think of the world, ready for Cardi — a world now ready for these girls, too.