Parlaying off-the-cuff humour and a knack for music into something special, we talk to the boisterous Bronx rapper and entertainer all over your timeline
The sweltering New York heat stretches over Walton Avenue on a Thursday afternoon. Stray trash and aged Caribbean restaurants glisten along the block where internet sensation and burgeoning rapper Belcalis Almanzar, AKA Cardi B, spent her formative years. The moniker stems from high school, a playful nod to Bacardi rum, her sibling Hennessey, and adolescent days gallivanting around the city faded. “I had very strict parents, I could never go outside or go to parties,” beams the Highbridge native, her accent a distinct fusion of her Dominican-Trinidadian heritage and uptown upbringing. “I would cut class and go do hookies on my own. Even now, I can’t just go and hang out where I used to live like it’s nothing. My neighbourhood isn’t a good-ass neighbourhood. But people show me love. It’s all love.”
While she’s racked up nearly six million online followers and travels with a coterie of advisers, she’s quick to affirm she’s still Cardi from around the way. Beneath the viral posts and deliciously raunchy ballads exists something radical about the dilettante. The voice purring over tracks like “Gimme Head Too” isn’t hip hop’s sexpot of the moment, but rather a carefree woman of colour carving her own path and shamelessly standing in her own skin, whose powerful proclamations traverse far beyond music. She stresses the importance of sexual agency, often while clad in sultry brassieres and form-fitting ensembles daring you to challenge her. She admonishes anti-blackness and racialised sexism, encourages women to assert their sexuality as they see fit, and offers a slew of other empowering messages. These dazzling pops of rebellion are a reminder that there are different ways to combat an oppressive system.
As expected, detractors remain steadfast in dismissing Cardi’s online stardom as “not that serious”, but the truth is that, nowadays, it is. We’re living in an age where whole careers are launched from a well-curated Instagram or robust social media presence. What’s more, a cadre of creatives are spinning these clicks into wildly lucrative professions. With the 23-year-old fresh off her first tour and scene-stealing debut on reality series Love and Hip Hop, she’s poised for an even bigger 2017. Here, Cardi spills on blowing up in the age of the internet, her tumultuous relationship with the web, and what’s up next on the way to get that shhhmoney.
Let’s rewind. How did life look a couple years ago before blowing up?
Cardi B: My mom kicked me out a couple of weeks before my 18th birthday. I had a job for about six, seven months at a supermarket, and they fired me for being late. I was crying hysterically, like, ‘I need a job, how am I going to make money?’ The manager told me to go across the street to the strip club and dance, saying I’d make so much money and had a nice body, and ever since then I was dancing – Tuesday to Sunday, every day – up until last year.
I was a loner; I was never the crazy party girl. I never thought people would like me because of my personality, or people from TV would be calling me (saying) they want me to join their show. I never thought my mixtape would blow up and I’d be making the money and the deals that I’m making today. Plus, I was always in relationships with men who made me feel like I wasn’t good enough, but they always needed me. They’d be like, ‘Look at this bum-ass apartment you live in’, but they’d live in my little apartment with me. That’s why I preach the things I do on my Instagram – how these men used to break my heart and have no money. I’d rather have money and be broken-hearted than be broke and broken-hearted.
“I’d rather have money and be broken-hearted than be broke and broken-hearted” – Cardi B
Your followers praise you for being refreshingly real, whether you’re highlighting misogyny, opening up about micro-aggressions like being followed in a high-end store, or quipping about the awkwardness of queefing during sex. Why is honesty key?
Cardi B: The things I talk about on my Instagram are things I practically finished talking to my friends about 15 minutes ago. Like, ‘Yo, you know how I feel about this shit?’ It’s something that’s natural to me. I really don’t care. I feel a certain type of way about things and I’m gonna say it regardless. At the end of the day, before I was an artist I was a human being who paid attention to society.
You just wrapped your first tour, Underestimated. What were some of the highlights?
Cardi B: I’ve done club hosting throughout the country – people come out to drink, celebrate their birthday, turn up with me. I was real scared. I was like, ‘I know I have fans, but do I have fans of my music?’ That was the scary part. But people actually came out and knew all the songs on my mixtape. That was a blessing and a highlight. I’ve always been underestimated. A lot of people think I’m just that hood girl from the Bronx that probably don’t 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 ain’t gon’ be shit, she’s a dumbass,’ and I’m really not. I’m very well calculated. I plan everything and people don’t see that. So it’s like ‘All right, ya underestimate me, but when I getcha…’
Is there a message behind being so open with your sexuality in your music and IRL, or are you just living your life and having fun?
Cardi B: It’s not a message, that’s just how I am. You know when you’re around your homegirls, you talk about sex, about men, about this and that. I see the world as my friend and I’m gonna talk to them about what I talk about.
With more opportunities popping up, do you feel pressure as a first-generation child and someone who came up in the hood? Like you’ve gotta hustle to do well so the whole team can eat, too?
Cardi B: I always had pressure because a lot of my cousins my age went to college. I was like, ‘Damn, I know I’m not going to be able to finish college but I do want to show my mom I have plans.’ I didn’t have the patience to finish college. I always used to tell myself when I was dancing that, by the age of 25, I was gonna save up $100,000 and flip it and buy investment property. That was always my plan. I always felt like I had to show my mother I’m not a nothing. Like, ‘Listen, I disappointed you in not finishing college but I’m gonna make it up, some way or another. And I did.’
On the other hand, you’ve experienced the flip-side of the limelight. You came under fire a while back for casually using a transphobic slur and weaponising trans women in a joke (a post that’s since been deleted). What did that experience and having your actions under the lens of public scrutiny teach you?
Cardi B: A lot of people were trying to violate me. That’s what I’m not liking about today’s generation. It’s like, ‘Do you even know the meaning of transphobic? Do you even know?’ I was in Trinidad with one of my trans friends and they gave us such a hard time. There were so many people saying fucked-up shit, whispering, giving mean stares, to the point where I wanted to fight them. That’s the real definition of transphobic. Those are the people you need to educate. I’m not tryna be the one, you know when people say, ‘I’m not racist, I have black friends.’ I’m not tryna be like that. But I’m comfortable around (LGBTQ) people and a lot of people are not, and those are the people who need to be educated and understand we’re all human beings. Instead of trying to bash me and call me transphobic when y’all know damn well that I’m muthafuckin’ not.
“I always felt like I had to show my mother I’m not a nothing. Like, ‘Listen, I disappointed you in not finishing college but I’m gonna make it up, some way or another.’ And I did” – Cardi B
Was it more about how people came at you than actually being corrected?
Cardi B: Yes. From the time you’re little, you learn certain words are bad words. People don’t tell you ‘tranny’ is a bad word. I didn’t know that and there’s millions and millions of people that didn’t know and still don’t know. I’m OK being corrected, but don’t come for my neck tryna talk about I’m transphobic or that I’m against something I believe in so much. For people to call me a fucking transphobic, that had me feeling a fucking type of way. Like, ‘Word? That’s how y’all feel?’
It’s been a whirlwind of a year for you. What can we expect going into 2017?
Cardi B: I’ve got this really big deal on the table, people are gonna hear about it real soon. With that deal is gonna come a lot of music. I don’t like gassing things and it doesn’t happen, so I don’t want to give too many details. I’ve had a big following for about three years, even before, I didn’t get my hopes up. I’ve seen so many girls go from being on top and thinking they all that to the bottom. I’m always like, let me just keep myself humble and make as much money as I can because it’s not going to last forever. But it’s been getting better and better and I’m thankful. My mom came to my concert and saw all the people who came out. She was flabbergasted and started crying. I don’t take any of it for granted at all.
Photography Kat Morgan, art direction and hair Dante Blandshaw, make-up Hector Espinal, fashion Atiba Newsome