We Love When Cardi B Is Hood, or Do We?

Let's examine the festishization and shaming of hood culture.
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Cardi B is an enigma. In what seems like an overnight endeavor, the Bronx rapper has created an empire, becoming arguably one of rap music’s most recognizable faces and voices, in large part due to her hood personality. However, three years removed from the release of her debut mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1, the hoodness that propelled Cardi B to fame is now being used to ruin her.

Earlier this week, a live stream of Cardi B discussing drugging and robbing men surfaced on social media. The video depicts the 26-year-old, with her trademark vigor, coping to less-than-savory actions that, she says, were the result of desperate times calling for desperate measures.

Less than four years ago, this video and many others like it contributed to Cardi catapulting to fame, landing her a spot on the VH1 reality show Love & Hip Hop. Now that Cardi has "arrived," with a GRAMMY award in one hand and three No. 1 singles in the other, it’s no surprise the same reality that helped her build her celebrity is now being used to destroy it.

The question is why? Why do we pivot from celebrating artists for their raunchy, ratchet, hood, or gangster ways to then criticizing them?

To be clear, I am not excusing Cardi B for drugging or robbing men. Drugging anyone is wrong, as is robbery. My issue lies with the hypocrisy of hip-hop fans and the general public for celebrating music and personalities that glorify and extol violence, murder, theft, and all manner of unsavory behavior, only to eventually crucify the artist in the name of a popular social media hashtag.

The Fetishization of Hoodness

For as long as hip-hop music has existed, artists have used their work to express their frustration with their socioeconomic situations. The creation and subsequent popularity of gangster rap, which, beginning in the mid-1980s glamorized a lifestyle that was anything but glamorous, catapulted the cultural norms of hood culture—poverty, crime, and violence—to the forefront of the mainstream American consciousness.

Much of the fetishization of hoodness in hip-hop is tied to the imagery most closely connected to the culture, whether through the music videos of the early 2000s or the Instagram flexing of today, which tends to showcase almost surreal hood achievements instead of the brutal nitty-gritty of the come up. The expensive cars, jewels, and flashy purchases are simply more marketable than the murder, theft, or any other less than desirable acts. 

Of course, America has never particularly cared about the “how,” as we have become incredibly adept at compartmentalizing and selling the “good” parts of the hood struggle, which are packaged and sold as a dream to rebellious young people who are eager to feel something other than the mundanity of their existence. In short, hood culture is fetishized for its ability to make others feel an excitement, power, and wonder without any of the guilt that is attached to actual hood inhabitants.

Shaming an artist for their hood past presents a slippery slope, though. In 2019, do we as a culture hold JAY-Z responsible for stabbing a man or selling coke once upon a time?

In 2014, the same year Cardi began her rise, Brooklyn rapper Bobby Shmurda dominated the conversation on social media with his hit single “Hot Nigga.” Shmurda openly talked about selling crack since the fifth grade and shooting people in broad daylight, behavior that eventually landed him in prison for conspiring to commit murder, reckless endangerment, and gun and drug possession. He is currently serving a seven-year bid. Nevertheless, hip-hop fans still champion Bobby, eagerly awaiting his release from prison despite a jarring criminal past. 

In response to the viral video, Cardi B shared a letter—equal parts explanation and apology—with her fans on social media, expressing remorse for her past behavior and elaborating on why she chooses not to glorify some chapters of her past life in her music.

Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1: The Birth of Cardi The Rapper

From the beginning of her career, Cardi has talked openly about her desire to become a successful recording artist, yet during her early mixtapes days, she struggled mightily to pay her bills, as heard on the opening skit of the album. Across Vol. 1, Cardi takes us through her Bronx life as a stripper. She is forthcoming about her financial struggles and insists people stay true to themselves. She touches on her trust issues, her tendency to “use” men, and the need to hurt others.

For long-time fans, Cardi’s consistently honest display of hoodness is what has made her beloved. It’s why fans streamed Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1 and rapped along to raunchy records like “Wash Poppin” and “On Fleek.” Newer fans, however, are likely not as intimately familiar with Cardi’s raunchiness; they are primed to accept the “Please Me” Cardi B as the norm, and so they may be shaken when the older, more hood version rears its ugly head.

Cardi’s personality is more than an aesthetic. Newer fans, especially white fans who her more polished major label material appeals to, have grown comfortable with her hoodness as an image—instead of as an honest part of her person. Yet, as her old video reveals, this is who she is—or at least who she was.

While it is perfectly acceptable to highlight and discuss Cardi’s past indiscretions, does it make sense to retroactively “cancel” her? To go one layer deeper, how can we as a culture and community help to negate the aspects of poverty that fuel the unsavory actions of our people?

For starters, finding solutions does not mean excusing prior actions; it means asking why and attempting to navigate the hot mess of social circumstances that lead to these actions.

Highlighting an artist’s flawed past is perfectly fine. In fact, it’s critical to their growth. What isn’t fine, however, is acting like these behaviors and the fetishization of hood culture isn’t what propelled them to fame and helped to catch our attention in the first place.

From Praise to Shame: Finding Solutions

It's easy to point fingers and assign blame to individuals, but we must keep in mind the socioeconomic situation that often contributes to these behaviors. Yes, there are countless poor, struggling, women who have never drugged or robbed another human being. But Cardi’s admission is a symptom of a much larger problem in America—a horrid education system, a piss-poor public welfare system, and the list goes on.

Instead, we should teach. We should try to hold these artists—in their current state—responsible for their future behavior, not their past transgressions. Let us take an active role in letting go of fetishizing a culture that is a symptom of a much larger social system. Let us pay closer attention to all the political goings-on, both large and small, which will not allow our young women or men to prosperous and foster in a new era of creatives. Most importantly, though, let us aim to improve the lives of these communities so that future artists do not believe that committing a harmful act is a necessary one—or one they feel inclined to talk about on social media or put in a rap record.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Cardi B is 33. She is 26.

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