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The sociology of Cardi B: Why the rapper’s rise speaks volumes

The Association of Black Sociologists came to Philadelphia for its annual conference, dedicating a panel discussion to the popular rapper.

Cardi B performs at the Liberty stage at the Made in America Festival, September 2nd, 2017.
Cardi B performs at the Liberty stage at the Made in America Festival, September 2nd, 2017.Read moreCAMERON POLLACK for The Inquirer

The question was whether Cardi B merited sociological study. The answer was a resounding yes.

A panel at the Association of Black Sociologists' annual conference, convened in Philadelphia late last week, gave the rap star its sole focus. Researchers from Louisiana State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Georgia State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Cincinnati analyzed Cardi B's identities, struggles, commentary, and feminism.  The observations of the five women, mostly millennials, were oft-punctuated with gushing.

"Oh, I'm Bardi Gang," said Veronica Newton, an assistant professor at Georgia State University, including herself among the 25-year-old rapper's fans. "I love everything about her."

"Cardi" comes from Bacardi, the nickname she received for having a younger sister named Hennessy. Her government name is Belcalis Almanzar. She is half-Dominican, half-Trinidadian, and Bronx-born. When she first achieved social-media notoriety, she was working as a stripper in New York.

Beginning around 2014, she converted Instagram fame into reality stardom and then A-list celebrity status after realizing soaring success on the pop charts.  In the social-media posts where she found a loyal audience, she'd often just joke around, blow off steam, or share opinions. Her wit and candor have become trademarks of her persona, as have her voice, her thick Latina Caribbean New York accent, and her lingo, like "shmoney" and "regular degular schmegular."

Whether on Instagram or in interviews, Cardi's thoughts veer into social commentary drawn from her past. She has spoken openly about cosmetic surgery, her bisexuality, her background as a black Latina, colorism in the strip-club industry, hair-texture discrimination, and cultural appropriation, among other topics. Researchers treated the public reactions to Cardi's identities, as well as her responses, as jumping-off points.

Take Cardi's ancestry.  Her race has become its own terrain of conversation. Critics have questioned what Cardi considers herself — Afro-Latina — and whether she can truly call herself black.

Shantee Rosado, a doctoral candidate at Penn, cited an interview Cardi gave to actress Zendaya for the magazine CR Fashion Book.

"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," Cardi told the actress, adding, "I hate when people try to take my roots from me."

Public perceptions may link ideas of a nation to single-race profiles, Rosado said. Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the Dominican Republic, are multiracial countries; the former is often viewed as black, but the latter isn't always. "She pushes viewers to challenge their own essentialized views of blackness," Rosado said.

Cardi attracted a larger audience in 2015 when she became a cast member of the VH1 show Love and Hip Hop: New York. As her success on both the series and in music grew, she left the cast to put more energy into her rap career. Her 2017 single "Bodak Yellow" was the first song by a female rapper with no featured artists to top the Billboard Hot 100 in nearly two decades.

>> READ MORE: Why we all seem to be loving Cardi B

Experts observed that Cardi exhibits multiple tensions. She is met with resistance for her race, her accent, and her time as a stripper, but fans continue to find empowerment in her rise and in her messages.

"When I teach," said moderator Candice C. Robinson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, "I use a lot of Cardi B examples because she crosses over into a lot of communities."

In black intellectual circles, it is quite en vogue to critique respectability politics. Newton noted that the rapper goes against such social expectations.

"So you know, people be asking me, like what do you does? Like are you a model? Are you like a comedian or something?" Cardi said in a popular post. "Nah, I ain't none of that. I'm a hoe. I'm a stripper hoe. I'm bout the shmoney. Washpoppin."

Aaryn Green, who recently earned her doctorate from the University of Cincinnati, sees something liberating in the rapper's story. She noted that Cardi looks up to women who've been through a lot. As the rapper told the magazine XXL, "The women that inspire me to be honest are the women that struggle."

Young black girls, Green said, are discouraged from following the paths Cardi has. But women like Cardi, for the researcher, are wellsprings of advice. They warn of dangers — from predatory men to the pressures of altering oneself to satisfy a partner.

"These are the girls who taught me how to navigate the matrices of oppression," said Green. "Teaching me how, as a black girl and a black woman, to avoid these pitfalls."

One place where Newton situates Cardi is "trap feminism." Trap music is a branch of Southern hip-hop, which is among the genres she performs. Trap feminism, Newton said, "centers the ghetto girls and hood chick narratives through trap music." (Cardi has been lauded in feminist circles, but she's also been criticized for making transphobic comments.) Newton praised the consistent pro-female themes of her music, as well as her tendency to address men directly.

Hip-hop has a long history of lady rappers with female empowerment in their rhymes. Cardi's raunchy, in-charge style follows Lil Kim's contributions to the genre, some hip-hop heads say.

Newton played a clip of Cardi performing "She Bad" at Coachella, where she twerked while pregnant. In the song, she raps, "I'm a boss in a skirt, I'm a dog, I'm a flirt. Write a verse while I twerk, I wear Off-White at church."

Cardi gave birth in July to a daughter, Kulture Kiari Cephus, with husband Offset, a member of the rap trio Migos. The couple had kept their marriage hidden. When Offset popped the question in Philadelphia on stage at Power 99's Powerhouse concert, according to TMZ, they were already married, casting the public proposal in a questionable light.

The rapper had kept her pregnancy secret as well until an April Saturday Night Live performance. With the success of her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, released days before, her career reached another milestone. While onlookers commented that it was bad timing for her professionally, Louisiana State University doctoral candidate Maretta D. McDonald said, medical research shows that black women face heightened maternal health risks that make waiting for pregnancy less advisable. Reactions to Cardi's news, McDonald said, reflected a "hegemony on childbearing."

"This is why I love sociology," McDonald mused. "I never would have imagined being on a Cardi B panel."

This story has been corrected. Aaryn Green is no longer a doctoral candidate; she holds a doctorate in sociology.