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The Tenderness of Cardi B

“Here alone are three possible Cardis: switchblade Cardi, empowerment-seminar Cardi, pan-Latin-unifier Cardi.”—New York Times review of Cardi B’s debut album

In a hallowed Harvard classroom last fall, I asked Dominican-American performance artist Josefina Baez what she thought about Cardi B. In response, she said that, like any other musician, Cardi B puts on a persona. Yet Baez told us she thought the lines, “And I pay my mama’s bills, I ain’t got no time to chill” from Bodak Yellow, were “tender.”

The things we find tender are often those we can empathize with, those that we understand. Born to a Dominican father and a Trinidadian mother, Cardi B identifies as Afro-Latina. She’s said that “I expect people to understand that just because we’re not African-American, we are still black.” In a country where Latina is often thought of as a racial category at odds with blackness, Cardi B’s expectation is refreshing.

Like Baez, I feel Cardi B’s tenderness in a private piece of my soul. But as the son of immigrants from a country that banned black people from entering the country in the 1930s, Cardi B and I don’t share a link that she and Baez do—their relationship to the legacy of slavery. Instead, Cardi and I share other intimacies, primarily what it means to have parents from Latin America and to fit under the expansive, contradiction-ridden label of “Latinx.”

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There is no universal version of what it means to be “Latinx,” but there are more than enough stereotypes the ethnicity conjures. Even with the efforts of shows like Jane The Virgin and One Day At a Time, accurate representations of Latinx life in media are scarce.

Cardi B herself falls into the trap of wielding popular stereotypes that cater to the most uninformed listener. On Migo’s Motorsport, she raps “I’m the Trap Selena, dame mas Gasolina.” “They call me Cardi Bardi,” she raps on “banging body, spicy mami, hot tamale.” In the chorus, she commands,“Beat it up like piñatas.”

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Though her fluid use of Spanish and Latinx pop culture references bring an element missing from the U.S. media-scape, they’ve devoid of the tenderness Baez spoke of. “Spicy Mami” is a worn out stereotype for Latina women, and the other references to food and entertainers feel hollow. Music and food are two of the most popular aspects of Latinx culture in the United States, but they don’t always reveal tons about the people who produce them. After all, people continue to hate immigrants while loving their food.

And yet, listening to Cardi B’s discography as a whole does offer an accurate snippet of what it is to be Latino in the United States, with a tenderness that feels like home.

In the intro to the song “Sauce Boyz,” she says that she tells men “Listen I'm a hoe I don't cook I don't clean like / trust me you don't want me to be the mother of your kids. I don't / like mother-in-laws.” Though abortion is illegal or heavily restricted in several Latin American countries, and a moral shame in many more, the chorus of the song starts “I don’t do no sauce niggas (lil bitch) / Pop a pill I abort niggas (lil bitch).” Many Latinx immigrant home environments still pressure women to live domestic and chaste lives, but Cardi B challenges those expectations with the rebellious flare of a second-generation daughter.

And yet, God is no stranger in Cardi B’s life. On a song with the king of “gospel-rap,” Chance the Rapper, Cardi raps that she “had to talk to God, dropped down, and prayed for this / To my surprise, He replied, said, ‘You made for this,’” and later that “that only goes to show that only God knows.” Cardi B centers her work around her faith. An outspoken Catholic, she is like the children of many Latino immigrants who come from countries that account for 40 percent of the world’s Catholics.

It is in these lyrics, and not in the Spanish words or pop culture references, that I share a sense of mutual understanding with Cardi B. Her unabashed embrace of her sexuality reminds me of the way my sisters and cousins navigate the gender roles imposed upon them. The way she speaks about God reminds of me of Sunday afternoon mass, vacation bible school, and the quick recitation of prayers. Her music is the end result of 25 years of life as a Latina, with all the nuances, complications, and fullness of an experience that is too often reduced to stereotypes—the maid, the criminal, the Latin lover.

Cardi B speaks to a common experience, a modern one, one for the children who learn English before they learned Spanish, if they learn Spanish at all. Her work is not just a set of incredibly well-produced songs, itching to be played at a party to energize the room. Cardi B’s discography is faithfully ingrained with a fuller, more accurate picture of what it means to be Latinx today.

So when she raps that she “went from small-ass apartments to walkin' red carpets / Pissy elevators, now every dress is tailored” and “I'm the rose that came from the concrete and arose,” it sounds like a beacon of hope, a reassurances that things will be okay. At a time when xenophobia rears its ugly head without shame, when Latinx communities are being painted as a cultural detriment they are not, Cardi B brings a tenderness that whispers, “We gon' win / Knock me down nine times but I get up ten.”

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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