Cardi B: The Artist Thriving in a System Not Meant for Her

Cardi B’s remarkable story is one of merit shining through in an industry and a country that’s far from a meritocracy.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Heroines celebrates women across a variety of fields who are breaking barriers and creating change. This is the first profile in a five-part series.

In so many ways, the entertainment industry is broken. It is racist, homophobic, and misogynistic; a system in which the wealthy and powerful few feel perfectly entitled to others’ time, energy, labor, and even their bodies. The many who have made it their work to call out and disrupt this system—the creatives, the critics, and the survivors—are heroes, people who have been building pressure and breaking silences long before Time gave them a cover. But while all of this deserves to be applauded, it’s also important to recognize the artists who have worked hard to make a name for themselves outside of the system—not the A-listers who use their platforms for good, but the counted-out visionaries who built their own platforms.

Right now, Cardi B is one of the biggest stars on the planet. She’s also someone who was denied a conventional trajectory—given nothing by an industry that largely expected her to fail. Cardi’s story, stretching from the South Bronx to community college to strip clubs to social media to reality TV to the Grammys, is one of merit shining through in an industry and a country that’s far from a meritocracy. If there’s a mainstream artist right now who can say she’s truly earned it, it’s Cardi. In the process, she’s proven to the industry who she is—talented, real, fearless, funny, feminist, un-fuck-with-able—and what they’ve been missing.

Belcalis Almanzar is a blogger’s dream. Having somehow managed to parlay authenticity into fame, she retains all of the charisma and zero of the fucks that most famous people have. She’s the breakout star of 2017 who went from stripper to rapper to ousting Taylor Swift; the queen of fashion week who got political; one half of a new generation of hip-hop royalty; everyone’s favorite catchphrase generator. Cardi’s rise has taken her to heights unimagined not just for a former reality TV star turned rapper, but for anyone. She’s the third act and the very first rapper to have her first three Billboard entries place in the chart’s top 10 simultaneously. She’s also the first woman who can claim to have had five of the top 10 hits in a single week on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. To put it another way, she beat Beyoncé.

Any artist will quickly become accustomed to describing, in great detail, the obstacles that they’ve overcome, whether that’s a traumatic childhood or a bad haircut. But Cardi B’s story of blocks and breakthroughs speaks to a larger narrative of thriving in a system that wasn’t built for her, as a woman in the rap industry and an Afro-Latina. Cardi has the gift of storytelling and specificity but her struggles, from a toxic ex whom she started dancing to escape to reality TV producers who wanted to confine her to the “struggling stripper” archetype, have larger implications. In a 2016 interview, Cardi told Dazed, “I’ve always been underestimated.” She continued, “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…’”

The bulk of Cardi’s careful planning concerns wealth accumulation: “I don’t want ya man, I just want this shmoney.” While she says she’s always dreamed of making music, Cardi didn’t grow up with the privilege of prioritizing personal aspirations over pragmatism. “When I was stripping,” she recalled in 2016, “I never thought I would be Instagram famous or on reality TV. I never thought that because, originally, I thought I wanted to be a video vixen. But I quickly learned there’s no money in that field.” Cardi B has seized on any and all available mediums to capture her charisma and commoditize her growing celebrity, from shaky videos taken at the club to catchphrases coined on the reality series Love & Hip-Hop. She’s made numerous paid appearances, shilled waist trainers on social media, and cashed two seasons’ worth of VH1 checks, all the while preaching her gospel of shmoney-making to the masses (namely, her 18.8 million Instagram followers).

While Cardi B has always unabashedly put Cardi B first, she’s also been hailed as an intersectional feminist icon. Cardi’s feminism is sex positive with just a touch of femdom. Her politics of female empowerment is constantly entangled with her lust for capital, teaching women to flip gendered scripts and use whatever tools are available to them to take back what they are owed. While other pop stars carefully weigh whether or not they can afford to identify themselves as feminists, Cardi is sharing tips on how to squeeze cash out of men like particularly brainless piggy banks—an anti-patriarchal Robin Hood.

Feminism, in its most mainstream, recognized forms, is too often inaccessible, catering to and dictated by wealthy, educated, cisgender white women. Cardi doesn’t have time for that. Or as she told i-D, “Some people are smart but they don’t have no common sense. They think feminism is great and only a woman that can speak properly, that has a degree, who is a boss, a businessperson… they think only Michelle Obama can be a feminist.” She added, “being a feminist is real simple; it’s that a woman can do things the same as a man. I’m equal to a n----. Anything a man can do, I can do. I can finesse, I can hustle. We have the same freedom. I was top of the charts. I’m a woman and I did that.” Cardi’s politics have led her to take a stand for Colin Kaepernick, criticize Donald Trump, and educate on the issue of colorism in strip clubs. While Cardi’s obsession with wealth and the superficial trappings of a good life is illustrative of our current culture, her unique perspective is a shock to the system—and one that the industry has undeniably benefited from.

By not asking for permission and accomplishing the near-impossible, Cardi B has graduated from the heroine of her own life to a role model for others. Or as Cardi puts it, “You thought I was going to stay in the strip club forever?”