Cardi B is The Perfect Historian For Our Time

With her decidedly R-rated lyrics and videos, Cardi B has conquered the music world. She’s had three number one Billboard singles, a number one Billboard album and a Grammy. There’s no question she’s a superstar from head to toe and everywhere in between—the “Bodak Yellow” rapper’s Instagram bio brags about her “GRAMMYWINNINGVAGINA” in case there’s any doubt.

And this week, Bernie Sanders sat down with her for an interview about his presidential campaign.
Yes, I know her resume doesn’t seem to lend itself to high profile political punditry. But the woman born Belcalis Marlenis Almanzar isn’t just a hip hop queen. She’s also a history fan.

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The former reality television star and exotic dancer has often exposed her inner history nerd. And her enthusiasm for history is palpable–and not just from her claim that she can rattle off all the presidents in order.

She has a particular fondness for FDR. In an interview with GQ, Cardi B praised Roosevelt, who “helped us get over the Depression, all while he was in a wheelchair.” Twisting Trump’s signature line against him, she said FDR “was trying to make America great—make America great again for real.” With her nods to FDR for saving the economy and giving us Social Security, she has no qualms about promoting activist government (so long as it’s benign) and shaking up the status quo.

Cardi B was born in New York City in 1992 to immigrant parents—a Dominican father and Trinidadian mother. Few things are more working class than stripping, which is where Cardi B got her start in the entertainment industry. After taking a break from the dance pole, she got her oh-so-millennial big break via reality TV and viral videos.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Cardi B is political. But maybe we should be surprised that she is so history minded. Hip hop isn’t known for referencing the 1930s. That’s a country music thing. And for someone who makes music and videos that cover the usual hip hop tropes—money, bragging, snaky-hot females, and blinding bling—you would think she didn’t have much interest in James Buchanan, the New Deal, or the Twenty Second Amendment. But she does.

Cardi B says she is “obsessed with presidents” and “how the system works.” In an age where our president clearly knows nothing about the constitution or American history, entertainers can hopefully fill some gaps in our collective historical consciousness. Reactionary cranks will inevitably shout “shut up and sing!” whenever Cardi B waxes political. But really, she is acting in a longstanding tradition of musicians getting political.

Whether it’s Johnny Cash singing for prisoners, Merle Haggard defending Muskogee or Sinead O’Connor ripping up a picture of the pope on SNL, singers have always pushed political buttons. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when hip hop was becoming mainstream, African American musicians had their largest platform yet for talking about black city life. While something as in-your-face as “Fuck tha Police” was overtly political, it wasn’t especially historical. You had to look to Public Enemy for more overt historical takes.

It may take someone like Cardi B with a golden touch to remind us that when it comes to race in America, much hasn’t changed in the past thirty years. Listen to PE now and you’ll find much of the music resonates with today’s political circus and ongoing racial disparities.

Like PE and other political hip hop artists before her, Cardi B clearly sees the need for Americans to protect themselves. For PE, that might have meant resorting to “any means necessary.” Cardi B’s politics are softer, at least so far. She wants assurance that the social safety net will not just survive, but expand. Should Trump win reelection, she and other musicians might get more militant.

Cardi B’s motives for talking about history may be as personal as they are political. Given her rags-to-riches story and street cred (in addition to stripping, she claims to have been involved in the notorious Bloods street gang as a teenager), she is showing how thoughtful she is in a time of shocking thoughtlessness at the highest levels of government. It’s not hard to show you are better informed than Donald Trump. And yet, Cardi B is shrewd enough about her image to know that a beauty and brains combination—I’m thinking here maybe of Madonna—is a formidable one in the world of pop music.

Cardi B’s political statements, furthermore, are not only practical, they might be inevitable. We live in a time when everything is politicized. How can you not be political in 2019? Even saying “no comment” is a political comment. One of the silver linings in the Trump presidency is that it has kept people engaged in the political process and nudged them to be more informed about their history and American civics.
So my advice to my fellow historians is to consider sending a copy of your book to Cardi B. She might mention you on Twitter. What a boost for your Amazon ranking.