It’s three thirty-three in the morning, in the studio, the microphone’s hungry, the walls are ready – no one’s going to hear my screams outside this room. On the sofa, while the engineer mikes up the drum kit, I dream of nails dirty with blood, nails long like the sharpened poles of a booby-trap. Someone has glued diamonds onto them, the traps, someone has sprayed gasoline on the marks left by those same nails on the walls of my vigil. They are the fake nails of Cardi B. Nails that have grown in my mind like the view count of ‘Bodak Yellow’ on Youtube, the song that catapulted her into international stardom last year, and with which she dethroned Her Excellency Lauryn Hill, who since 1998 had been the only female rapper to top the Billboard Hot 100 with a solo single.
‘Bodak Yellow’ means business. It’s a crude, catchy hymn written by a woman who’s confessed to writing about what she likes, and that what she likes is ‘fighting bitches’. A comment as real as the work that’s gone into those nails, three hours on the clock for some Asian woman, whose face, elusive as letters written with wind, can be found in every corner of the planet. Ros, Nam ha, Jenny. Jenny Bui is the woman responsible for Cardi B’s nails, and she too appears in my dreams. Now at two locations, I have seen Bui sharpen to stiletto points the nails that Cardi will end up taking our eyes out with, if she hasn’t already. And those eyes, daring to look at her, are ornaments, full of Swarovski tears that hurt to expel. This is not what it is to cry. This is what it is to look at the life of Cardi, before she was Cardi. A ‘Dickens was here’ graffiti bomb in Highbridge, the Bronx.
My dad died in this kind of fable. A rags-to-riches fantasy that got him shot in the face in the Bronx. A Dominican-American trend in the eighties: head to NY and return rich. Or dead. Cardi is a product of that first great Dominican exodus and its mythologies. Born in the Bronx, a couple of blocks from 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the birthplace of hip-hop, she’s the stuff of legends – ‘The first thing she did after she was born was to take off her rings so she could start a fist fight with the obstetrician; the nurses bet their salaries on the baby with the acrylic nails and then watched her cut her own umbilical cord with her teeth.’
Beyond the legends, she’s heir to an Afro-Caribbean musical dynasty in exile, summoned in the sampled homage to Pete Rodriguez’s ‘I Like It Like That’, a famous boogaloo, the equivalent of sixties Latin trap. In the sixties in NYC, kids also learned to rhyme, not over copy-pasted loops but over hip, Afro-Cuban beats played on a conga. Salsa was born, a sound more than a genre, mixing Cuban son, mambo, bossa nova, jazz, plena and soul. From that period of excess and experimentation emerged an extraordinary woman without whom it is impossible to speak of Cardi: Lupe Victoria Yolí Raymond, ‘La Lupe’. Born in Cuba, ‘the queen of Latin soul’ had a coked-up flow she refilled onstage with the blow inside her own fake nails while throwing her shoes, jewellery, wigs and underwear at the audience. Her stage antics, similar to those of Iggy Pop, made Sartre call her a ‘musical animal’. Sartre would say the same about Cardi. I know Simone de Beauvoir would.
Watching her, born again in her surgery plans, schemes made in the shadow of a dancing pole, cold and sweaty like PTSD. Cardi makes surgery plans punk rock. Does she know punk rock and hip-hop are the same thing? A state of mind, like the diaspora? A condition? No, more like an army of working women with florescent nails who returned to Santo Domingo in the nineties with new 100 dollar bills to buy people out of their middle class houses, who thought they were white and whose worst nightmare were those black people in Mercedes who came from New York. These women (my cousins, sisters, aunts and friends) for whom La Lupe is a deity, love a good fight, they’ll bite your breasts off in Washington Heights because you looked at them funny, then, still with their rival’s hair extensions in their hands, they’ll lecture you on social networks, medicating yourself, abortions, jealousy and cheating. Truths told through humour, the most human and redeeming feature of intelligence. Cardi is the herald of this Dominican brand of feminism, turned upside down, ‘subversive’ doesn’t begin to describe it. These women, knowing themselves to be money-making bodies, extract a wicked pride out of it, the words, the words ‘class struggle’ spelled in twenty-four-carat gold around their necks. As shiny and bloody as Cardi B’s moves in the operating room, smiling and anaesthetised, invested her money in her own business, like Jesus Christ, her financial adviser, told her to. The truth has set Cardi free, and it has also made her rich. Her truth about work, drugs, money, violence. The truth about soap that irritates the vagina or the dick she ain’t getting cause her man is away, all in an accent as heavy and tough as the automatic weapons she mimics with her mouth.
This piece is part of an ongoing series on modern musical icons.
Tentacle by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas, is available now in its first English language publication with And Other Stories.
Feature image © @iamcardib