Once every so often, a music video drops that momentarily captures everyone’s attention and dominates social media chatter. Given that broadcast TV no longer shows music videos, this continued influence is impressive. Music videos are now available on demand in the endless online jukeboxes of Vevo/YouTube and, if you’re even less audio-internet savvy, a simple Google search. (Google has owned YouTube for a while now, so whatever.) However, watching music videos today is an active, purposeful process. ’80s kids like me are sad that you can’t just flip to MTV and BET and find a new favorite by accident, but that’s how it works today.
As the latest example of this phenomenon, “WAP” began bubbling up on my social media feed this week. I found the reactions so evocative that I thought I’d go watch it for myself. Besides, I really like Cardi B. She’s very easy to root for and such a fun and magnetic person.
(By way of background, you can either look up the video yourself or read this brief summation: Cardi B, the hottest female rapper of the past three years, and Megan Thee Stallion, the hottest upstart female rapper of the past year, have joined forces for this sex-heavy song fixating on the acronym of the title “WAP,” which is thoroughly NSFW, with an explicit accompanying video.)
After watching the spectacle that is “WAP,” I laughed, shrugged, and went back to my life. Then one of my more socially conscious Black friends fired shots online, declaring war on the song and video as a horrific example of the exploitation of Black women. As I read the thread around his evaluation, I began processing the various themes involved and taking the critiques.
As a white male viewer of the video, there’s elements that won’t resonate with me in the same way as Black and female viewers. As a gay viewer of the video, there’s other elements that definitely won’t resonate with me in the same way. (There’s lots of near-total female nudity.) However, as a music lover and someone who has devoted a lot of mental energy to social and racial justice, I do have an opinion. If you want to hear it, here it goes.
My initial and default response to music in general is positive. Music reflects where people’s energies and passions are, and for someone to care enough about something to write a song, perform a song, and create a visual around the subject matter, whatever it is, is good.
It’s problematic when the subject matter is destruction, misogyny, despair, pure materialism, or any of a number of other topics, but at least the artist is giving voice to those thoughts and not letting them fester. Music is an outlet for these thoughts, and it’s a good thing to have an outlet.
The social ramifications of people, especially younger and more impressionable people, hearing these “negative” songs and taking them as truth rather than perspective, is not something I’m prepared to discuss in the space of this writing. If the subject matter of “WAP” were more inherently problematic, I would try to address that.
But “WAP” is about sex. It’s basically two Black female rappers boasting about their sexual prowess. That’s why I laughed and shrugged upon my initial listen. Nothing new here. Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown were trailblazing this territory in the ’90s. The first things MCs uttered in the ’70s were boasts. (Granted, the raunch quotient has continued to explode ever since.) “I’m the baddest, I’m the most stylish, I’m the richest, I’m the smartest, I’m the best rapper, I’m the most confident, I’m the best-looking, and I’m the best lover,” in endless variations, has been the core mantra of hip-hop from the beginning.
Of course, just because something is well-established doesn’t make it right. But sex is a good thing, and women who are comfortable expressing their sexuality are bringing light to the world, right? For those of us, myself included, who are in favor of a sex-positive society, this makes “WAP” a good thing. The lyrics and video are drenched in explicit imagery, so maybe Cardi and Megan could turn that dial down from 14 to 10. It’s like they spilled the entire salt shaker into their sexpots.
But the general idea–great! Isn’t it?
Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. One person’s positivity is another’s exploitation. And because we’re talking about art, the interpretation is always subjective.
One of the lingering racist narratives that has dogged Black women and men for centuries is the myth of hyper-sexuality. This depiction has been weaponized to show Blacks as sub-human, as morally deficient, and generally inferior and fearsome individuals who need to be controlled. “Hyper-sexual” is one adjective that could easily be applied to any number of hip-hop videos of the past two decades, and to “WAP.” To the extent that Black artists play into this caricature of hyper-sexuality, they can be said to be perpetuating it.
This is where it gets confusing. It is easy to dismiss music as “minstrelsy.” Black entertainers have always had to deal with the social impact of their music, and to be aware of the ways in which their modes of expression play into the hands of the racism of American culture in general, and the entertainment industry in particular. On our way to denouncing music as reinforcing racism, though, we run into at least three detours.
The first is reclamation. The most infamous act of reclamation is the use of the n-word among Blacks, but it exists among gays, women, and almost every marginalized group. It’s always confusing for the dominant group, which is largely the point. “Why is it that I can’t do this but you turn around and do the same thing?” is the usual cry of the dominant group. I think we could cut through a lot of the nonsense about how reclamation works if people would just be honest and answer, “because we want to eff with your head.” It’s a form of resistance, and it’s subversive in the most devious way.
Applying reclamation to the “WAP” video, we could say that Cardi and Megan are using the visual language–booty shaking, lesbian innuendo, nudity, outrageous wigs–and the explicit lyrics that male rappers have been using for decades to objectify women, and they are reclaiming them as empowering and proud images of their sexual, female strength.
The second detour is satire and comedy. It’s difficult to watch the dazzling, technicolor palettes and the exuberant set design and camera swoops of the “WAP” visual and not detect a note of tongue-in-cheekiness. Cardi in particular always seems to keep her lyricist pen dipped in funny ink, and she maintains a personality rooted in exaggeration and media-savvy campiness. (Buffoonery, however, is another racist trope. So we have to be careful, there, too.)
The final detour that doesn’t allow for a direct condemnation of the “WAP” video and its ilk, is determining where the line should be drawn. Black women have been declaring their sexual prowess through music in ways large and small for years–when does it stop being empowering and start being exploitative? Should Whitney Houston have demurred from singing “Saving All My Love For You,” wherein she was luring a man from his steady woman? Should Janet have not released “Any Time, Any Place,” declaring her willingness to go at it in public? Should Aaliyah not have boasted that she was “More Than a Woman”?
My hunch here is that the expression only becomes a problem for any individual when it crosses some internal line of decency. Ironically, as the expression of sexuality becomes more “indecent,” it also becomes harder to take seriously because of its straight-faced brashness.
So, where does all this discussion leave us?
My view is that virtually no woman is going to place a version of herself on record or on camera where she ends up obviously exploiting herself. Women should be trusted and empowered to make these decisions with their own self-expression. If they’re being coerced or controlled by a record company or a Svengali, however, that can undercut this view. And admittedly, expressing that view is just me spitballing.
I think the first bottom line is the Black artists, in consultation with their friends and colleagues, can best navigate this tightrope of public messaging. Concerns from fans like my friend should also be made known, and the artists can digest those or not as they please.
The second bottom line is that what we all love about music, whether we realize it or not, is the fact that it transports us to some place different than where we are. So much of that journey depends on our own experiences and preconceptions, so I think it’s important to know that we meet the music somewhere in the middle, and to consider that maybe the negatives we project onto the music may be more about us than the artist.