Cardi B is everywhere these days. Last week, her single “Bodak Yellow” became the first female rap track to break into the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 since Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” in 2014. (It’s now at no. 3.) The “Bodak Yellow” music video has racked up over 72 million views as of this writing, and it’s still climbing.
To see a fresh and talented female rapper racking up the accolades is always good, but the success of “Bodak Yellow” is more complicated than that. Cardi B’s use of Middle Eastern settings and imagery in the song’s video brings up a whole heap of issues, from Orientalism to appropriation to what hip-hop’s relationship with the Arab world actually looks like.
The music video takes place in Dubai, and opens with a series of very familiar images: an aerial shot of the sprawling city, Cardi B sporting an abaya or a hijab with her face veiled, a caravan of camels and men walking through the desert sand dunes, and a cheetah snarling.
This handful of shots is essentially a crash course in Orientalism—that is, the instinctive clichés Western art and literature deploys to portray Arab, South Asian, and East Asian cultures. Throughout history, images of the Arab world have been dumbed down to very exotic concepts like tents in the desert, harems and dancing girls, and opulent emirs, reducing several cultures to a dichotomy of either extreme, uncontrolled wealth and decadence, or poverty and primitivism.
To some, seeing Cardi B riding on a camel and throwing money in front of some hookahs might seem like a welcome break from recent portrayals of the Middle East. After all, our pop culture and news culture is inundated with incredibly harmful and racist stereotypes that show Arab people and Muslims as simply a bunch of terrorists, and this avoids that mess entirely. But just because these images don’t go down that route doesn’t mean they’re not harmful.
“I have noticed moments since 9/11 in which resistance to Islamophobia becomes a throwback, to early Orientalist images,” Evelyn Alsultany, Associate Professor and Director of Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan, told me over the phone. She explained that the early days of cinema were rife with this kind of imagery. “The exoticism consisted of the desert, camels in the desert, a place that was seen as uncivilized, not touched by civilization, dancing girls, the harems,” she said, explaining that the woman dancing with the flaming scimitar in the “Bodak Yellow” video and Cardi B’s own clothing echoes the way Arab women have been sexualized throughout history.
“We see these moments where the ‘positive’ reverts back to those old images that are still very stereotypical, very orientalizing even if they’re not negative in the same way as the terrorist stereotype,” Alsultany said. She mentioned 2004's Hidalgo, which came during another time when anti-Muslim sentiment was spiking. In a pop culture atmosphere featuring the racist likes of Black Hawk Down and Rules of Engagement, it was something of a statement that a film set in the Middle East had nothing to do with terrorism. But Hidalgo still gave us Orientalist portrayals which hearkened back to movies like The Sheik and Lawrence of Arabia.
Cardi B is certainly not the first hip-hop artist to mine Arab stereotypes in dubious ways. The video for Wiz Khalifa’s 2016 “So Much” saw him riding through the deserts on a four-wheeler, dressing in fancy clothes, rapping poolside, and feeding exotic animals. Tinie Tempah’s “Flash” was set in Dubai and featured similar imagery: him on a yacht, driving expensive cars, and performing at a very fancy club with women in belly dancer-inspired outfits. And in 2008, Busta Rhymes apologized for his song “Arab Money,” which, on top of sampling verses from the Quran, was pretty offensive overall.
These videos show that hip-hop is just as susceptible to the same tired tropes as the rest of American culture. But Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Associate Professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Purdue University, and author of Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States, told me that, even though it can sometimes lapse into problematic territory, hip-hop has historically had a more complex overall relationship to the Arab world.
“Hip-hop actually doesn’t have an Orientalism problem,” she said. “Americans might, Euroamerican white culture, yes, but hip-hop doesn’t because in general, the ways in which the hip-hop community engage the Arab world are not like that.”
She went on to explain that there has long been a strong connection between the Arab world and hip-hop. For example, not only do artists trace their own ancestry back to parts of Africa and the Arab world, but the Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, played a crucial role in the history of hip-hop.
Hip-hop giants like Afrika Bambaataa, Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Wu-Tang Clan, Jurassic 5, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, Nas, Jay Z, and others were all influenced by Five Percenter teachings and incorporated Five Percenter concepts into their lyrics. Even the “cypher,” a foundation of freestyle rap, is Five Percenter vocabulary.
In the music video for Lakim Shabazz’s “Lost Tribe of Shabazz,” which is set in Egypt, the images of ruins and pyramids are recontextualized both by Shabazz’s empowered lyrics and also by the juxtaposition of other images. We see groups of men dressed in traditional Muslim clothing side by side with men and children with western clothing, establishing a more profound connection between the two cultures.
“So there’s a way in which the Arab world has been seen as a kind of home, like, ‘I descended from this place,’” Khabeer said. “Then there’s also notions of third world solidarity. That becomes a symbol of radical consciousness.”
When you put “Bodak Yellow” on top of all of this history, things only get more tangled. In some ways, Cardi B’s presence undermines some of the tenets of classic Orientalism. “A lot of the early films were about the white male’s access to women’s sexuality, and that’s not happening in this case because Cardi B seems to be a very sexually empowered woman,” Alsultany said.
But she went on to explain that, while appearing in and out of a hijab may be a way for Cardi B to portray her sexual agency, she’s still using a charged, important piece of clothing as a mere costume.
The question of cultural appropriation is similarly knotty. Khabeer was reticent to stick that label firmly on “Bodak Yellow” because of the complexities inherent in Cardi B’s identity.
“The person who appropriates is usually a more powerful person, and they can take it and remake it into something else,” she said. “Is Cardi B powerful? Maybe as an American, but she’s also a black woman, and in the Arab community here and elsewhere she’s disempowered.”
“I think when we look at Cardi B, she’s on the comeup,” Khabeer continued. “So when people of color come up, they do what the white people do. They maybe remix it a little bit, but the Gulf has become a playground for wealthy white celebrities, so that’s just what you do. It’s a status symbol. It’s an important conversation to be had for black people and people of color in the United States: What is our relationship with this kind of power? What does it mean to go and exert the kind of privileges you have when you have a US passport?”
Whether or not she means to, Cardi B is still feeding into false narratives about the Arab world. And in a time where anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia has hit a fever pitch, it’s not enough to simply omit the most heinous of tropes from a stereotype-laden depiction of the Middle East. After all, it is these images that Arab and Muslim Americans continue to fight against everyday.
Yet, on top of that, the Arab world also has a problem with anti-black racism. As Amani Al-Khatahbeh pointed out in an essay over at Muslim Girl:
The sad irony is that Arab culture, especially in Gulf countries, is often anti-black itself. The lowly employment and mistreatment of dark-skinned immigrant workers has been regularly documented, and even black Arabs themselves endure common social ostracization in society.
Khabeer said she hoped the video could be used as a jumping-off point to have a long-needed dialogue.
“You can identify the Orientalism and say this is a problem” she said, “but I think it would be great we could use this conversation to figure out how to reinvigorate Arab-black relationships. [That] means confronting the ways in which...black people might take on the way the dominant culture has treated this region as a fantasy land. But also, the Arab community, here and abroad, needs to do work around their own anti-blackness.”