Let me start out by saying that it actually PAINS me to write this. Admittedly, one of my guilty pleasures is reality television, so I’ve binge watched Love & Hip Hop enough times to have felt some sentimental pride for my girl Cardi B’s recent come-up. That’s probably how I was able to jam to her single “Bodak Yellow” several dozen times before ever watching the music video, which has now become the biggest YouTube hit by a female rapper since Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.”
In the opening verse of the song, Cardi B greets us in a cultural abaya dress and headscarf, with a camel chilling as a prop in the background. The scene is then complemented with cuts to imagery of a fire sword-dancing belly dancer, a man dressed up like a sheikh with shades and sneakers sitting next to a hookah pipe, exotic animals, loose diamonds and cash, and Cardi B seductively peeking from behind a see-through face veil.
It’s important to note that Cardi B’s single came out back in June, but it was only after the music video’s release that it started trending and soon shot up to number 24 on iTunes’ top song list. Now, it’s jumped up into the Billboard top 10 chart. Needless to say, the song is impossible to ignore.
Cardi B is not in any way connected to the Arab heritage or the Middle East: she’s from Trinidadian and Dominican descent, and rocks it with pride on her Instagram. There’s no reason for her to evoke Middle Eastern imagery in her video except to play dress up, and in a way that perpetuates harmful preconceived notions of the region. By taking bits and pieces of a Western-constructed fantasy of the Middle East — often as hedonistic, ultra-luxurious, and overly sexualized — which has always been far from representing the actual reality of the people and culture, Cardi B’s work is orientalist at best.
Orientalism is using figments of a culture to cast its entire people with one broad – usually racist – stroke. Her work is definitely in good company. The orientalist evocation of the Middle East is a fave in hip-hop culture: Fabolous just threw an Arab-themed “Fabu Dhabi” birthday party. Busta Rhymes made the infamous “Arab Money”song. Even Queen Bey herself used Arabic music and the depiction of belly dancers in one of her live performances of “Naughty Girl.”
It’s impossible to overlook that blackness has been literally hijacked by mainstream America. What seemed to start as black appropriation at first is now visibly the foundation of American pop culture itself. Lest we forget that Miley Cyrus just used her white privilege to reinvent herself back into a wholesome country girl after using it to totally claim ownership over twerking on a national stage. And, yes, even light-skinned Arab artists have built careers off black culture as well. Is DJ Khaled ringing in your ears right now?
The thing is that Africa was one of the biggest subjects of this distorted Western lens of orientalism: alongside grotesque “scientific studies” of black central African women as foreign objects as compared to European white women, there was French colonizers’ depiction of Algeria as a distant exotic land and the oversexualization of Algerian women as naked haremesses and sexual objects for penetrative conquest. Orientalism has become a defining tool in the problematic way we see the Middle East of sheikhs and oil mongers, and, by extension, Arab and Muslim women, solidifying a binary of us being either lewd seductresses or oppressed heathens. Both ways, we’re from a whole other world.
The problem of orientalism in pop culture is symptomatic of a larger Western infrastructure of anti-blackness, where anything outside of the realm of whiteness is pushed to the fringes of society, albeit with levels to it. Muslims have become a racialized minority in the United States, catalyzed by 9/11 and underscored by 45’s presidency. The post-9/11 era of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hatred has robbed these identities of any nuance, with “Arab” and “Muslim” often used interchangeably with each other to loosely define a dark-skinned abstract “other.”
This makes it more clear, then, how 45 could become elected president based largely on his policy platform on Muslims, when the vast majority of Americans have never had a Muslim friend. The language used throughout the election to discuss the issue of Muslim Americans implied that we don’t exist as actual members of the society we call home – we are still somehow distant, detached, other. That’s how talks of a Muslim Ban and even Muslim internment camps become socialized as both normal and possible even in the context of our constitutional democracy — in the same way that the constitution has tiptoed around acknowledging black equality since its inception.
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. That’s not to say that popular anti-Arab or anti-Muslim attitudes don’t exist within African-American communities. The nod to Arab culture in hip-hop could be a unique expression of black reclamation through the use of pop culture. However, black Arabs themselves are largely absent from the picture, and artists like Cardi B could use more responsible and less stereotype-perpetuating imagery that’s as outdated as that of Aladdin. (Yes, that, too, is a problematic fave.)
The beauty of this marriage between hip-hop and an affinity for Middle Eastern heritage is that hip-hop was fundamentally born as a subculture to celebrate blackness, and in effect reject white-dominant society through art. Hip-hop quickly rose to become one of the most formidable challengers of anti-blackness in America and on the global stage. Orientalism of the Middle East is one of the lasting remnants of colonization, which was born from Western attitudes of anti-blackness and racial subjugation. It’s in our best interest to preserve hip-hop as one of the most potent spaces for a rejection of all forms of that white supremacy and to recognize our interconnected stakes in black emancipation.
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