Is The “WAP” Era Bad for Women?

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion stole the show at the 63rd Grammy Awards Sunday night with a controversial performance and the internet has spiraled because of it.

The pair’s futuristic strip-club inspired performance of their No. 1 song “WAP” dropped several jaws Sunday, with clips of the artists’ thrusting and twerking moves soon after going viral. Many considered their act as shocking, with reports of viewers contacting the FCC for guideline violations and right-wing commentator Candace Owens going as far to call the performance an attack on American values

While I disagree with such extreme reactions, a recent TikTok video from creator Masani Musa for @CultureUnfiltered raised a few questions about WAP’s success I thought to be interesting, admitting she was “conflicted” about Megan Thee Stallion’s rise to success.

“Any Black woman who is achieving her dreams on a world stage deserves all of the praise and all of the love… because as a Black woman, it is not easy,” she said.

“But Black women’s images are drowning in a sea of WAPs and our identity is at stake,” she continued. “Yes, there should be a space for women of all ages, races and colors to be open about their sexuality, but for Black women that is the majority of our mainstream representation.”

@CultureUnfiltered on TikTok

With the era of WAP upon us, where artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B and City Girls, to name only a few, are exploding in popularity for their brash lyrics about sex, it’s worth wading through the implications of their success. Female rappers now fill the shoes of the 21st century pop star, which has launched several Black women into a unique media spotlight.

Since her debut, Cardi B has long been vocal about working the media’s attention on her over-the-top personality to her advantage for the charts.

“I like to make hits,” she said in a 2018 Instagram live. “I like to make money. I don’t really give a fuck about being lyrical … I like to make shit that’s going to climb me off the charts. That’s what I want. I want to be up top of the charts. I want to make money.”

@Snobettesounds on Instagram

“WAP” was certainly a money-maker and a record-breaker. It’s obvious the single generated (and continues to generate) both positive and negative attention with a star-studded, sexy music video and now a shocking live performance, ultimately catapulting the song to be the top-streamed track by a female artist in 2020.

Cardi has also been quick to bring attention to hypocrisy in criticism of her often hypersexual work.

In 2019, producer Jermaine Dupri shared his thoughts on “strippers rapping” in a People Now interview, stating “they’re all rapping about the same thing.”

Cardi again took to Instagram to dispute this, speaking about a single she released which was nonsexual in nature.

“When I didBe Careful,” she said, “people was talking mad shit in the beginning, like, ‘What the fuck is this? This is not what I expected. I expected this, I expected that.’ So it’s, like, if that’s what people ain’t tryna hear, then, alright, I’mma start rapping about my pussy again.”

@iamcardib on Instagram

Cardi also name-dropped female artists Rapsody, Tierra Whack, Kamaiyah and Oranicuhh who rap mostly about subjects other than sex. She questioned where their attention was from Dupri and other music big-names.

“I feel we need to put these girls in more magazines and blogs. Radio DJs, play these girls,” she said.

@iamcardib on Instagram

Cardi’s call to uplift other Black female artists really redirects the conversation around over-sexual singers and places responsibility on the market. Yes, the music market is oversaturated with sex, but whose market is it? Because if “WAP” or City Girls’ “Pussy Talk” or the like were as disgusting to consumers as some claim, those songs wouldn’t be as massively listenable as their streams have proven. Pursuing the “sex sells” angle of business is, however you may want to take it, the most visible way Black women are achieving success in the music industry. 

Business News Daily offers a simple explanation for why sex sells in advertising and marketing: attention. And when you put it that way, why are we solely paying attention to Black female artists only when they’re grabbing headlines with their bodies? 

At Sunday’s Grammy’s, R&B artist H.E.R. won Song of the Year for “I Can’t Breathe,” written in honor of the Black Lives Matter efforts of 2020. Country singer Mickey Guyton, the first-ever Black female Grammy nominee in the genre, gave a flawless performance of her song, “Black Like Me,” which similarly tackles racial prejudice. 

Both were certainly newsworthy moments of the award show, but civil discourse following the Grammy’s has almost exclusively focused on Megan & Cardi’s racy dance routine on an enormous bed. It’s almost as if Black women are given only one avenue to gain media attention, whereas their White counterparts are afforded many.

Billie Eilish, for example, has removed sexuality almost entirely from her performance aesthetic. Not seen in the public eye as a sex symbol, she has still managed to captivate mainstream audiences and become one of the world’s biggest pop stars in baggy Gucci sweats, letting the music speak for itself. Which is something I’m sure all musicians want to be able to do, but that payoff is ultimately disproportionate.

When Beyonce pivots her artistry to pursue a deeper, more personal and ambitious project like Lemonade, the recording academy does not reward her for quality in the same way they do, say, Taylor Swift, who pivoted out of flashy performance into Folklore, a mostly acoustic album with scaled back production and nary a “WAP” rendition in sight on the tracklist. It’s as if White female artists gain that profitable attention for their talents outside the box of sexuality. 

It’s Megan and Cardi B’s prerogative to play the money game and find joy in their ventures that celebrate sex. However, their success shouldn’t be considered as a detriment to other artists willing to share music about different subjects. It’s not on them to course-correct a market ruled by the majority.

Instead, space should be made for Black women beyond “WAP” by consumers who are willing to appreciate a whole person for their talents and run up their streams as a result. Then, we may finally be able to tell young women they can be a certified freak, seven days a week, and so, so much more at the same time.

Header Image: Francis Specker/CBS via Getty Images