“This is my happy place,” which is why Cardi B invites me to her grandmother’s home in Washington Heights and not her condo in Edgewater, New Jersey. Inside the prewar apartment there’s a musical number of clanking pans and plastic cups scrubbing under the rush of faucet water. There’s arroz blanco cooking in one pot and red beans in another, traditional Dominican rum and wine being served in rustic glass among a bevy of women who grew up far, far away from any city of neon and chrome. Cardi is hiked on a wooden stool by the kitchen bar adjacent to the living room, getting her hair and makeup done. It’s not lost on me that, despite her rise to fame, Cardi is considerably reclusive and a private person when it comes to family and other matters of the heart. She may well be a social media mainstay with all the nuts and bolts of a superstar, but the television personality-turned-rapper is the quintessential homegirl from around the way many of us know and love. She’s also the self-described stripper hoe that’s all about her shmoney; the intersectional feminist who advises her cypher of girlfriends on how to turn the tables on ain’t sh*t f**k boys; the gansta b***h who warns detractors not to underestimate her.
Born Belcalis Almanzar, Cardi grew up in a household that was loud with laughter, often booming with music and always full of cousins, something clearly visible as we speak and all too common throughout Caribbean residencies. Her Internet comedy, an extension of her father’s flair for jokes, can make even the most solemn of folks burst into laughter—however brash or eyebrow-raising the delivery. Her mother, on the other hand, is serious as a heart attack, an attribute most noticeable in Cardi when her ethos is challenged by naysayers at large: “You see these mad b***hes online? They want me to hate myself so bad, they want me to believe that I look a certain type of way, they want me to believe that I’m ugly. But how can I feel that way about myself when all the bad b***hes be in my bed giving and getting head?” In other words: you don’t need to like Cardi, because Cardi likes Cardi.
As Belcalis, who is dressed in only a bra and sweats and no weave, talks to me in the living room, I notice a pair of bite-sized feet playing peek-a-boo behind the curtains; they belong to the boisterous child who later emerges from the other room a doe-eyed niece (her name is Amor) demanding attention from her busy aunt, who smears mascara off her left cheek upon being startled by the curly headed tyke. “She’s my world,” Cardi says, as if to make clear it’s perfectly fine for the baby to be around. “I do anything for her.” Cardi’s visiting aunt, a working doctor in the Dominican Republic, is rinsing her dyed hair in the kitchen sink. She cocks her head and begins having a side conversation with one of the other women in the room, presumably kin, about going out on the town at night. That same aunt later pulls me aside to tell me it was rude I remained mum when she offered me house wine. I assured her I didn’t hear her and would never conscientiously ignore an elder (nor turn down wine for that matter).
Cardi’s face is now “beat for the gawds,” as she slips on her wig and into a pink sequined dress. Her prima is flat-ironing the faux tresses, which fall to Cardi’s coveted backside. Amor, in all her cutesy glory, dashes across the living room between bites of food, hellbent on remaining the center of attention. The now 24-year-old retired stripper, who’s in the middle of filming for season seven of Love and Hip Hop: New York, will eventually go on to accept a role on BET’s hit drama Being Mary Jane. After we say goodbye in her matriarch’s modest abode, Cardi heads to the her manager’s studio to work on her upcoming Gangsta B***h Music Vol. 2 mixtape. Weeks later, she’ll fix her jagged teeth—the butt of all jokes when haters find themselves with nothing better to do. Even later, she’ll weigh in on political affairs leading up to Election Night, urging 5.1 million Instagram followers to vote for Hillary Clinton because, “boyfriends lie to ya’ll everyday and y’all still fw them.” True story.
VIBE Viva: A lot of girls think highly of you—a lot of women. Who do you look up to?
Cardi B: I really don’t look up to anybody that is doing that great in life, because I don’t know their story. However, I do look up to women who—like, I have a lot of friends and they’re 27, 28, 30, and still dancing. My friends are the ones that be like, “Yo, do you see how hard I gotta work and I’m 30 and I’m running out of time? B***h, you do not wanna be like me. That’s why you gotta work your a** off. Invest your money.” When I started dancing, I should have saved my money. When I was your age, I should have saved my money. Those women, the ones that still have to hustle and dance, they inspire me.
Women you used to work with?
Yes. They be like, “Trust me, you do not want to be f**king dancing and sh*t. Every year the strip club gets worse. I’m about to be 30 and I’m still dancing.” Those are the women that keep telling me, “You see how I’m working hard right now? I’m tired of doing this. I’ve been working for eight years. I should have been saved my money. I could’ve been out of here if I would have done something. So, you need to do something”
What do you tell young women who say, “I want to be just like you”?
I don’t feel like anyone should follow what I did. I don’t feel like you should be walking around thinking, “Yeah, I want to be a dancer.” But I’ll say this: always have a goal, always have a second plan. Because in every field, whether it’s dancing or something else, you gotta work hard for it. If a girl was to ask me, “You think I should be a stripper?” I would tell her straight up, “You could be. You gonna make money. But you gonna spend a lot of it, too, and you might start using drugs.” Because there’s so much young girls that go in the strip club and some people be like, “Loosen up, get a drink. Loosen up, pop a molly,” and then you start doing it regularly.
What are the men like at the strip club?
A lot of these men are gonna make you feel like you’re trash. There are the guys that go to the strip club and they not educated or as smart, they just probably making some money, so they treat you a certain way. And then you got these little dirty a** n***as from the same ‘hood that you come from smacking your a**, making you feel like sh*t and it’s like… damn.
For some reason Peter Gunz comes to mind. What are your thoughts on him saying you don’t love yourself?
C’mon now, it’s crazy… Peter Gunz is cool, or whatever. He’s alright. He is. And I don’t think he’s corny. A lot of the n***as on that show are cornballs, but it is what it is. He’s just in love with two women and he’s a man and that’s what men do. Because Amina is a real good artist. She knows how to sing. She knows how to play instruments. She’s a good artist. And Tyra? She’s a very smart woman and she’s so funny, cool and she’s humble, but nobody sees that because they’re in love with the same man. But I’ve been in the position where I was in love with the same guy as the other girl. It’s just so sad the drama with them, it overshadows their talents, it overshadows their personalities, it overshadows everything that really matters. Tyra’s a very smart girl, and people call her dumb and she’s not dumb. All because of this n***a.
Do you think I paid for my a** and my titties for me not to show it? —Cardi B
Did you ever imagine turning into a celebrity?
Nah. I never thought I was going to be popular, I never thought I was going to be famous. That sh*t went out the door for me when I realized I’d be stripping for a living.
So, then, how did it all really happen? You started to strip and then one day you just got on Instagram and started to talk sh*t?
[Laughs] Well, yeah. The sh*t that I talk is the same sh*t that I talk at work with everybody. The sh*t that you see on Instagram is really how I am. Probably you don’t see everything of it, but this is really who I am. This is really how I act. This is how I really live.
There’s a stigma attached to reality television. Why do you think people who love you aren’t really all that bothered with you doing reality television?
Because I feel like real people see me and who I am and think, “Why not?” If I got that opportunity, why not? Why would I turn it down? You thought I was going to stay in the strip club forever?
When I was stripping, I never thought I would be Instagram famous or on reality TV. I never thought that because, originally, I thought I wanted to be a video vixen. But I quickly learned there’s no money in that field. On top of that, I wasn’t about to sleep my way to the top. I’m not here to f**k no artist just to get on the scene.
The b***hes that sleep with the artist is the one that they give the main scene. It’s like you almost have to have a plug to be the lead girl. And I’m not about it. I’m not gonna f**k you, sleep with you to be the lead person. No. On top of that, a lot of guys that manage a lot of popular video vixen girls, they always used to tell me, “You’re really pretty and you have an outstanding personality, but your body is not fully developed.”
Did you get work done?
When I was 19, 20, 21, I wasn’t extremely thick. I ain’t have my a** done. And those same guys were like, “When you’re 23, 24 that’s when you can start. That’s when you’re gonna get popular, when your body starts to get bigger.” Luckily, I didn’t even have to wait that long. It was my personality that got me where I’m at. So, I can’t tell anybody to do this or that and be on Instagram. But I will tell you that you can use your personality and be bubbly and be yourself in any field that you’re in. That alone will take you far, for real.
What would you say to someone who thinks less of you, who doesn’t align with what you’re putting out in the world, who believes you’re not the right kind of person to look up to?
I don’t think me showing my body should be a problem or anyone’s concern. Do you think I paid for my a** and my titties for me not to show it? Let’s imagine that I was a big girl. Do you think I would lose all my weight for me not to show off my new physique? If I like my body and I want to show it off, I’m well within my right to do so. And if it’s a way for me to make money—why not? Why not make money from me, from what I got? Why not? It is what it is. Would it make a difference if I told you I went to school?
I think to some people that kind of stuff matters, yeah.
I do have an education; people think I don’t. But I went to high school and got my diploma, and then I went to Manhattan Community College. I didn’t finish, but I attended and took some classes in French and history.
Earlier this year, you did a women’s panel at NYU. How was that? What did you walk away with?
I only know my struggle. I’ve dealt with the struggle in the night life and trying to get in the industry. I never realized the struggle of other women that try to build their companies, or represent people. I’d never had to see how they struggle, and I saw it and thought, “Damn.” They have an education and look at how hard they still have to work. I be feeling like, “Damn, I work so hard,” but I’m not the only one that works hard. I walked away knowing that we all work hard, but in our different ways and in our different fields. I feel real proud of myself because when I see people that come from places like NYU—to go to NYU, you have to be extremely smart, so for me to see extremely smart people saying, “I look up to you. You inspire me,” I can’t even believe it. My a** inspired your smart a**? It’s just unbelievable, and it’s just something that really makes me feel good. I still can’t believe it because I feel like I’m just such a simple person and everybody be like, “Stop it,” but I just really can’t believe it. People that have majors and degrees and stuff.
Yeah, but these are women, who I’m sure stand in solidarity with women like you, who may not be accepted as the norm in patriarchy, but represent the kind of autonomy many of us operate with. There is no one kind of feminist, right?
Right. I may not be your typical. Who’s to say that I can’t inspire a woman who works at a Fortune 500 company as much as she inspires me? I think that’s important to know.
In your past field of work, did you ever encounter physical, or maybe verbal, mental abuse?
Of course, because girls do get jealous. People be like, “Pretty b***hes don’t hit on each other. It’s the ugly b***hes that do.” That’s a lie. I just feel like pretty b***hes want all the attention, so when a new girl gets the attention, they just get so catty. And that’s another thing I would tell a young girl, “You want to be a stripper? Do you know how catty those women are?” Everybody says that in high school there is so much drama, but when you are in a strip club it is extremely dramatic. Everybody wants to know about your man, about your life. Everybody wants to know about who you’re messing with. People will lie to you and to your customers. A guy is throwing you money and it’s like, “Why isn’t he throwing ME money?” Then they go talk to them and they talk about your life: “She got a man. She’s doing this. She’s a whore.” It’s so catty. It’s like a never-ending high school scene. I dealt with a lot of fights in the strip club. I bet I wouldn’t have dealt with them in college. Nobody would talk to me about none of that sh*t if we were in college.
There’s definitely drama in college, but I imagine not quite the same.
It’s a different type. These girls be hating. Then you gotta worry about these girls setting you up to rob you, for example. It’s a lot of things. And you see the things that I’m telling you? Only a stripper could tell you these kinds of stories. A lot of people be like, “ You can be a stripper because they just shake their a**. It’s easy money.”
So, with all the negatives that come being a stripper, are there any pros?
I’m not gonna lie and I’m not gonna ever hate on the game, but it paid my bills. It also lifted my spirits when I needed some lifting. Yes, went through a lot of sh*t. But I made a lot of money doing it, and there were times when being at the strip club was better than the alternative.
With stripping, was there a sense of self-empowerment that came from it?
Let me tell you something. When I got kicked out of my mom’s house, I had to live in my boyfriend’s house. I wanted to come here, to my family’s house, but my dad was so mad at me. And he was like, “Don’t you even think that you’re going to go to your grandma’s house. You’re not staying there.” He told me that and I was like, “Oh, well, I’m not going over there.”
Why not go back to your mother’s?
I ain’t even want to go back to my mom’s house because I feel like if you kicked me out, I don’t ever want to hear you say something like, “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” I just never wanted to show her that, but I was struggling. I was going to sleep hungry. I was crying a lot. There were days where I couldn’t wait to go to work, at the supermarket I worked at before stripping.
I couldn’t wait to go to work so I could eat. It’s sad to feel that way. And I wanted to move out of [my boyfriend’s house]. There was two pit bulls in that house, and I had asthma. I was dying in there. There was bedbugs, too. There was always guys going in and out, his homeboys playing PlayStation, stealing money from us. I wanted to move out so bad. And then on top of that, I felt like my ex-boyfriend was cheating on me, but it was like even if he was cheating on me, I still can’t leave because—where was I gonna go?
So, work was an escape?
It’s not even that work was an escape, no. I was working at the supermarket for about $200 a week. I was not going to go nowhere on that. I wasn’t gonna go anywhere. So, I started dancing and made enough money to move out of that house. And I’ve never looked back.
That sh*t hurts my feelings and it makes me want to hate people. —Cardi B
I think you’re hilarious. Were you always a comedian?
Hell yea. [Laughs] We all mad funny in this house. All of my cousins.
Is your grandmother funny?
Sh*t, she’s the funniest one. Hell yeah!
What about your mom?
My mom is not funny. She’s very serious.
Is your mom Dominican, or your dad?
My dad. He’s funny, too. But my mom is very serious. She don’t understand a joke, nothing. [Laughs]
What does it take to be with someone like Cardi B, you know, romantically I mean?
I don’t know what it is, but I like a very cute face. A lot of people think, “You only like n***as with money and sh*t.” I’ve dealt with a lot of broke n***as. Like my man is in jail, he ain’t doing nothing for me, but I like him and I feel secure with him. I kind of like a street guy, and I like a real guy. I don’t like a guy that just talks about it, I like to see it. I don’t know.
So, you’re in a long distance relationship?
Do you get to see him often?
I haven’t seen him in three months.
How did you guys meet?
Oh, we met in the strip club. [Laughs] Every guy I ever meet, since I was 19, I met them in the strip club. One thing about me is I was never the type to go out clubbing, I was never the type to go out. I just always used to work. My job is the strip club. Even though people see it as a party to them, it wasn’t a party to me. I have to pay to work here. You have to pay a lot of money to work in a strip club. And if you don’t make it, you lose it. There are some nights that you go home with nothing. There are some nights that you go owing a house fee. That sh*t is called a house fee. Some house fees could be low—$50, maybe $80. And sometimes it could be as high as $200, and you might not make it back. It’s a gamble.
Are you in love?
Things are being a little shaky right now. It’s like the bigger I get, the less I have time for him. And then he notices that I’m changing.
It’s not that I’m becoming a b***h. I’m not becoming a diva. But I’m becoming a b***h in the sense that that I’m starting to hate a lot of things.
First of all, I’m away all the time, so I never have peace of mind. Sometimes I don’t have privacy. A lot of people don’t give a f**k if I go out looking like this [with no makeup or weave]. They still want a picture. They feel like they’re entitled to have it and I’ll still give it to them, but sometimes people do things in a real disrespectful way. A lot of people judge me, a lot of people call me whore.
Is this in person, like in real life?
No, not in real life. If someone called me that in real life, I’m poppin’ off. But you know, the things that I see in the media. That sh*t hurts my feelings and it makes me want to hate people.
What has your experience been with people of the industry? How do they receive you?
People receive me well, but I be thinking it’s mad fake. I know a lot of famous people be like, “Oh my God! Hi!” and this and that and, “I love you!” and I don’t feel like it’s real at all. I’m cordial, but I just don’t feel like it’s real, so I just really don’t care.
Hairstylist interjects: I’m around the majority of the time, when we’re meeting different people and different celebrities, and I don’t feel that the love is genuine. They just love who they see on the surface. They love the videos, they love when [Cardi B] makes them laugh. I don’t think they care about how she got here, why she got here, what was her struggle. I don’t think they care too much about that. I think they only love what they see.
I think your mixtape is kinda poppin’. Have you heard the same from others?
I’ve heard a lot of good things, actually.
Do you want people to take you seriously as a rapper? Do you have intentions of seriously pursuing music?
Everything I do, I take seriously. Everything, everything, everything. Everything I do takes me time. I don’t want people to think I became a rapper because I was on Love and Hip Hop. There are a couple of songs that are on the mixtape that I been did before Love and Hip Hop, it just wasn’t completely perfect. It wasn’t completely perfect and everything takes time. It took me like a year to complete the mixtape. Everything I do, it takes a lot of time for me to do it because only the best sells, you know? If you want people to take you seriously, you gotta do the best. For example, my eyeshadow line. I been planning, been talking about it for a year, and it still hasn’t released yet because it’s not the way I want it to be. It has to be extremely perfect. Only great things sell.
We can expect a full-length studio album?
Yes, I’m going to come out with it. And I’m about to go on tour.
Who do you want to work with?
I want to work with Fab, Lil Boosie and Uncle Murda.
Who was Cardi B five years ago, and who is she today?
Five years ago I was still working hard, just like I’m working today, but I envisioned so little for myself. I settled for so much less.
For example, when I was dancing I would tell myself, “I need to make $25,000 and I need to buy a house.” With that $25,000, I could make a down payment, rent that house down. Little by little, that sh*t would pay itself, then I’d buy another house. And I needed to start doing that before I’m 25. That’s how I was thinking about settling, just doing real estate like that. I was always into music. But I didn’t want to get into music because I didn’t want to put so much money and so much time into it and it don’t get picked up and me not get nowhere with it.
There’s thousands of rappers in New York and wanna-be rappers on top of that. What makes me think that out of all of them I’m going to make it? I always used to tell myself that I was never the type to be a dreamer. I’m the type to be realistic. Just tell people to be realistic. A lot of n***as is out here like, “I want to be a artist” and I be like, “Bro, you’ve been rapping for five years. Do something else.” But now I can tell people to follow their dreams because it might just happen. I would never think that I would get so much followers. Women with that many followers are big time super models.
People relate to you, especially when you peel back the stripper persona or whatever you want to call it. Even outside of that, you’re a woman of color moving in a world historically against what you represent, trying to make something out of nothing. And that’s a real story.
You know one thing that bothers me, and I really wanna let people know? A lot of people be like, “All these little b***hes want to be like Cardi B” or they wanna be like, “If Cardi B inspires you, you’re a hoe.” But I don’t think I inspire them to the point where they want to be dancers, though. I just feel like I influence people because I’m like—I was practically homeless. A lot of people think dancers don’t struggle. Yes we do. We struggle a lot. Not only mentally, but it’s not fun all the time. There are nights you could make two to three thousand dollars, and then there are nights you could leave owing money to the club. A lot of people don’t talk about that. So, I just let people know what it is. I think I inspire people because it’s like ,“Damn, if she did it…” Yo, I got crooked teeth, I’m hairy and it’s like, “If she could do it, I definitely could do it.”
You do a lot for your family. You take on a lot of burdens. What’s your escape?
Really just here. I don’t like to be by myself. This is my happy place. Here, with family. This is fun for me.
What do you like to eat?
Spanish food, Jamaican food. If I’m in New York, or Houston, I want to eat Spanish food or Jamaican food. Never fails me.
Do you have a specific work out regimen?
Nah. And now that you mention it, I have this little pouch and it makes me sad because I used to have a six pack when I used to dance. Now that I’m not working out on the pole or nothing, I’m getting out of shape. And knowing how my mom’s side of the family is shaped, it might get a little crazy.
Haha, I hear you. How long has it been since you danced?
October 11, on my 23rd birthday.
Hairstylist interjects: One thing that she told me was that in New York the men like Hispanic women, or really light skinned women, and the girls that weren’t getting the money were very dark skinned.
I can see that happening…
In New York, you will feel the racism.
Is that just here or have you noticed that in other places?
No, it’s mainly in New York believe it or not. N***as like light skinned b***hes everywhere, but it’s not like that everywhere. One of the most popular dancers in Atlanta or Down South, they’re [darker] or brown skinned. Over here, no. I used to work with four girls. One of them, she’s brown skinned and the comments that n***as would say… For example, “Are they your teammates? They make you look black.” It’s sad. And you can’t really flip on n***as. These are n***as are intoxicated, so I don’t ever really try to flip on n***as like that in the strip club. I’ve seen b***hes get smacked, snuffed, all that sh*t. You want to be a stripper? This is what you got to deal with.
Is there training?
Nope. You just learn as time passes.
Do you even hang out with industry folks?
I know that sometimes I have to, but I don’t think you’ll ever see me like taking pictures with one of these popular b***hes because I don’t really f**k with them like that. For me to get to know you, I have to be with you like almost every day. And then you could become my friend. Then I’ll consider you a friend.
Do you see yourself building a family, and maybe one day becoming a mother?
Hell yea, absolutely.
Finish the sentence: Dear Younger Self…
Follow your own way, your own path, do your own thing. Follow your dreams. Don’t look at somebody and be like, “Oh my god, I gotta do what she did.” Do what you do and make your own way.