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Bring a Bucket and A Mop for This WAP Discourse

Image by Ishita Uppadhayay

I knew ‘WAP’ was going to be controversial the minute I heard it. An overtly sexual song performed by two of today’s most popular women rappers? It would be strange if it didn’t receive backlash. However, I didn’t quite anticipate the sheer enormity of the discussions that erupted after its release. No Twitter or Instagram user was without an opinion.

Those critiquing the song ranged from rap fans to Republican congressional candidates, as ‘WAP’ cast a wide enough net to push the song’s influence beyond music and towards political and social spheres. It was too brazen, too outspoken, too uninhibited. Most commentators seemed unready for this boldness. Cardi and Megan’s lyrics spoke of things nobody wanted to hear. ‘WAP’ was said to have no depth: it was stupid, inappropriate.

Several retorts to this criticism emerged, but one that stood out was a video that circulated on Twitter. It’s audio was a compilation of more than 20 rap songs with explicit lyrics regarding female sexuality. Each song contained the same vivid sexual descriptions as ‘WAP’. The clip was about a minute long, but it didn't even begin to encapsulate the abundance of examples with similar lyrics. The message was clear: hip-hop often references women’s sexuality, and as a genre, it is just as vulgar as ‘WAP’.

While the video was illuminating, I believe this exercise in identifying vulgar lyrics was futile. Why? Because I just don't care about the subject matter of some parts of rap music. Whether or not rap is sexual is irrelevant. Sexuality is a dimension of life that is pervasive, normal, and fun. Music provides a creative avenue to explore sexuality, removing the cultural stigma surrounding it. Any artist making music about sexuality is well within their rights to do so, and should.

A more pressing issue, and what sometimes creates friction in our minds regarding the portrayal of female sexuality in hip-hop is female agency. Women’s bodies are rapped about and flaunted by male rappers who often otherwise display a disregard for women’s lives. This effectively reduces women to just their sexual characteristics. One doesn’t have to look far back into the past or the very niches of hip-hop in order to find this. Tory Lanez is the most recent example of a male rapper who simply does not care about the lives of women in hip hop. He was charged for shooting and injuring Megan Thee Stallion in a shocking display of violence. R. Kelly is yet another instance of a man in the hip hop industry who has routinely exploited women, and yet has used their sexuality in his music and received great praise (think ‘Ignition’ and ‘Your Body’s Calling’).

The lack of female agency regarding sexuality leads many to be upset at hip-hop as a genre. It’s easy to see how this conclusion is possible, but their anger is misguided. The issues within rap are also faced by the rest of society; they do not exist in rap alone. Solely criticising rap is not going to erase the sexism that occurs in other genres, or the fundamentally sexist structures in our society. Rather than blame the genre, we should amplify the music where women get to control the narrative about their sexuality.

The critique that ‘WAP’ is too vulgar raises some difficult questions. We might ask, who gets to decide what is inappropriate, and what standards do they utilise? The concept of vulgarity is shaped by religion, moral values, or cultural perception, thus making it dynamic and prone to biases. Nothing can be vulgar in a true sense. Attempts to define vulgarity usually end in unfair media censorship and a violation of the right to free speech.

If the song’s subject matter is not an anomaly within hip-hop, and it cannot be branded as vulgar, one argument remains: ‘WAP’ just doesn’t have a point. It has no meaning. But honestly, it doesn’t even need to have one. Music by women doesn't necessarily need to have a feminist agenda or deep significance in order to be valid. Music about female sexuality especially does not need to say something ground-breaking for it to exist. It is enough for Cardi and Megan to be expressing their desire, their love for their bodies, and their sensuality. For so long, sex appeal has been something women have, but men possess. ‘WAP’ has normalised the idea that women can talk about their sexuality for fun. It has given women back the conversations regarding their bodies.

The music of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion is usually sexual, celebratory and confident, something that was unusual within the music industry until very recently. When hip-hop ignores women, they make space for themselves. This is exactly what both rappers have done. They write music about their lifestyles in a way that is relatable to their listeners. In ‘WAP’, this means discussing simple things from a statement of their desires to fantasies about their sexual lives. Whatever you may dislike about the song, it took one week to be RIAA Certified Gold. It’s among one of the top three streaming debuts of all time. All Cardi and Megan had to do was make catchy, confident music for a hugely ignored demographic, and this they did exceedingly well.

While the negative reception of ‘WAP’ shows that the suppression of women’s sexuality is far from over, the song has shifted the Overton window regarding vulgarity. It has cemented the importance of women rappers in hip-hop. However you feel about the song, you cannot deny the power it possesses. Women are powerful. Our sexuality is powerful. No amount of moral-policing, Twitter opinions, or cultural antagonism can suppress that.

Edited by Malina Aniol, Sex and Relationships Editor, and Emma Short, Music Editor