Originally published on the Library of Arabic Literature blog, republished with permission.
In this article, Rachel Schine, author of the blog “Lyric Poets,” writes about ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād and what his poetry has in common with the lyrics of Cardi B. She notes: “The artist and essayist Max King Cap has said that one’s identity is ‘neither prescriptive nor proscriptive; it doesn’t dictate or disallow.’ Thoughtful art, according to him, embodies this principle, yet, when I was invited to write a comparison between the half-black (hajīn) ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād and a contemporary rapper (more likely than not to be a person of color), I was initially apprehensive that I would be making it look like ‘Antarah’s identity was indeed prescriptive, and that it dictated his comparability with other literary figures. I hope to convince you otherwise and show some of the uses of comparing Classical Arabic poetry with contemporary rap.”
According to legend, when the pre-Islamic warrior poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād ran into his first battle, he did so screaming “I am the half-blood ‘Antarah!” He has since earned a reputation as the epitome of the underdog hero. If we believe his semi-fantastic biography, ‘Antarah metamorphoses through sheer grit and prowess from a half-Ethiopian slave spurned by his free Arab father and tribe into an elite warrior, bringing his kin sizeable quantities of booty in war and a commensurate profusion of honor. ‘Antarah’s empowerment is, of course, staked on his extreme capacity for violence, making unambiguous the connection between bloodshed and socioeconomic gain in his world. Once socially redeemed, though, violence still never leaves ‘Antarah—he keeps fighting until old age and infirmity set in, which, according to the Kitāb al-Aghānī, made for thin final years because he could no longer go on raids.
For ‘Antarah, violence is no simple means to an end. His pugnacity not only bootstraps him out of his birth station but also becomes his noble prerogative once he has become well-to-do. This emerges in lines from his diwan like, “Clad in the garb of Yemen’s kings, a long coat of mail, rippling like the sea, I wielded a keen white blade, answering War’s touch with slash and cut […],” and is distilled in a sentence from ‘Antarah’s biography, which asserts “slaves don’t attack,” because it is the honor and privilege of the free. War-making is also the focal point of the conspicuous consumption in ʿAntarah’s poetry through which he signals his material success, as he accouters himself only with the finest swords and armor, the sturdiest steed whom he feeds with rich milk (much to the chagrin of his wife with a camel-milk craving, in one poem), and imported spears, even as he lives the otherwise sparse life of a desert-wearied soldier. This is, of course, because in ‘Antarah’s context amid the pre-Islamic Bedouin culture of the Najd highlands, warfare and raiding was not only necessary but also glorified. Folks accessorized accordingly.
‘Antarah’s attitude toward violence is rather similar to one of the credos that repeats itself often in rap: you have to scrap to get to the top, and once you’re there, the use of violence and aggression endures as a divine mandate of the elect—it’s a way of preserving one’s status, to be sure, but also something the successful use and flaunt because they can. This is a powerful symbolic inversion of the deprivation that the black artists who dominate the genre experienced before they attained high status, and moreover it often harkens to the collective oppression experienced by black Americans across history. In this vein, wealth sometimes itself becomes a metaphor for violence and exploitation: in Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire,” the line “[a] brand new whip for these n****s like slavery” plays on the double meaning of “whip” as both a lash and a luxury car, and renders his ostentatious display of wealth a historically poignant cudgel against those beneath him.
The biggest and most buzzed-about rap anthem of 2017 deals cleverly with the overlap between violence and status. Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” chronicles her journey from working as a stripper to becoming a reigning queen of hip-hop. The video for the song (perhaps not coincidentally) is one of the most Orientalist music videos I have ever had the perverse delight of watching, but there isn’t room to discuss it here. Reading Cardi’s lyrics alongside ‘Antarah’s verses, violence emerges in the two as tightly linked with material gain in a complex and often ambivalent way, echoing the privileges and burdens of upstarts. The lucre described in Cardi’s lyrics drips with figurative blood, both a marker of triumph and of warning. Meanwhile, ‘Antarah’s verses are frequently caught between a soldier’s austerity and a braggart’s lavishness, and at times the two mingle together in eerie ways, such that in almost the same breath, ‘Antarah’s hand brings both rain, that is charity, and death. All of this conveys much about ‘Antarah and his society, in which men were expected to be both resolute and open-handed, and in which the link between the two was consummated through ghazwah, or inter-tribal raiding.
I’m a Boss, You a Worker
Here’s the video for Cardi’s song—if you haven’t seen it yet (and seriously where have you been?), you should watch it now:
And here are the lyrics: https://genius.com/Cardi-b-bodak-yellow-lyrics
Cardi B, née Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar, grew up poor in the Bronx, and is now one of the most successful female rappers currently in the game (“I used to live in the P’s, now it’s a crib with a gate”). Apropos of this, Cardi’s song is a boastful ode (fakhr, if you’ll indulge me) to her own class ascent—she no longer needs to “dance,” which is to say strip, because now she has a real cash flow and can pursue her own financial interests freely, also known as making “money moves.” The oblivion this produces sets in immediately—now that Cardi’s on top, she looks down her nose at those beneath her, guarding her property from them (“you can’t f*ck with me if you wanted to, these expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes”) and putting them in their place (“I’m a boss, you a worker, b*tch, I make bloody moves”). A similar sort of denial of double consciousness comes through in ‘Antarah’s poems, in lines where he speaks admiringly of a foe by remarking on how they do not comport themselves like slaves, calls one of his enemies a bastard child (ibn laqīṭah), or boasts of serving up wine to people who have never shown weakness or false pretense, i.e. the “high-born and brave” (laysū bi-ankās wa-lā awghāl). It is hard not to see a vision of a champagne room, or perhaps a scene of palatial ṭarab, in Montgomery’s rendering,
I’ve served wine
To high-born and brave
With a flicker of shyness
In their eyes,
White as the marble
Effigies of goddesses
Both Cardi and ‘Antarah treat their lowly pasts with a similar disinterest, evincing little sympathy for the folks who fail to pull themselves up out of similar conditions. They transform words like “worker,” “slave,” and “bastard,” their own former labels, into watchwords for their superiority. For ‘Antarah, this is especially embodied in his ability to woo white-skinned women, previously precluded by his slave status; the first line of poetry he recites about his future wife, ‘Ablah, in his sīrah speaks of her fairness (wa-bayḍā’) before all else.
The premising of this fresh superiority on the capacity to do harm to others is patent in Cardi’s lyrics, as when she switches from the refrain “I make money moves” to “I make bloody moves.” For Cardi, the use of violent language is part of a performance of power that relates not only to her class, but to her gender, and she playfully dresses up her threats in feminine attire while also mainly addressing female competitors throughout the song. Such maneuvers are far from new among female rappers. In his essay, “Caricature and Obscenity in Mujūn Poetry and African-American Women’s Hip-Hop,” Adam Talib amply demonstrates that male rappers (and their medieval Arab counterparts) have no monopoly on the obscene, and that women rappers will intentionally appropriate the language of masculine prurience—which tends to idealize uneven, violent, or humiliating sexual relationships—to articulate their own desires, wearing terms like “b*tch” and “hoe” as badges of honor and fantasizing openly about sexually dominant men, thus, “parody[ing] the mainstream, hypersexual male paradigm” of the genre; this is no less true with violence. In the song’s most recurrent image, Cardi makes a particularly eloquent parodic stroke, taking something typically viewed as an extremely feminine accessory—high-heeled shoes, which in the music video are an especially vertiginous and glossy pink confection, with the classic Louboutin cherry-red sole—and imbues it with violent significance. The shoes are “bloody,” a reference not only to their famous red-lacquered bottom but also to the pools of blood Cardi stands in after besting her competition. In another line, Cardi parrots a masculine articulation of sexual desire, reframing it as a violent assertion, saying, “if you a p**** you get popped,” in reference to 2 Live Crew’s song, “Pop that P****.” Reformulated as an if-then statement and voiced by a woman, though, the meaning of p**** morphs here from female genitalia into a weak man, and “pop” transforms from a thrusting motion into a fatal gunshot wound. No longer a stripper, Cardi won’t be popping her p**** any more, instead, she can now credibly threaten to cut down any man–or woman–she likes.
Iced-over watches and designer shoes may not be staples of ‘Antarah’s knightly stomping grounds, but his poetry nonetheless plays similarly with the relationship between extravagance and violence, often in the reverse direction—rather than lucre being coated in blood, his gored military accoutrements and the bodies of his enemies instead evoke finery, as in,
I turned my wounded horse
His flanks shredded by arrows
His halter red with blood
Like the fringes of a rug.
The mount’s bloodied halter here here seems like the fringes of a qirām, a type of red wool textile that famously appears in the following hadīth: ‘Ā’isha puts up a qirām embellished with figures (fīhā tamāthīl) in a place that is in Muḥammad’s line of sight during prayer, and he asks that it be removed (whereupon she makes a few cushions out of it). Elsewhere, ‘Antarah’s sword glitters with such radiance that women would forget to ornament themselves when faced with its luster,
My soul has been mired
The blade’s glister
Would make you forget
All your henna
And your kohl
In yet another line, the gored head of a fallen enemy has hair that appears darkened as if dyed with indigo; rivers of blood streaming from enemies’ chests resemble jiryāl, a reddish-gold dye. In an earlier blog for the LAL site, Paul Cooper comments on the starkness of ‘Antarah’s world, a desert awash in flame. And yet, verses such as those indicated above ironically transform ‘Antarah’s unforgiving battlefield into an almost lush space, well-appointed with vividly-colored, gleaming objects—true to Montgomery’s idea that in the diwan reality is constantly being “transformed and mutilated and metamorphosed.” The transformation of weaponry into an adorned bride or of guts into bright tinctures play on the finer things (including lovely ladies) that ‘Antarah and his men have left behind during their raiding, and perhaps also on the ennobling, fruitful nature of raiding itself. Moreover, these references render ‘Antarah as a regal figure in his desert domain—a sovereign of the battlefield, per the earlier reference to his chain mail being like that of Yemen’s kings. That wealth is only ever vaguely hinted at in scenes otherwise dominated by war and struggle permits very little luxuriating on ‘Antarah’s part. Instead, the hustle always continues: he satirizes his brothers for getting fat while their true instruments of power and prestige—their camels—grow thin. The reward of choice food comes to ‘Antarah only after “nights twisted in hunger.” Despite her comparative density of references to enjoying things like diamonds, designer clothes, and fancy cars, Cardi echoes ‘Antarah’s sentiments about hard work, saying that her hard-earned wealth is a cut above the money given to other women by their “baby fathers.” Cardi has “no time to chill,” using her wealth to pay her family’s bills and continuing to produce music at a pace few can match. Rather than stopping to bask, ‘Antarah and Cardi revel in the crucible of their respective labors.
In keeping with this work ethic, ‘Antarah visibly grapples in his poetry with the extent to which he cares for the things money and prestige can afford—in his “golden ode,” or mu‘allaqah, he elaborately describes the bottle of fine wine he drinks at twilight, “paid for with minted gold” (bi-l-mashūf al-mu‘lam), and sipped “from a streaked yellow glass/strained from a gleaming jug/held fast in my hand.” And yet, when battle comes a few lines later, he declines the spoils, motivated only by the fight itself. He affirms elsewhere he’s no slave to desire. Nonetheless, grand displays of generosity—which necessarily require having a surplus of things to give—remain of immense value to ‘Antarah, and act as one of his answers to anyone who would denigrate him for his blackness:
Fools may mock my blackness
But without night there’s no day!
Black as night, so be it!
But what a night
Generous and bright! (khaṣā’ilī bayāḍun wa-min kaffayya yustanzalu al-qaṭru)
All the paltry ‘Amrs and Zayds
My name has eclipsed.
I am the Lord of War!
‘Antarah’s whiplash-quick transition from impressing with his bounteousness to impressing with his pugnacity—he is the Lord of War!—serves as a reminder that ‘Antarah affords others wellbeing through two major means, proffering his possessions and defending with his sword. In so doing, he also dwarfs the efforts of others (all the ‘Amrs and Zayds), imperiling their pride of place. This hearkens to a similar statement made by Cardi B towards the end of her song (balāghah nerds, take note of the jinās tamm):
I need to fill up the safe,
I need to let these hoes know
That none of they n****s is safe
Here, money and security are intertwined at a few different levels: Cardi mentions needing to “fill up her safe,” placing her wealth in a guarded place. Cardi shoring up her own wealth has an inversely proportional effect on the comfort of others—she threatens that nobody’s man is safe, because her wealth has made her a threat to would-be emcees and has afforded her the liberty to use and pursue people and pleasure as she wishes. Articulating this idea in terms of a general lack of male safety reverses the dynamics of Cardi’s prior work as a stripper, in which one lives or dies by how well they compete for wealth given predominantly by male patrons. True to this reversal, Cardi’s whims are fleeting. If we recall the chorus, she states that she’s quick to cut people off, and cautions them not to “get comfortable” in their relationships with her. In a testament to their respective power, both ‘Antarah and Cardi assure us that they can give, but they can also take away.
In a recent essay, feminist writer and culture critic bell hooks warns against the glorification of violent acts in popular culture, even if they come from an unexpected and often subjugated source, saying: “Contrary to misguided notions of gender equality, women do not and will not seize power and create self-love and self-esteem through violent acts. Female violence is no more liberatory than male violence.” And yet, the appeal of violence-as-vindication is unmistakable, and its luster is an ancient one. We might say that the same, somewhat lizard-brained impulse to exult in depictions of gleeful vengeance is a big part of the positive reception enjoyed by the legendary warrior poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād, in whom we find the ultimate narrative of vindication against haters as he goes from a shunned figure to one universally recognized, admired, and feared.
For ‘Antarah and Cardi B alike, such prestige is a thing that must be earned and aggressively maintained. However, it’s not until ‘Antarah and Cardi begin winning victories—be they in war or in the studio—that their threats start to acquire real significance. In this fashion, literal and figurative bloodlust pave the path of their social ascent and become their recognized purview once they have “arrived.” This arrival entails a certain amount of other benefits, too—the luxury of arrogance, of wealth, of being able to threaten and to take and to control with relative impunity. Perhaps this is all deserved, and perhaps we should yield to our impulses and let ourselves fall in love with what Peter Cole calls the “action-hero or rapper-like over-the-topness” of ‘Antarah’s boasts (I know I have). But perhaps we can also hold in mind the classed and/or raced anxiety that dogs both Cardi’s and ‘Antarah’s works and that is betrayed by their pretensions to limitlessness—an anxiety that Peter Cole points out in his beautiful introduction to War Songs. To again paraphrase bell hooks, both texts, in their own way, glamorize harsh and often contradictory worlds in which high status is at worst unattainable and at best ephemeral for the preponderance of folks that start out where ‘Antarah and Cardi did. This truth can only deepen our appreciation for the fact that ‘Antarah, ever exceptional, has had a unique capacity to transcend, to illuminate, and now, to get stuck in all of our heads (once you unstick “Bodak Yellow,” of course—sorry, not sorry).
Rachel Schine is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Her current research focuses on the relationship between race and the representation of black heroes in the popular sīrahs, a corpus of medieval legendary conquest literature in which ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād receives what we might call the Hollywood treatment (absent Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, though, who nearly brought ‘Antarah to the silver screen). When she is not writing her dissertation, she’s tweeting about it here. She also muses occasionally about the connections between Classical Arabic poetry and contemporary hip-hop/rap on her blog.