I’ll start this article by saying that I’m a Cardi B fan. I, like most of the general public and the music industry, have been charmed by her charisma, her authenticity and her relatability. It helps that her music slaps. It’s raunchy, catchy and empowering for women, gay men and non-binary femmes around the world. She even became the first solo female rapper to win Best Rap Album, at the 2019 Grammys, for her debut album Invasion of Privacy. To say the least, Cardi B is an unstoppable force of nature in today’s music landscape. In late March 2019, Cardi B’s company, Washpoppin, Inc., filed an application to trademark the word & sound “Okurr”. “Okurr” was brought to mainstream popularity by the rapper and has since joined the pantheon of Cardi B catchphrases. The trademark would allow Cardi to sell merchandise using the phrase, and would essentially give her sole ownership of “Okurr” making it “officially” hers. This has generated some negative backlash towards Cardi, with many claiming that the phrase was never hers to begin with.
Let’s examine the history of “Okurr”. During a segment on her April 2018 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Cardi listed many of her favourite catchphrases, including “Okurr”, which she described as the sound made by a cold pigeon in New York City. The Jimmy Fallon episode made the phrase synonymous with the rapper, however, she was not the first celebrity to use it in a mainstream context. In fact, Khloe Kardashian and the remainder of the Kardashian-Jenner clan brought “Okurr” to the spotlight on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, before it became associated with Cardi. In a tweet following her Jimmy Fallon appearance, Cardi even admitted that her use of the word was inspired by the Kardashians.
However, the Kardashians have a long history of taking aspects of marginalised groups and passing them off as their own (remember when Kylie Jenner “invented” wigs?), so where did THEY get it from? Well, in 2014, Khloe Kardashian was a two-time guest judge on Season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Among the contestants judged by Khloe was Texan drag queen Laganja Estranja, who had an incessant habit of throwing around the phrase, you guessed it, “Okurr”.
Now, we get to the racist portion of the phrase’s history, because “Okurr” did not begin with Laganja Estranja. Let’s throw it back to 2010, when WHITE Broadway actress Laura Bell Bundy portrayed a character called Shocantelle Brown on her “comedic” YouTube web series. This character was undeniably a caricature of African-American women and black hair salon culture. While Bundy, a white woman, doesn’t appear in overt blackface, she wears an enlarged nose, speaks in African-American Vernacular English and exaggerates her head and hand movements. The video has become somewhat of a “cult hit” among the white gay community, who have a reputation for celebrating and enacting such caricatures of black women, and it’s possible that this is where Estranja got it from.
So, the phrase “Okurr” started off as a caricature of black women, and as the only black woman in the history of the popular use of the phrase, Cardi B has every right to reclaim it and take ownership of it, right? It might not be that simple.
Bundy appeared as a guest on RuPaul’s podcast “What’s The Tea?”, where she clarified that she wasn’t the originator of the phrase. Bundy stated that she first began using it when she played the lead role of Elle Woods in the 2007-2008 Broadway musical version of Legally Blonde. Bundy claimed that the phrase was part of backstage Broadway vernacular and that she just picked it up during her role. So, we’ve just spent the entirety of this article following the journey of this one word, from rap music, to reality television to YouTube and now to Broadway in New York City. Do you know what else is in New York City? The Underground Harlem ballroom scene.
The ballroom scene is a haven for black and brown members of the LGBTQ+ community to express themselves by walking balls, voguing and competing in various drag categories. It is a subculture that has been part of the very fabric of NYC since the 1980s, but it was brought to popular attention in the 1990s due to the documentary Paris Is Burning (go watch it, it’s on Netflix) and the Madonna song, Vogue. Not only were these extraordinary queer people of colour creating art whilst being shunned by the world, they originated many of the popular expressions used today (e.g. “yaaaaaas”, “throwing shade”, “spilling the tea” and “werk”). It doesn’t seem farfetched that the some version of “Okurr” would have percolated from the ballroom community into the Broadway community, especially since both contain high volumes of LGBTQ+ people. However, despite the iconic imprint that the ballroom community has made onto pop culture and modern vernacular, they are frequently paid dust and rarely credited for their influence. Even a queer television show like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which borrows heavily from ballroom culture, rarely remembers to cite its sources anymore. The show contains an enormous amount of ballroom references, but casual fans of the show will attribute these to RuPaul as opposed to the members of the ballroom community. Why are queer people of colour regularly made the stepping stones towards other people’s success but rarely afforded their own success and accolades? Modern Western culture was built by black and brown people’s influence, however, society is so used to disregarding these voices that it continuous to callously steals from them.
Maybe Cardi B had no business trademarking something that didn’t start with her, and that technically doesn’t belong to her, but that is only a superficial layer to the real problem. What really needs to be addressed is society’s consistent theft of the culture of the same queer black and brown people that it consistently oppresses.
By Khalid Hammad