'It's the way she owns her body': how Megan Thee Stallion rode to Grammys glory

Last week’s triple triumph capped the glorious rise of a rapper who has inspired a generation of women with her confidence and sublime talent

In 2014, a then-unknown Megan Thee Stallion tweeted: “I need a team [because] I promise this rap shit gone take off for me.”

That promise has been fulfilled in quite spectacular fashion. The 26-year-old, born Megan Jovon Ruth Pete, is now one of the world’s most famous and respected rap stars, with her three Grammy awards at last weekend’s ceremony marking the peak of her career thus far.

As well as winning one of the night’s “big four” awards – becoming the first female rapper this century to win best new artist – she is the first woman to win the best rap song category as lead artist. She shared her award with Beyoncé, who had joined Megan on the remix to Savage, a matter-of-fact statement of multifaceted womanhood. Billie Eilish meanwhile spent much of her winner’s speech trying to give her record of the year award away to Megan, repeatedly telling her: “You deserve this.”

Megan Thee Stallion perform at the American Music Awards in November 2020.
Megan Thee Stallion perform at the American Music Awards in November 2020. Photograph: American Broadcasting Companies,/AFP/Getty Images

That sentiment is shared by a generation of young women who regard Megan as an omnipotent figure. She has earned admiration for her rap flow, weighted with teeth-kissing technical mastery on top of the beat and rooted in the energetic club styles of the American south. Her punchline-rich lyrics are wittily self-confident, humiliating men for their sexual failings and dismissing female rivals as “bitches thinkin’ they the shit when they really toilet water.”

“Her cadence on records is phenomenal,” says Tiffany Calver, presenter of BBC 1Xtra’s Rap Show. “The lyricism and wordplay is amazing, but there’s just something so present about the way she is on a record, which hasn’t really been heard from anyone else, that consistently, in a really long time. She can take also records which have substance, but make them fun, so they can resonate with a larger audience. It’s not something that’s just pop and candyfloss.”

But it’s Megan’s self-styled “hot girl” image as a strutting monarch decreeing that every women is innately glamorous and sexually attractive – including those ignored by a narrow-minded and often racist mainstream – that has synthesised that admiration into adulation.

“You can just tell she’s confident in herself physically, and she’s sexually liberated,” says the British rapper Ms Banks, who has spent time with Megan in the UK. “That’s very relatable – you feel like she’s one of your homegirls. When women are seen to be sexually free [in music], it’s often for a man – in a guy’s video, with a nice car, and a girl next to him shaking her arse. But Megan is doing it for herself, in her own video.”

Megan began her rap career while studying at university in her native Texas, seeing off a crop of male rappers with a freestyle filmed on a Houston rooftop in 2013. She picked a statuesque artist name to match her 5ft 10in frame. “I’m tall as well,” says Ms Banks, “and seeing someone like her own her body the way she does, I never had that growing up. It’s epic.”

Breakthrough tracks like Big Ole Freak and Cocky AF situated her in the horny and uncompromising lineage of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown – as well, of course, as her confident male peers. “You can only rap about peace and Kumbaya and you’re supposed to be such a lady,” Megan complained in a 2018 interview. “I’m not scared to say what I want to do. If the boys can do it, we can do it too.” Calver compares her early years to a boxer in the ring, “just constantly jabbing. Every single time her lyricism was above the bar”.

The “hot girl” line became a meme that underpinned her first US Top 20 hit in 2019, Hot Girl Summer, its credo fleshed out in a tweet by Megan: “Being a Hot Girl is about being unapologetically YOU, having fun, being confident, living YOUR truth, being the life of the party etc,” she explained.

The mantra was further defined in Savage, in which Megan described herself as “classy, bougie, ratchet”: a chorus that announced she, and thus all women, could be sophisticated and trashy at the same time. It chipped away at the sexist binary of decorum and debauchery that women are often sorted into. Ms Banks agrees: “She shines a light on the fact that we can be all these things in one.”

It was only a matter of time before she worked with Cardi B, the chart-topping New York rapper whose talent, frankness and sexual appetite match hers. Their track WAP, an ode to vaginal fluid whose male characters are in constant danger of either asphyxiation or drowning, went to No 1 in both the US and UK last August. It caused a level of face-fanning moral panic that recalled Mary Whitehouse, with conservative pundits queueing up to decry this tale of female sexual pleasure.

The outrage continued this week after their performance of the song at the Grammys, with Candace Owens saying the performance heralded “a weakening of American society … the end of an empire”, and Tucker Carlson accusing the pair of “intentionally trying to degrade our culture and hurt our children”.

Ms Banks believes there are double standards at play around this tall, curvaceous Black woman: “You don’t mind a woman wearing a leotard with her arse out if she’s slim, but if she’s got a bit of a bum, now it’s more explicit. Why? And I do feel like there’s a racist undertone.” She says that while sexuality is a major part of Megan’s brand, her dance moves are misinterpreted by white critics. “Back home, all over Africa and the Caribbean, there’s aunties of all ages that wind up their hips and move their waists, and it has nothing to do with sex – it’s a part of the culture. But on a bigger stage, some people are offended by it.”

Megan’s championing of self-confidence, not to mention her philanthropy and advocacy for higher education, is far more valuable than talkshow chatter. She was able to weather a much more serious attack in July 2020 when she was injured by bullet shrapnel in her foot, later accusing Tory Lanez – a rapper with five US Top Five albums – of being the shooter. He was charged with assault and pleaded not guilty, with the case still ongoing.

On Instagram she explained that her fear of police brutality made her reticent to come forward, and then wrote a widely admired piece in the New York Times that discussed how misogyny entwines with racism and is brought to bear on Black women. She has since rapped about the trauma: “At war with myself / in my head, bitch, it’s Baghdad,” runs one lyric from her debut album Good News.

In refusing to be cowed by that incident, Megan showed that her message of robust self-belief wasn’t just about feeling confident in the bedroom or nightclub – it was something to underpin a woman’s life. “It’s the way she owns her body,” Ms Banks reiterates, summing up her appeal. “She’s the captain of her ship.”

Contributor

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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