Rainbow Rant: Megan Thee Stallion's Jelly Roll Blues

Joy Ellison
Megan Thee Stallion

Megan Thee Stallion says she’s looking for a girlfriend, and who can blame her? Moreover, who can be surprised that she is ready for love when she just dropped a four-minute bop extolling the pleasures of “wet ass p*ssy?”

I speak, of course, of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B.’s inescapable hit, "WAP."

"WAP" is hardly the first song to celebrate women’s sexuality in the general and specific. The "punani Dasani," to use Cardi’s phrase, has inspired many a lyrical turn. From Shakespeare to Salt-N-Pepa, plenty of poets and songwriters have written about how they want to shoop. But I see "WAP" as building off a more specific legacy: the queer performances of Black blues women.

During the Harlem Renaissance, a cadre of queer Black women commanded the same attention that Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion do today. They were spellbinding songstresses. The medium of their magic was the blues, and they courted controversy.

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Take Gladys Bentley, whose signature look was a white tuxedo and whose signature song included the lyrics, “Nothing perplexes like the sexes, because when you see them switch, you can’t tell which is which.” Bentley loved to replace the words of popular songs with ribald lyrics and even went so far as to flirt with women in the audience.

Ma Rainey, though, may have had Bentley beat. She wore suits, too, and sang in her song "Prove it on Me": “I went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must've been women, ‘cause I don't like no men. It's true I wear a collar and a tie. I like to watch the women as they pass by. They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me. They sure gotta prove it on me.”

Megan Thee Stallion reminds me most of Ma Rainey’s protégée, the incomparable Bessie Smith. Like Megan, Bessie Smith had dalliances with women and men and she loved to sing about what she called her Jelly Roll.

It’s not hard to imagine Megan spitting what Smith sang in her song "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine": “It's worth lots of dough, the boys tell me so. It's fresh every day. You'll hear 'em all say, don't be no dunce, just try it once.”

Or picture Megan rapping lines from Smith’s song "I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl": “I need a little sugar in my bowl, I need a little hot dog between my rolls. You gettin' different, I've been told. Move your finger, drop something in my bowl.”

Black feminist scholar and activist Angela Davis characterizes Bessie Smith’s songs, with all their artful innuendos, as stories of empowerment and freedom. She notes that the women Smith sang about “are clearly in control of their sexuality in ways that exploit neither their partners nor themselves.”

Empowerment and non-exploitative sexuality are the heart of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B.’s "WAP," as well. Are we really surprised that it’s a queer woman preaching that gospel?