Megan was photographed on March 16, 2020. Photographed by Colin Dodgson; Styled by EJ King.
Megan Thee Stallion had been feeling both the bliss and the sting of the Internet when we first met this past February, before most of America’s creative energy had to be channeled through a screen. The 25-year-old rapper from Houston is known to twerk for, share with, and vent to her more than 13 million followers on Instagram, and her twerking is so revered, there are regular tributes to her knees. They’ve been described as “revolutionary,” “bionic,” and “made of Valyrian steel.” (On YouTube, there’s a dance tutorial titled “How to Have Knees Like Megan Thee Stallion,” as if the answer isn’t simply: “Be Megan Thee Stallion.”) She can twerk on a boat or in a parking lot. On the stairs. At a gas station. In her kitchen in the middle of a pandemic. Her public persona is made for Instagram, a visual stage where artists like her can just be. But it’s also filled with people ready to pounce.
“It’s really mind-blowing to see the nasty things that people say to you. I don’t know if people think you not gon’ see it,” Megan said. It was a week before the release of her EP Suga, and she was perched on a couch in a suite at New York’s Sixty LES hotel, dressed in a Bape sweatsuit covered in amber flames, with straight jet-black hair and a dewy coating of makeup. Her French bulldog, 4oe (pronounced “Four”), trailed behind her, so hyper that Megan had her manager, T. Farris, escort him out. “I feel like just being an artist, waking up every day, voicing your own opinions is a risk... Just talking,” Megan said with a laugh. “Being real is a risk.”
Megan hadn’t even yet experienced a traumatic incident that would really put her at serious risk, in more ways than one. Reports state that early on July 12, Megan was in a car with the rapper Tory Lanez (it was not made public who else was in the car) when she was shot in both feet. She was treated at a hospital, though details of what had happened remained unclear. Two days after the shooting, Megan chose to update her fans in a post on Instagram, where she explained that she had “suffered gunshot wounds, as a result of a crime that was committed against me and done with the intention to physically harm me.” Despite the gravity of the news, memes that made light of the shooting swiftly spread online. Chrissy Teigen and 50 Cent were among those who made insensitive jokes and later apologized. “Black women are so unprotected & we hold so many things in to protect the feelings of others w/o considering our own,” Megan wrote a few days later on Twitter. “It might be funny to y’all on the internet and just another messy topic for you to talk about but this is my real life and I’m real life hurt and traumatized.”
Waves of support outweighed the noise—Beyoncé and Rihanna sent Megan well wishes, and people like Janelle Monáe called out the “silence around the VIOLENCE (verbally and physically) against black women.” Both Monáe and Megan hit on a somber reality: that if a hip-hop star with such remarkable power and control can't feel protected, the music industry is desperately in need of work.
Before experiencing the darkness of the Internet, Megan had largely felt its embrace. This spring, as the world adapted to the demands of a global health crisis, her impeccably suave single “Savage” and its viral dance—created by 19-year-old Keara Wilson—sparked joy across the Web. The ensuing “Savage” challenge made Megan what one might call a “quarantine queen.” As the dance quickly spread, TikTok exploded with videos from users rushing to mime the moves attached to adjectives in the chorus: “Classy. Bougie. Ratchet / Sassy. Moody. Nasty.” Jessica Alba offered a half-hearted hip-swing. Ashley Tisdale performed a giddy rendition. The Biebers did a goofy duet. In her own home video, Megan preempted the familiar routine with—what else?—a twerk. By midsummer, the “Savage” remix—which featured another pretty good rapper from Houston, Beyoncé—had landed Megan her first No.1 single during what many were experiencing as the worst of times.
Megan’s momentum, which had been building for around three years in Houston, where Megan grew up, exploded in 2019 with the release of Fever, a mixtape of up-tempo affirmations that proved she had the writing chops, voice, sex appeal, and DIY marketing skills to become a pop-culture powerhouse. The level of confidence Megan emanates through her music is intoxicating and calls to mind the uninhibited brashness of the early-2000s star Trina: Megan similarly encourages women to be reckless and fun while holding men accountable.
Through the power of dance, Megan has built a base of enthusiasts—her Hotties, an extension of her Hot Girl Meg persona—that turned her “Hot Girl Summer” refrain into a movement last year. The Hotties are handy in times of need. Two days after our initial interview, Megan went on Instagram Live to call out her record label, 1501 Certified Entertainment, for refusing to renegotiate a contract she had signed years before. “So now they tellin’ a bitch that she can’t drop new music. It’s really just, like, a greedy game,” she said in the video. “All I wanna do is put out music.” Fans rallied, sparking the campaign #FreetheStallion. After a Texas judge ruled in her favor a few days later, Megan wrote in an Instagram post, “I will stand up for myself,” and “I am no one’s property.” (Megan now has a deal with the independent label 300 Entertainment.) The drama has passed, but the sentiment remains. Months later, Megan teared up while live-streaming via Instagram and gave a special shout-out to fans for supporting her after the shooting. “I saw the Hotties doing a lot of things, like writing letters on Tumblr and DM-ing me all the time,” she said. “I just wanna say thank y’all so much, ’cause y’all really been the ones that been helping me get through this.”
Maintaining control has been a long-standing issue for artists in the music business—historically more so for women rappers, who face being exploited not just contractually but also for their looks and sexuality. Megan pushes for autonomy. “A lot of times a lot of stuff is still happening where people do try to control your image; they try to put together a plan for you. But I have a lot of freedom,” she said, noting that she directed her video for “Captain Hook,” a song on Suga. “Anything you see that’s Megan Thee Stallion, that’s something that Megan Thee Stallion did.”
On a Zoom call from Los Angeles in June, Megan stood in the same kitchen where she debuted her version of the “Savage” challenge on Instagram. Dressed in a graphic anime sweatshirt embellished with juicy red lips, from her collaboration with Crunchyroll, she raised one leg in the air to prove she wasn’t bottomless. (She was wearing boy shorts.) “I’m not an introvert,” she said, “but I do like to sit down and take some time to myself.” During her time in quasi-isolation, Megan wrote, recorded, and released another of her vigorously immodest anthems, “Girls in the Hood,” which samples the N.W.A. classic “Boyz-N-The Hood.” She got another dog, named Dos, and by the last time we spoke she’d made over 20 songs for her debut full-length album. For the BET Awards in June, she beamed a fantasy of Mad Max-inspired leather and hot shorts into viewers’ living rooms, in a virtual performance video set in the desert. She also performed a spirited ballroom version of “Savage” on the finale of the HBO show Legendary, for which she served as a judge, and scored a deal as a brand ambassador for Revlon. And in true coup fashion, she released a duet with Cardi B, “WAP,” a libidinous collaboration that puts women rappers on track to dominate the charts.
“I love the fact that I have a voice, and I love the fact that I do inspire a lot of girls, and I didn’t realize it at first. I was just being me,” Megan had told me back in New York. “Some of the things I say, I realized that some women might really wanna say them. So I just keep all of these things in the back of my mind when I’m writing. I’m not gon’ say I feel pressure, but sometimes I will get a little tingly because I just want to put out the best music for my fans as possible. I don’t like to disappoint them. So when I’m recording, I’m super hard on myself. I’m just always like, Okay, I need to go harder than that. I’ll write and rewrite a verse about eight times.”
Megan learned the fundamentals of rap from her mother, Holly Thomas, who passed away from a cancerous brain tumor last year. Thomas was a rapper known as Holly-Wood in their South Park neighborhood. As early as pre-K, Megan would eavesdrop on her mom’s studio sessions while buried in a coloring book. “She had a regular job, too, but I would see her get off work and then come home and write. I thought everybody’s mom was writing and being a rapper, ’cause I didn’t really hang out with other kids,” Megan said. “I only hung out with my mom and my grandma and my dad and my cousins. But when I saw her writing, it just really inspired me to do the same thing.”
During the Kesha years of pop, when Megan was a teenager, few Black women rappers topped mainstream charts until Nicki Minaj, a flamboyant, self-professed rapping Barbie, came along. “I had never heard a woman rapping that hard before. So it just instantly drew me to her,” Megan said. “I was a freshman in high school, and me and all my friends were definitely jamming a lot of Nicki Minaj, and then, boom, Cardi B came out and it was like, Oh, shit, another girl rapping.” (Megan collaborated with Minaj on “Hot Girl Summer” last year.)
Megan later backtracked and discovered Lil’ Kim and Eve, who coincidentally rapped about being a “brick house stallion.” (Megan’s alias originates from the fact that an older man in her neighborhood had called her a stallion.) She had heard about Lil’ Kim through her mom, but growing up, Megan’s favorite rappers were the Notorious B.I.G. and UGK’s Pimp C. “I got old enough and realized that I needed to go back and do my homework,” she said. “I fell in love with Kim because she’s so raunchy and raw. She has bars, metaphors, but it’s still hard, and she doesn’t have a squeaky little voice. I don’t have a squeaky voice. My voice is pretty commanding. My first time looking at Eve, it was like, Oh my God, this lady is just supersexy. She was smooth, sensual. I just felt like that was my vibe.”
In the tradition of the Lil’ Kims, Trinas, and Missy Elliotts, Megan has always taken the liberty of being explicit in her songs. (“I’ma make him eat me out while I’m watching anime” is just one lyric on “Girls in the Hood.”) “I feel like I’m just naturally kinda like a sexy person. Like, I’m not trying to be. But now it’s, like, a public thing,” Megan said. “And I’m always dancing. I always got on shorts. So it’s like, ‘Look at her, dancing again.’ Well, I was gon’ do that anyway…” The video for “B.I.T.C.H,” another single from Suga, finds her in a hot tub twerking in a studded thong swimsuit. “Twerking was supposed to be a thing that was sneaky fun—like, bad,” she said. “And now it’s a thing where it’s supernormal, it’s very casual, you see everybody doing it.” Still, it’s not a dance everyone can do, and it is significant to see a Black woman reclaiming such a provocative art form, after the era of mainstream twerking sanitized and twisted its origin. “Let me say this: Different body types offend different people. So if you are maybe smaller, twerking doesn’t come off as offensive, but when you got the assets,” Megan said with emphasis, “then that’s when it comes off as, Oh my God, what the hell is going on? It becomes a sexual thing. But I can’t help it that I got this body. I’ma twerk, and it’s gon’ look this way, and it might be offensive to you because I look like this, but I can’t help it. And I don’t care. I don’t care that you feel that way.”
To say that the pulse of the Internet has changed in a matter of months is an understatement. At the time of our Zoom conversation, Black Lives Matter protests were still erupting across the country. “The moment does feel different because it feels bigger—people have been able to hide a lot of racism, but now that we have social media, we see everything,” Megan said, referring to the video of a white woman threatening to call the police on a Black bird-watcher in New York’s Central Park. “You know, anything can go viral, so I really like how we’re able to catch these people doing these disgusting things and put ’em on blast, and people are getting fired from their jobs. You getting your scholarship taken away from whatever school you thought you was about to go to. It’s like, Yeah, we see you. You like to be disgusting in private, so let us show you how to keep that same energy in public. I like that we get to call everybody out now.”
For Megan, posting about the movement on social media was a given, but it also brought up its own frustrations. “Why would you not speak out, or why would you not do everything you could to make a change if you know this is just wrong, in general? I shouldn’t have to tell you how to fix racism. I shouldn’t have to tell you not to be racist. I shouldn’t have to tell you how to help us,” she said. “Like, you should just genuinely feel that way. The color of your skin does not dictate the function of your brain.”
Earlier this year, Megan had plans to go on tour, where a favorite thing to do was pour liquor straight from a bottle into people’s mouths for a trick she calls “driving the boat.” With limited in-person access to fans, she’s devising Plan B’s and C’s. At the time of our call, she was considering doing parking lot performances where fans could watch her rap and dance from their cars. “I feel like right now, you just cannot forget to be happy,” Megan said, growing fidgety in front of her laptop. “It’s all this bad going on. You just really have to remember, What did I like to do? What makes me smile? Dancing really makes me smile, and I know dancing makes a lot of people happy. That’s my outlet. That’s the way I express myself. Whatever you want to do to stay positive, do that.”
Clover Hope is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her debut book, The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop (Abrams), will be published in February 2021.