I couldn’t go forward with blogging about sexual politics in hip hop this year without touching on the ongoing controversy surrounding Iggy Azalea, hip hop’s new and unlikely pop star. The criticism around the Australian rapper has been a long time coming, considering her racial identity as a white woman with a curious habit of rapping in a Southern American accent. But commentary on Azalea’s brand went through the roof after fellow rapper Azealia Banks called her out during a famous interview with the Hot 97’s Ebro, Peter Rosenberg and Laura Stylez.
It was a great interview, and I appreciated a lot of what Banks had to say. Still, I don’t have an issue with Iggy Azalea in the pointed way that Banks does. I have an issue with the black and white people in the music industry who possess influence and resources that enabled Azalea to appropriate (and rise to commercial success in) American hip hop culture.
Banks made some brilliant points throughout the interview, most notably for her comments that white hip hop artists like Azalea (and Macklemore, for the record) have been producing work not worthy of the industry accolades they’ve received. More than that, there’s other black artists that are more deserving of the awards and attention than they are. Azalea’s sweeping commercial success symbolizes centuries of white people co-opting customs in expression, philosophy and labor practices created by marginalized people of color. Banks was right. Giving such an overwhelming amount of attention to white people engaging in black music sends the message that young people of color won’t be as widely celebrated for their own artistic creations.
But then Banks’ interview set off a shitstorm of intervening responses from fans of both Azalea and Banks to Azalea herself to Anonymous, the hactivist group, to Q-tip (I’m a fan but I really don’t know how he involved himself in this beef) to T.I., Azalea’s mentor and business partner, and back to Banks again. It was all a drawn out exchange of genuine concerns and historical facts muddied by insults, threats and emotional tweets. The controversy had stretched to all the nooks and crannies of Internet, and many who shared Banks’ frustration appeared bent on placing their discontent squarely at Azalea—and not on imbalanced marketing practices as well as the people behind the scenes in the music industry that have placed Azalea into her poorly-assigned role in contemporary hip hop power dynamics.
I was fascinated to read about Clear Channel awarding certain music artists over others with mass distribution in their “On the Verge” program. It turns out that it was the secret behind Azalea’s success for “Fancy” last summer. The program is designed so that a group of program directors vets hundreds of songs from various formats to choose one that will get over a 150 spins on each of the radio giant’s 840 stations (equaling to about 245 million listeners a month). There’s no formal method to choosing the song, nor is there a formula for sociopolitical diversity on the panel of judges that decide on these songs. It’s all based on the “quality of the music” and it has the power to catapult the career of an artist who is chosen over another who isn’t. Considering that Azalea’s song was chosen over other artists with arguably “higher quality” beats and bars, we have to assume that there’s something awry with Clear Channel’s artist selection strategy.
Other artists’ contributions to the conversation have been just as fascinating (and disappointing). It was natural for T.I. to feel compelled to say something as Azalea’s friend and mentor. But every time he’s spoken out about this, he comes off as a babysitter eager to hear himself talk. Either he throws threats and insults at the other party or he babbles on foolishly about how black people are “paranoid” about having our art stolen. He’s also upheld the ridiculous idea that Azalea’s critics are hypocrites for pushing against a white artist engaging with black music in ways that are reminiscent of how blacks have been alienated from historically white cultural institutions.
I have many problems with this. Just as black people can’t be racists because racism is an institution that only favors and empowers white people, critics of Azalea can’t be called hypocrites because our artistic and cultural expression aren’t on a level playing field with our white counterparts.
will.i.am. was another celebrity who confounded me by his commentary on Azaleagate. He claimed that people shouldn’t be making the issue about race, but ethics, and that the white girl should be allowed to have her fun. But I don’t understand how you could separate race from ethics in a conversation about cultural borrowing.
I find the celebrities sympathizing with Banks (and Banks herself) just as annoying. True, Q-tip’s address to Azalea on Twitter was chock full of valuable information on the adverse effects of war on black manhood and their ability (or inability) to provide and serve as pillars of strength for their families in 1970s America. But here’s the problem with open letters: they’re narcissistic attempts at gaining attention and relevance off of the name of another public figure or phenomenon as opposed to being a sincere, informative exchange that is delivered with grace and discretion. If Q-tip really wanted to impact Azalea’s understanding of hip hop’s power dynamics, he should have closed his monologue by explaining that lesser-known artists who are critical of Azalea’s work don’t lack commercial success because they have a bad attitude. Mainstream success comes down to whom has the physical features and socioeconomic narrative that is deemed more marketable (and sympathetic) than others.
And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Ebro can do some serious tap-dancing when know one is paying attention. I’m sure you’ve seen his interview with Banks by now, but did you peep his chat with Azalea and his morning crew in Spring 2014, a couple months before this shit hit the fan? Ebro was down and disturbed by Azalea’s capitalizing of the hip hop industry during Banks’ interview. But when Azalea was in the studio it was nothing but cotton candy and unicorns. The Hot 97 Morning Show bubbled over her like pre-teens at a Jonas Brothers concert. Ebro even went as far as saying that he was “impressed” by Azalea’s artistry. Can somebody say star struck?
The irony of T.I., will.i.am., Lupe Fiasco, Q-tip and Ebro’s preoccupation with Azalea is that she has created an entire brand around emulating the physique, the dance moves and the vocal register emblematic of black womanhood and sexuality to spike the enthusiasm and support of the black male celebrities. If you think I’m salty about this, you’re right on the money. There is a white girl out here making some serious racks off of a brand that is modeled after the contours of my ass and I’ll never see a penny for it. Why is it that a black woman’s body is so much more fashionable when a white woman is wearing it? People can glorify her performance of blackness as drag if they want to, but her songs and ghettoized manner of presenting herself boils down to white appropriation every time.
I’m hesitant to take blame away from Azalea because that insinuates that she shouldn’t be held accountable for capitalizing on her bogus façade in a music industry grounded in authenticity. Honestly, I don’t expect much from Azalea because she appears rather dim and aloof by way of the offensive and socially tone-deaf public statements she’s made on current affairs affecting black life. I also won’t hold Azalea accountable to sharing her success with black female emcees who have been grinding longer and harder than she has in this game because unfortunately, Azalea doesn’t have to (and we shouldn’t necessarily expect her to). That would be the same as expecting Lena Dunham to share the resources she’s gained on her sprint to stardom with Issa Rae. It would be nice, but we all know it’s not going to happen.
However, I do expect more from the likes of T.I., will.i.am. because whether we like it or not, who they support in the hip hop game makes waves in the industry simply because they’re (black) men. I’m sure T.I. could have given a plethora of other black female artists he’s met over the years the platform that Iggy has, and I find it hard to believe that he hasn’t met other black women worthy of his sponsorship or that he didn’t understand the impact such an act would have had on the hip hop industry. Why hasn’t he done this?
If hip hop culture erases the narratives, skills and talents of its black women by marginalizing us from larger platforms, it renders us as invisible, insignificant and therefore unworthy of protecting. It appears that all of the players involved—with the exception of Banks—are indifferent to how Azalea’s white womanhood gives her the privilege of being defended by others when people disrespect her unlike her female black contemporaries. I find it hard to believe that Snoop Dogg would have apologized to Iggy Azalea after hurling insults at her on social media if she were a black woman, given Snoop’s lyrical history. I find it hard to believe that T.I. would have rushed to Azalea’s rescue in these situations if she were a black woman given T.I.’s history with Banks.
Articulating white appropriation (and accusing people of doing it) is difficult because we live in a creative age that thrives off of collaboration and remixes. How do we hold people accountable for stealing from each other when we’ve become so used to borrowing from each other? It’s a fine line that all of us have to be wary of, white and black. I’m here for non-black people engaging with hip hop and creating innovative music that people of all colors can enjoy. What I am not here for is for powerful people in the music industry to belittle the concerns and the visibility of the marginalized, or for white guests to drag mud and overextend their stay in the house of hip hop.