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29 Dec 2014 09:25
Iggy Azalea performs at the Jingle Ball in New York. (Andrew Kelly, Reuters)
The pop stars Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks share more than just similar names. Both are emerging young women in an industry that has, especially since the turn of the millennium, all but relegated women to video-girl roles.
Both are artists whose hype to date exceeds their output.
Their beefing began in 2012, and was born of fine distinctions over identity – some speculating it had to do with professional jealousy in a highly competitive niche market, others wondering whether the small-town Australian Azalea had in fact taken Harlem-born Banks’s name to burnish her cred. For her part, Banks said she was really angry about Azalea’s lyric in a song called “D.R.U.G.S.” in which she referred to herself as a “runaway slave master”. Although Azalea apologised, the beef has continued.
By Saturday it had reached defcon-3, expanding into a Twitter feud that drew in Azalea’s mentor T.I., Q-Tip, Will.I.Am, Lupe Fiasco, Solange Knowles, Action Bronson and Erykah Badu. All this has come at a moment when race relations has soared to the top of the list of American concerns. It began last Thursday, when Banks was asked in an interview on New York’s Hot 97 with Ebro Darden, Peter Rosenberg and Laura Stylez about the origins of her beef with Iggy Azalea. Banks became uncharacteristically emotional during the exchange. She said: “I feel just like in this country whenever it comes to our things – like black issues or black politics or black music or whatever – there’s this undercurrent of kinda like a ‘fuck you’.” She said that Azalea seemed to be ripping off Nikki Minaj’s Reloaded by titling her own album re-release Reclassified. Banks called it “cultural smudging”, her phrase for appropriation.
Then she took the Grammy Awards to task for its nomination of Azalea and awarding of the rap record of the year to Macklemore, a moment that led Forbes to declare that “Hip-Hop Is Run by a White, Blonde, Australian Woman.” The message to white kids, Banks said: “is, ‘You’re great. You’re amazing. You can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to black kids, ‘You don’t have shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created yourself.’”
When hip-hop began to cross over at the turn of the 1980s, its hardcore followers – not only black, but white, Asian, Latino and Native American – engaged in heated debates over appropriation and exploitation of the culture. That Vanilla Ice is now a reality-show regular rather than this generation’s Pat Boone tells us who won those debates. Ownership, control and power have all been themes running through the success narratives of Diddy, Jay-Z and the RZA. If this were all that Banks had said, the discussion might have been interesting but nothing new. And in the interview, Darden reminded Banks that hip-hop had gone pop over and over. Why did she take it so personally?
Banks then took the discussion in a surprising direction, illustrating that debates about culture can have deep emotional stakes. Banks said that the history of American capitalism began with slave labour. And if there wasn’t going to be any discussion about reparations, Banks said, before beginning to cry, “at the very least y’all owe me the right to my fucking identity and to not exploit that shit. That’s all we’re holding on to with hip-hop and rap.”
And there was the pull-quote for the next day’s hip-hop media. Azalea’s response on Twitter was spectacularly tone-deaf. “Special msg for banks: There are many black artists succeeding in all genres. The reason you haven’t is because of your piss poor attitude,” she tweeted. “Now! rant, Make it racial! make it political! Make it whatever but I guarantee it won’t make you likable & THATS why ur crying on the radio.”
Azalea had refitted a T.I. line with a hectoring voice – stop blaming racism for your problems. She was right on one point: calling out race and racism is no way to become “likable” in American pop culture – not unless one has the rare skill of being able to convert it into laughs and entertainment. And yet Azalea had, perhaps all too predictably, missed the point – the source of Banks’s breakdown.
Later in the interview with Banks, Darden pushed her harder, saying he wanted to understand where her deep emotions were coming from. White appropriation of rap, he repeated, had always been an issue. “You’re desensitized to it. That’s the problem,” said Banks. And then she broke down again. “No, they’re trying to erase us,” she said. “All of our books and scriptures, everything we are supposed to know about ourselves. Gone. Like, completely fucking gone.”
She talked about growing up feeling invisible, reading only “stories of you under some white person’s foot”. She referenced 12 Years a Slave, saying: “I don’t want to see no more white people fucking whipping people in no more movies. Because my black story is deeper than the boat ride over, do you know what I mean? “So this little thing called hip-hop that I’ve created for myself, that I’m holding onto for my dear fucking life,” she concluded, “I feel like it’s being snatched away from me or something. “The blackness is gone.”
Hip-hop’s first commercial breakthrough was a record born partly of theft – Big Bank Hank’s stealing of Grandmaster Caz’s rhymes. It reached higher heights than black music had ever before achieved because of love – white love for a sound that grew from Afrodiasporic roots and spoke from, to and through black struggles. Love and theft, as Eric Lott reminds us, are the overarching themes in an American popular culture born in minstrelsy and built, in large part, from the promethean creative labour of black people. But the power of American pop – and in this we should include non-Americans like Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, who have been influenced by and participated in its long, rich conversation – has always been in its ability to close the gap between and to transform the creator and the participant.
That is probably why Q-Tip spent a morning tweeting at Azalea his view of hip-hop history: HipHop is a artistic and socio-political movement/culture re that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 70’s believe it or not young black n Latino lives specifically weren’t acknowledged in mainstream American culture unless Ofcourse… the convo was abt gangs, being criminals or uneducated. And hey! Like I stated early our families were rushed our schools sucked and we were left to put devices to survive but HIPHOP showed that we had DEPTH, fire, and BRILLANCE the music was undeniable! It moved from NY N became national and even GLOBAL hiphop now was FOR EVERYBODY!! All of those who cld relate to the roots, the spirit, the history, the energy.. It reached YOU it touched your spirit n took u up. We magnetized you! That’s what BRILLANCE does now u are fulfilling your dreams ... BUT! you have to take into account the HISTORY as you move underneath the banner of hiphop. As I said before hiphop is fun it’s vile it’s dance it’s traditional it’s light hearted but 1 thing it can never detach itself from is being a SOCIO-Political movement. U may ask why ... Well once you are born black your existence I believe is joined with socio-political epitaph and philos based on the tangled and treacherous history SLAVERY alone this is the case it never leaves our conversation… Ever. WeAther in our universities our dinner tables our studios or jail cells the effects still resononates with us. It hurts… We get emotional and angry and melancholy.”
He ended by inviting her into a “hopeful healthy dialogue that maybe one day we can continue”.
Azalea’s response, again, was deflating: “Most people learn every and anything they can about the subjects they are passionate about, I’m no different, I find it patronizing to assume I have no knowledge of something I’m influenced by, but I’ve also grown up with strangers assuming that. So its completely fine and I’m used to it by now. I don’t lose any sleep over it. Im also not going to sit on twitter & play hip hop squares with strangers to somehow prove i deserve to be a fan of or influenced by hiphop. I would have to be an idiot or incredibly bored to think that would change anyones already cemented opinion of me. I’m neither.”
By its nature, the story of American pop has been one of borrowing. We are all free to enjoy the fruits of exchange. But in the bliss of creation and the rush of acceptance, it may be easy to forget that all culture starts somewhere, and that all exchanges are not equal. Is hip-hop only for black people? It is an irrelevant question. Few black hip-hop artists have ever made that argument. But to say that hip-hop begins as black culture made by black people is not just a statement of fact, it is an acknowledgment of the master key that opens the door for everyone, the way a clave unlocks a rhythm.
Even after Q-Tip’s invitation – offered in the same spirit of generosity that those who remind us black lives matter invite us into a discussion that might take us beyond periodic eruptions of unrest – Azalea decided that she should refuse to lose her (borrowed) cool and keep it moving. That same mask of cool carries, as Greg Tate once cogently put it, everything but the burden. Azalea’s response amounts to: “I already know. And I don’t have to care.”
Dr Bettina Love, a professor at the University of Georgia who uses hip-hop to teach, said: “The fact that we have to hashtag our pain says a lot about where we are right now.” So maybe we need this one too: #Blackculturematters.
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