“Media does everything they can to break artists’ spirits and I do everything to break media” - Kanye West
First things first – I am not the realest. I am a white woman. So quick DISCLAIMER: My biggest fear with this article is coming off as the white person who knows all on a subject about which she is completely unqualified to opine, so if you get those vibes, please feel free to pop off at me on email@example.com (unless you’re a white man, because in that case you have even less space to speak here and frankly I couldn’t care less what you have to say). But I digress.
Let’s go back to 2009. “Imma let you finish,” Kanye West tells a doe-eyed Taylor Swift in the midst of her VMA acceptance speech before snatching her microphone. “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time,” he continues feverishly. “One of the best videos of all time!” The cameras pan to a shocked Beyoncé and boos ensue. Angered, Kanye flips off the crowd and returns the microphone to Taylor.
This incident angered the public. Celebrities ranging from Pink to Janet Jackson to Ryan Seacrest spoke out against Kanye. Donald Trump called a boycott and Barack Obama called Yeezy a “jackass.” And five years later, the incident remains attached to popular conceptions of Kanye. “My mom is still upset for Taylor,” my friend and Labeling Men Creative Director Eric Fulcher told me recently, “Kanye could put out my mom’s favorite album but she would still be going on about the damn VMAs.” The incident (like Kanye’s infamous 2006 remark, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”) has come to symbolize his mainstream media persona – Kanye is outrageous, he is cocky, he is angry, he is rude, he cannot be taken seriously, he is a joke.
Like Kanye, Azealia Banks is passionate, fiery, outspoken, and freakishly talented. Sadly, her immense talent has been overshadowed by her media presence. The other night, I was shocked to hear my friend admit she knew Azealia Banks only for her Twitter feuds, particularly because anyone who loves hip hop can agree that at age 23 Azealia has already joined the ranks of the most skilled female MCs …probably ever.
Azealia made headlines again last Friday when she got into it with white rapper Action Bronson, tweeting the following lines, among others: “you do sound like the bootleg ghost face and I will definitely flame you on a track any given sunday”; “your obviously mad because you look like a wet nurse with them lactatuers u got on ya chest”; “you and kirstie alley are the same artist.”
A few days later, a radio interview surfaced showing a softer side of Azealia. When asked about her ongoing feud with Iggy Azalea, Banks shed tears as she explained her issue with Iggy’s “cultural smudging.” Everyone and their mother has written about Iggy’s appropriation of southern black culture for commercial gain, so I’m not going to delve too deeply there. It’s a complicated issue and I’m personally not sure how I feel about it. As Complex put it: “It’s tough to argue […] that hip-hop, a largely sample-driven artform, is off-limits to tourists and scavengers.” And as a woman who has dabbled in white girl rapping, who is heavily influenced by hip hop culture, and who owns a black light Biggie poster, I think it is possible to borrow and pay homage to black culture in a respectful manner. But then maybe I’m just covering my ass…. (Again – firstname.lastname@example.org -- let me have it!!)
What I think it is more interesting about Azealia’s recent media battles are the commentary and conversations they’ve generated.
Iggy responded to Azealia’s radio interview with the following:
"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."
I get why Iggy is upset. Does she deserve to be the target of Azealia’s anger? Not any more than Taylor Swift deserved Kanye’s VMA ambush. Taylor and Iggy are successful pop artists in a society that loves pop music made by pretty blond girls; who can blame them for capitalizing on what society wants? But Iggy’s Twitter response upset me because it represents the prevailing view of so many privileged white Americans. It frustrates me that Iggy can say “make it racial!” and multitudes of white Americans will echo, “Yeah! Not everything is about race!”
“White people have the luxury of not having to think about race,” my former professor John A. Powell told PBS, “I don’t believe any black people have that luxury [….] Just like men don’t have to think about gender. The system works for you, and you don’t have to think about it.”
It is easy for Iggy to say, “not everything is about race!” because she benefits from a racist system. She makes millions off her take on of southern black culture because she is white and blonde and therefore more relatable to the masses and the old white men who run the music industry. (Azealia once tweeted: “I’m tired of having to consult a group of old white guys about my black girl craft.”) Q-tip weighed in on the Twitter debate, providing the most levelheaded commentary in the bunch. To the white people who say, “it’s not always about race!,” Q-tip responds: “once you are born black your existence […] is joined with socio-political epitaph and philos based on the tangled and treacherous history SLAVERY alone [….] It never leaves our conversation… ever.”
Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, the most-quoted line from the Q-tip Twitter monologue was not the above-quoted, but rather his statement that despite its black roots, hip hop is now “FOR EVERYBODY!!!” And this is the narrative to which mainstream society has latched: “hip hop is for everybody!” (Will.i.am. tweeted at Iggy: “hiphop is global now…it doesn’t matter if you’re white or black.”)
But hold up – who said hip-hop was only for black people? Azealia certainly didn’t. She merely expressed her dismay – albeit, in the most umbriferous manner possible – at the patently less talented Iggy being lauded as an innovator in a genre invented by black people and which frankly black people do much better. As Telegraph put it, “this conversation is about the elevation and adulation of white mediocrity, whilst black talent continues to flounder on the margins.”
Below is a screenshot of the 2013 Grammy winners in the rap categories. That Macklemore’s The Heist beat out Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, Kanye’s Yeezus, and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid m.A.A.d. City, three of the best hip hop albums of the last ten years, is something very deserving of anger. When Kanye snatches the mic from Taylor’s hand, when Azealia Banks calls Iggy “Itchy Areola,” society dismisses these acts as outrageous, uncontrolled, incendiary. But to do so trivializes the very real commentary beneath them – disappointment with the continued “adulation of white mediocrity” while “black talent flounders on the margins.” As my friend put it, “we’ve seen this show a million times. Elvis, Eminem, Macklemore. It’s a tired narrative.”
When Yeezus dropped in the summer of 2013, many took issue with a song entitled, “I Am a God.” In his 2013 BBC 1 Radio interview, Kanye addressed these sentiments: “Would it have been better if I had a song that said, ‘I am a n*gga? Or if I had a song that said, ‘I am a gangster’? Or if I had a song that said, ‘I am a pimp’? All those colors and patinas fit better on a person like me, right?”
Like Kanye, Azealia refuses to market herself in the way historically permitted of her race and gender. She is not toting guns or spilling champagne in her cleavage or dancing on a man’s lap. She blends hip-hop with ‘90s house, witch-pop, UK garage, and trap, creating something entirely unique. And then she has to watch Iggy Azalea get nominated for Grammys. And when she gets angry and expresses herself, we say she has a bad attitude. We say “stop making it about race!”
As both have frequently emphasized, Kanye and Azealia are artists; we can’t expect them to communicate as though they hold doctorates in critical race theory. We have to stop rejecting their ideas simply because neither express themselves in the most societally palatable manner. To dismiss them as jokes or to paint them as the “angry black voice” serves only to perpetuate a society where Iggy and Macklemore are winning hip-hop Grammys. As Azealia herself put it best: “At the very fucking least, y’all owe me the right to my identity.”
Written by Anna Dorn