Hip-Hop and White Folk Azealia Banks’ Instagram is plastered with the familiar comments section prerequisites for any young, attractive female with a record deal. “QUEEN!!!”, yells one. “Yaaaaas bitch!”, screams another. Then there are fellow Instagram users like ilumi_boy, whose response to a photograph of Banks holding a coconut reads, “If I’m white can I listen to your music? Or am I taking something away from you by doing that?”
Potty-mouthed club banger 212, Banks’ magnum opus and signature single, propelled her into the spotlight back in 2012, but few things have kept her there during the preceding years outside of a well-documented record label fallout and crude, uproarious Twitter beefs with other celebrities.
This has given a kind of collective permission to disregard Banks as being nothing but crude and uproarious, meaning the moment of vulnerability showcased in a December interview with New York’s Hot 97 radio, in which she was asked about recent tweets discussing cultural appropriation and Iggy Azalea’s involvement with it, was largely dismissed by most mainstream media.
Through tears, Banks explained, “I feel like in this country, whenever it comes to our things, like black issues or black politics or black music or whatever, there’s always this undercurrent of kind of like a ‘fuck you.’ There’s always a ‘fuck y’all niggas. Y’all don’t really own shit. Y’all don’t have shit.’ She continued, “When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids is, ‘oh yeah, 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 for yourself, and it makes me upset.”
Banks’ thoughts aren’t rooted in some kind of so-called ‘reverse racism’, like her slightly confused Instagram follower seems to think. Nor is the problem Iggy Azalea herself, as much as the mainstream media narrative describing Banks’ ‘angry, jealous, black woman rants’ determined to paint the situation as some kind of trashy girlfight. What is problematic is the climate that allows black culture to flourish, but only via white faces. Azalea is the most high-profile example of what Banks refers to as “cultural smudging”, a consistent rewarding and glorification of white artists appropriating black culture at the expense of young, black talent. Azalea, with her affected Atlanta drawl, is deigned the queen of hip-hop and nominated for multiple Grammys. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis mash hip-hop together with themes of social tolerance and are practically deified for their efforts. Miley Cyrus invents twerking.
The problem is especially pronounced at this point in time because of the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the subsequent spotlight shone on the racial discrimination and inequalities seemingly just as prevalent as it ever has been in American society. After a brief insistence following Barack Obama’s initial 2008 presidential victory that the country was entering some kind of post-racial utopia, suddenly it was brought to collective attention that just maybe, just sort of… it hadn’t.
But while the media in the United States place the black American experience under the microscope, the hip-hop historically responsible for challenging social norms and tackling subjects of importance is slowly phased out from mainstream circles, leaving mainstream hip-hop in the hands of fiercely heralded but lyrically sanitised artists picking and choosing the less painful parts of the African-American experience they wish to emulate. In effect, a genre designed to be anti-Middle America quickly becomes its own ‘edgy’ soundtrack.
Which isn’t to say that white people are by their nature diminishing the artistry created and nurtured by a minority group, and therefore shouldn’t enjoy, partake in or emulate it. But what needs to be evident is an element of respect and understanding of the genre itself and its historic and socio-political roots. By reducing a traditionally complex and socially challenging genre to a barrel of tics, wardrobe choices and surface characteristics, hip-hop, and therefore a fundamental part of black culture and artistry is crassly undermined, as if it can all just be slipped on like some cheap Primark plimsoll.
Macklemore recently acknowledged his own privilege as a white hip-hop artist, asking Hot 97 soon after Banks’ interview, “Why am I safe? Why can I cuss on a record, have a parental advisory sticker on the cover of my album, and yet parents are still like, ‘You’re the only rap album I let my kids listen to?’” It was a welcome response to the controversy, yet its wide reporting in itself reflected a larger problem. Macklemore’s statement is rooted in the same message Azealia Banks has been conveying throughout her social media for the past month, yet it is treated as considerably more respectable or admirable as a moment of social reflection. The only thing missing from Macklemore’s words that was present in Banks’ own is a sense of rage, the anger that Banks herself feels as a young black woman. A rage Macklemore is fortunate enough to not share, and the one thing Azealia Banks can’t afford to be, as a young black woman, is angry. Or particularly complex. Or even challenging and polarising as a cultural figure. The media needs to ask itself why it’s reducing a woman’s pleas for self-awareness and reparations to nothing but bitter, jealous ranting. Whether you believe she’s right or wrong, Banks deserves kudos for speaking out about cultural inequalities with passion. The least we could do is listen.
Originally published in Venue #306 (13/01/15)
Shortlisted for “Best Entertainment Piece” at the 2015 SPA Awards