Two of hip-hop's biggest female stars have come to public blows over race. Reni Eddo-Lodge explains why this hip-hop battle is so much bigger than these two women
Three years ago, rapper Azealia Banks had a viral hit with 212, and this year she finally came out with her debut album. But she’s also known for her long-standing feud with the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, started long ago for reasons I don’t have the word count to go into. Last week, Banks gave an interview to New York based radio station Hot 97. When questioned about her feud with Iggy, she burst into tears at the America’s cultural appropriation of blackness, calling it a "cultural smudging"
She seemed particularly upset that Iggy Azalea was nominated for Best Rap Album at the Grammys. “The Grammys are supposed to be awards for artistic excellence… Iggy Azalea’s not excellent,” Banks said. “When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids 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 s***. You don’t own s***, not even the s*** you created yourself.’ And it makes me upset.”
As a fellow black woman, I’m not sure Azealia Banks realises the depth of the conversation she’s just started about hip-hop and white privilege. She said it best herself: "At the very f***ing least, y'all owe me the right to my identity. That's all we're holding on to in hip-hop and rap."
Upon hearing of the interview, Iggy Azalea responded on Twitter. “You created your own unfortunate situation by being a bigot and don't have the mental capacity to realize yet,” she wrote. “Probably never will. 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. Enjoy continuing to bang your head against that metaphoric brick wall & Savor this attention. I'm the only way you get ANY.”
She accused Banks of playing the race card - and, by branding her a bigot, she actually wandered into reverse racism territory. Her response didn’t take into account Banks’ political points. Instead, it was shaped to make Banks look like the angry black woman - jealous, bitter and obsessive
This retort comes from a blonde, Australian woman who raps in a voice imitating a black American. Watching one of her music videos is like watching a modern day version of the blackface minstrel show
The American rapper’s drawl is incongruous with her Australian accent in interviews. She seems clueless as to why hip-hop is black dominated, but she’s absolutely sure that she deserves a place in it. She’s succeeding in a genre with no idea of its social and historical significance
During the melee, it was hip hop veteran Q-Tip who provided the breadth of perspective. In a series of tweets directed at Iggy, he wrote: "HipHop is an artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 70's Coming off the heels of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT….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.’
In his post White Rapper FAQ, comedian Aamer Rahman writes: “Blackface was all about white people acting out caricatured, fetishized depictions of black people for the entertainment of white audiences. Iggy Azalea, Kreashawn etc. are all about… well, you get the picture. Their entire careers rely on them perpetually acting, talking and behaving like college students at an ironic-not-racist-but-actually-racist ‘Ghetto Fabulous’ themed frat party.”
He continues: “A white rapper like Iggy Azalea acts out signifiers which the white majority associates with black culture - hyper sexuality, senseless materialism, an obsession with drugs, money and alcohol – as well as adopting clothing, speech and music – as a costume that they can put on and discard at will. It’s a cheap circus act.” Quite
Hip-hop is now so global, a passive listener would be forgiven for not being familiar with the politics of race relations. But even if you look at this situation oblivious to the issues, it’s not hard to see that something has gone wrong. Azealia Banks is making creative, boundary pushing music that deserves awards, whilst Iggy Azalea’s music is dull, formulaic pop. Yet it’s Iggy who is being hailed by Forbes as "one of hip hop’s most exciting new artists". I’d hazard a guess that 70 per cent of Iggy Azalea’s appeal is based on the fact that she is a conventionally attractive white woman doing work that’s associated with black men. She captures the imagination of white consumers. It’s a gimmick
Banks’ fierce defensiveness of one of the few professions that is owned and elevated by black people is completely understandable. Through her eyes, power in the industry is concentrated in white hands, and Iggy’s elevation feels like another snatch and grab. That’s probably why, before leaving her old record label, she tweeted: "I'm tired of having to consult a group of old white guys about my black girl craft."
More broadly, this conversation is about the elevation and adulation of white mediocrity, whilst black talent continues to flounder on the margins. This is how structural racism thrives. Finding a black face in positions of power is like playing a horrible game of Where’s Wally. This is not because of a lack of black excellence, talent, education, hard work or creativity. There are other, more sinister forces at play here. We don't live in a meritocracy, and to pretend that hard work alone will elevate all to success is an exercise in wilful ignorance. That's why Iggy Azalea’s ‘pull yourself up by your boot straps’ rhetoric smarts extra hard. The barriers aren’t metaphorical, and her success is symbolic of that. No one’s asking Iggy to stop doing what she’s doing because she’s white. Instead, they’re imploring her to recognise the historical significance of a movement she’s made a career out of