Azealia Banks is 23. She was born and raised in Harlem, and is openly bisexual. She released a bunch of critically acclaimed music in 2012, and unexpectedly dropped her first album, Broke With Expensive Taste, online in 2014. Last week she was named in Forbes' 30 under 30, this week she's getting ridiculed for calling the whole of Australia racist on Twitter. Her tweets often seem candid, nuanced, offensive and erratic all at the same time; it's easy to brush them off as controversy for the sake of controversy, beef for the sake of beef. The injustice of Azealia Banks is that a lot of what she has to say isn't actually wrong. The tragedy of Azealia Banks is that when she is wrong, all of the right things she says, suffer.
It can't be denied that Azealia Banks' career has been characterised by conflict. She's had public separations with managers and fought a bitter battle with her ex-record company. She has criticised so many fellow musicians it would be quicker to list those she actually likes. Her biggest issues by far, though, have been with Iggy Azalea, who Banks has focused on to lament the appropriation of black culture. Things began in 2012 with Banks questioning why Azalea was honoured on an XXL magazine cover as the sole female rapper when numerous female African American rappers (Angel Haze, Kreayshawn, Nicki Minaj) were overlooked. Banks also questioned some of Azalea's lyrics, specifically when Iggy calls herself a "runaway slave master." Banks explained herself by saying, "I'm pro-black girl… I'm not anti-white girl, but I'm also not here for anyone outside of my culture trying to trivialise very serious aspects of it." Of course, the internet went crazy, as it does with any high-profile 'bitch fight'. Without acknowledging the true essence of Banks' complaint, Azalea brushed her off as a hater. Banks was forced to give up, noting that the media had turned her into a villain.
Last year, the 'beef' made headlines again. Banks called Azalea out for not commenting on the Eric Garner trial and events unfolding in Ferguson, saying, "black culture is cool but black issues sure aren't… If you're down to ride with us bitch you gotta ride ALL THE WAY." Azalea responded by calling Banks a "bigot", and a "miserable, angry" person who was fame-grubbing as a desperate last resort to achieve success, addressing the accusation of cultural appropriation and black erasure only by declaring herself "pro-people". Banks again came off in the press looking like the bad guy, the attention-seeking lunatic.
But behind the smokescreen of rants and insults hides a very valid grievance, because cultural appropriation and black erasure are very present in contemporary culture. I'm the opposite of an expert, but cultural appropriation is essentially the adoption of elements from one culture by members of another culture, often without regard to the cultural meaning assigned to what they're appropriating. For example: girls at Coachella wearing American Indian headdresses, a highly important and significant cultural emblem, because they want to look cute. Can you see how that is kind of insensitive? Especially because those girls belong to a society which is responsible for the struggle of the American Indian race? Obviously those girls aren't trying to be racist, they aren't consciously doing anything wrong, there's no malice, they are probably really nice people with lots of American Indian friends, and of course no one is perfect, but those things don't matter. It's appropriation even if you didn't want to appropriate. It just is. A lot of people do it. I probably do it all the time. As a white girl writing this, I'm probably doing it right now.
Banks emphasises appropriation of African American culture, which has been historically rife, especially within contemporary music. Elvis' dance moves, blues riffs used by rock bands throughout the ages (i.e. Led Zeppelin) are some examples of how the music which flourishes within maligned African American societies is often adopted by white artists, and how they become hugely successful through their use of it. At face value, it's simple to see how Iggy Azalea could be guilty of this, purely because she is a white woman who is succeeding by creating music which has roots in African American culture. It doesn't matter that Azalea loves hip-hop, that she's grown up with it, that she isn't consciously racist, that she is friends with people of colour. It's appropriation anyway.
But appropriation isn't really what upsets Banks; it's not a crime for white people to love and create hip-hop. The crime is black erasure - what she calls "cultural smudging." When white artists use originally African American devices in their art, that culture loses recognition for what it created. It's easy to see how that could be an issue for some African American people; especially when those musical devices were created during a period of deep struggle for African Americans, at the hands of white people. Banks voiced her issues with erasure during a radio interview when she said, "at the very least, ya'll owe me the right to my fucking identity… this little thing called hip-hop… that I'm holding on to with my dear fucking life I just feel like it's being snatched away from me."
The idea that hip-hop is now universal, Iggy's #propeople justification of herself, is just another way in which the roots of hip-hop are being erased. For the people who created it, it isn't everyone's. It's theirs! They struggled for it. They don't want those oppressed voices which sang anyway to be forgotten. To Azealia Banks, hip-hop isn't music, it's heritage and history. Also, hip-hop is one of the most prevalent vehicles through which the continuing struggle of people of colour is broadcasted to the world. To have that vehicle hijacked in favour of fame and fortune by people who have no idea of that specific struggle, stings. Azealia's problem is: when everyone's singing, how will black voices be heard?
Funnily enough, Azealia Banks isn't the first artist to comment on black erasure and racism. If you haven't noticed yet, Kanye West's most recent album, Yeezus, is just one massive comment on his struggle as a person of colour living in America. "Blood on the Leaves" is based on a Billie Holiday poem about racism which quite graphically references lynching. Kanye has also been vocal on this issue: he notoriously thwarted Taylor Swift's glittery moment at the VMAs to protest how Queen Bey didn't win for Single Ladies. Yes, it was a dick move, but Kanye got serious backlash for what he did (so much that he left the States for a whole year) and no one tried to understand why he did it; he wanted people to ask for one second why Swift's normal video beat Beyonce's exceptional one. There could be a perfectly good explanation but no one except Kanye was brave enough to ask.
Herein lies the problem: there seems to be a pattern of the public and media focusing too much on the craziness of what people like Kanye West and Azealia Banks are saying, and the misguided ways that they choose to say them, and thus ignoring the truth of their words.
Take for example the interview Kanye did with Zane Lowe, which was truly a very honest discussion of his music, art, and dreams. Granted, parts did seem narcissistic and frequently ridiculous. When Jimmy Kimmel parodied the interview using a toddler, Kanye West got angry, and everyone laughed at him even more. But can't you see how putting Kanye's quite valid, honest words in the mouth of a baby with a sippy cup diminishes and trivialises all of the important issues he mentioned, and his music? Especially when everyone listens to his music and can agree that he is pretty fucking brilliant at what he does? But no, most people just wrote him off as angry and crazy, and thus the meaning in his words was erased. His voice was silenced.
That silencing is what Banks rages against, but the harder she's been raging, the harder it has been for her to get heard. Sadly, this is in part her own fault. The problem with hearing Azealia Banks is that although she is saying a lot of good things, she says a lot of extremely bad things too. In the same breath as she called Azalea out for appropriation, she defended Bill Cosby. She built herself up as a LGBT icon, then broadcasted tirades brimming with homophobic slurs. She calls out racism and calls herself a feminist, then calls T.I. a "shoe-shining coon" and says his wife has "meth face." You don't have to be perfect for your opinion to be worth something, but I will say that the more insensitive, ignorant things Banks says, the harder it is to be 'on her side' about the issues she cares most about. Azealia Banks thinks that Iggy Azalea is the biggest obstacle in her battle against black erasure and cultural smudging, but it seems like she should consider whether the biggest obstacle right now is in fact herself.
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