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LIFE

Pop stars' row centres on racial identity and hip hop's history

As the Banks-Azalea feud resounds, Jeff Chang looks at slavery's rolein black identity and hip hop

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm

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 exceeds their output. Both are also notoriously short-fused and a little overeager to go off on Twitter, particularly on each other.

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' 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 row continued.

By the end of December 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 have soared to the top of the list of American concerns.

It began earlier in December 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 emotional during the exchange. "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 'f*** you'," she said.

She said Azalea seemed to be ripping off Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded by titling her 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, blond, 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 s***. You don't own s***, not even the s*** 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.

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

If this were all Banks had said, the discussion might have been interesting but nothing new. 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, showing that debates about culture can have deep emotional stakes.

Banks said the history of US 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 f***ing identity and to not exploit that s***. 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' 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 desensitised 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 f***ing 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 f***ing 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 f***ing life," she said, "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 social historian Eric Lott writes, are the overarching themes in an American popular culture born in minstrelsy and built from the creative labour of black people. But the power of American pop - and in this we should include non-Americans such as Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards - has been 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, which ended by inviting her into a "hopeful healthy dialogue that maybe one day we can continue". Azalea's response was deflating. "I find it patronising to assume I have no knowledge of something I'm influenced by, but I've also grown up with strangers assuming that. So it's completely fine and I'm used to it by now. I don't lose any sleep over it," she replied.

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 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 that 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 she should refuse to lose her (borrowed) cool and keep it moving.

That same mask of cool carries, as writer and musician 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.

Guardian News & Media