Opinion: Azealia vs. Azalea—Representation And Commercialization in Hip-Hop

By Dede Akolo

Azealia Banks has been virtually fighting Iggy Azalea since 2012. From Azalea’s lyrics to their similar names, everything has been worth of a shot from Banks. Last December, Banks spent time venting on her Twitter about Eric Garner’s death and the grand jury decision to not indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. Soon, Banks directed her attention to Iggy Azalea:

After a couple of weeks, Azalea replies with this:

One can’t deny the allure of rap music — it can be extravagant or introspective, sensual or aggressive, simple or intricately composed. Rap is arguably one of the only genres that is constantly looking forward in its production. This confidence and innovation ultimately attracts consumers, which has led to the commercialization of rap music into mainstream music over the last twenty years. However, it is crucial to never forget the political history of rap music — never forget the history of racial oppression that first catapulted rap as a genre. Banks’ tweets offer some insight into the problem of commercial rap music.

Yes, I’m coming for Iggy’s authenticity. I’m sure she knows a lot about rap music, but that’s not important, as her “curiosity” for rap music has become racist. She takes on learned behaviours that she has seen in music videos and magazines, and she has appropriated her voice and gestures to fit that aesthetic. What is upsetting is not the music itself, but her apathy towards the history behind rap music. Music can’t be held only to one demographic of people, but there are ways to appreciate and ways to appropriate.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “appropriate” as “to make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make it over to him as his own; to set apart. Yes, Azalea is setting herself apart in popular music. She is taking rap music for herself and making it into something very commercial and accessible, but the music is only accessible because she is white — at least, more accessible than other rap artists. The problem is that people fail to account for her whiteness as the reason that her music is so accessible.

The appropriation of rap music becomes harmful when what is taken is the idea of a people, a history and a genre. As suggested by Banks, most white consumers only have a temporary interest in black culture, and are not interesting in “rid[ing] all the way.” Commonly, white consumers simply engage in some aspects of black culture (such as listening to rap music, and wearing the clothes of famous black rappers) while ignoring the histories of oppression and subjugation that have unfortunately cemented the foundation of black culture. This is worsened when a white face is spitting rap-like verses — white consumers no longer have to engage with these histories, and can instead sanction what is within their definitions of respectable and successful while ignoring everything else.

Audiences worldwide tend to accept and glorify certain representations of black people. Whether it be rappers “from the streets,” video girls in music videos, or mammy characters in film, only certain types of black people are expected and rewarded by North American audiences. Ultimately, Azalea can spend as much time as she would like in a African-American History 101 course, but she will never have these troubles of representation. She can careen through the world with ease, making money off of inherently political music that she removes the politics from, without worrying about how she is represented to the public.

It’s an interesting debate. When does appreciation become appropriative and how can an artist use their influences responsibly? I suggest that we all treat music like property — it is fine to admire and model something after someone else’s house, but it is rude to build on top of it.

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