“Hip Hop Is Run By A White, Blonde, Australian Woman,” proclaimed the title of a Forbes periodical in May. It has since been re-titled, but not before igniting a myriad of conversations about hip-hop, black culture, and appropriation. Who is this white, blonde, Australian woman?
Six years ago Iggy Azalea’s flight from Australia landed in Florida, where she allegedly knew just one person. Since then, the 24-year-old released a number of singles, two of which have simultaneously held the No. 1 and 2 Billboard spots, becoming the first artist to do so since the Beatles 50 years ago. You wouldn’t identify Iggy’s national origin by listening to her album, however. She’s adopted the swagger, vernacular, and style of the black American rappers who she claims heavily influenced her, an admission many find problematic.
Now, it is only fair to admit that her attempts to conceal her down under accent make complete sense for someone trying to break out in the American music industry. Can anyone name the number of rappers with English or Japanese accents that have had huge commercial success in the US?
Lady Sovereign, a rapper from London, was highly acclaimed by her peers when she signed with Def Jam Records, the first non-American to do so. Her music career, carried by a heavy British accent, never took off. The music industry was taking notes. Heavy accents have never done well commercially in hip-hop unless singing the chorus. Had Adele and Lana del Rey belted out their accents on their albums, it’s unlikely they would be enjoying the same commercial success.
Estelle reached a successful debut, but that was primarily a result of her song “American Boy.” Is it not ironic that this song, by a British woman, accent on full display, expressing fascination and intrigue with American men, is the only one that has reached mainstream success?
Considering this, Iggy Azalea is conforming to a standard sound based on what is currently popular and relevant. The global popularity of hip-hop itself suggests that imitation is going to be the trend rather than the exception. Hip-hop trends in Japan and Korea have long indicated as much.
Iggy does sound slightly awkward on her tracks. Some intonations and inflections make it sound as though she is trying too hard, reaffirming her overt attempts to emulate a lived experience she is not a part of. More problematic is a song titled “Drugs,” in which she dubiously raps that she’s a “runaway slave … master, shitting on the past …” as though she is entitled to defecate where she wants and doing so is of little consequence.
I cock my head and furrow my brow at the intimation of post-racialism. A conviction that, from other comments she has made, I’m most certain is as unwitting and feckless as those who point to President Obama to affirm our colorblind world. I question her cultural awareness, but Questlove, drummer of the venerable Roots crew, seems to think otherwise.
Questlove is a highly respected musician and critic, and when it comes to hip-hop and its alleged appropriation he argues, “[w]e as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture.” But Quest, someone enamored by black or hip-hop culture doesn’t mean they are granted free reign to shit on the scaffolds that we’re still building upon.
Iggy later apologized for her “slave … master” remarks, explaining that the verse was a play on the words of Kendrick Lamar’s “Look Out For the Detox.” She went on to contend how unfair fans and critics have been to her, stating, “I am for unity and equality. People should get a fair shot at whatever they want to do no matter what color they are; rap and hip hop as a culture is [sic] not exempt from this. It is unfair to say other races who also grew up listening to rap don’t get a place too.”
Ironically, I agree that it is unfair other people have a hard time finding a place in hip-hop. Notably black women. The experience of black women in hip-hop is markedly different than that of men, and even white women. Black women occupy an interesting space at the heart of hip-hop and the black community. A space Iggy Azalea has likely not experienced, if she is even aware of it — namely the delicate relationship in which black women are pinned between standing with black men against racism and fighting against the misogyny that can come indiscriminately from black men.
To complicate the issue further, artists have long been subject to criticism for placing more value on light skinned women over dark skinned women when it comes to marketing and imagery. Leading to another conflict: the visibility of Iggy Azalea being co-signed and propped up by an institution with a legacy of maligning black women.
Since Macklemore’s grammy award for best rap album last year, warnings of the gentrification of hip-hop have loomed larger and larger, and with it, the fear that talented artists of color are becoming increasingly overlooked due to the music industry’s preference for white artists. It is surprising that 2013 is noted as not having a single black artist in the No.1 Billboard spot.
What is not surprising is hip-hop’s notable lack of women. But don’t mistake that for lack of talent. The industry is sleeping on women who have the skill and ferocity, from Jean Grae to Rapsody. If women are only granted a few coveted spots as national rap icons, is a white woman’s presence another step towards a black woman’s invisibility? After all, black women have loved and supported hip-hop since its inception, but what has hip-hop done for them?
Does Iggy understand any of these nuanced issues? This Sway radio interview demonstrates the limited understanding she has of indigenous Australians, people who have been marginalized in her homeland. She admits they are treated badly and there are many negative stereotypes about them. She should’ve left it at that, but she continues, “they sleep under the stars and that’s how they live.” She explains that “the government will build them housing … thinking that they’re helping them … and they’ll destroy it and take all the beds and sleep outside because that’s their culture.” If this piece of intellectualism seems mostly innocuous to you, I refer you to someone who descends from people who allegedly “destroy” their own homes to sleep outside here. Before Iggy co-opts a foreign culture, it might behoove her to learn a little more about her own first.
Elsewhere, she’s very opinionated about where Miley Cyrus learned to twerk. Seeming to claim ownership over the dance move herself, she states, “”I’ve been doing that onstage for two-and-a-half years. [Miley Cyrus] probably fucking watched my videos online and decided to try it.” The irony is overwhelming if not aggravating: a white woman accusing another white woman of stealing something that belongs to neither of them.
Nicki Minaj is no longer the lone coveted lady emcee. I’m not sure why there was only room for one or who sets this quota. But with the arrival of Iggy Azalea, significant effort was made to provide room for two in the women’s crawlspace. I’m not sure my voice can speak over the machinations of a huge profiting industry or enlightened music critics like Questlove, but allow me to paraphrase Sherman Alexie: throughout the world’s past, the last act of an imperial colonizer is to completely absorb the colonized and make them disappear. Contrasting that astute observation, it is very possible that fear of assimilating into invisibility is why Iggy is loved and scorned at the same time.
If I’m certain of anything it is that once Miley Cyrus crosses over to rap, Iggy will be right there telling us Miley got the idea from her. That Miley … always stealing Iggy’s ideas!