For the fourth time since 2010, it looks like a White rapper is going to win the award for Best Rap Album at the Grammy Awards. In January, Macklemore won the award for his debut album The Heist in a predicted yet still incredibly frustrating upset over hip hop heavyweights Drake, Kanye West, and Jay Z, and newcomer Kendrick Lamar, whose debut major label release Good Kid M.A.A.D. City was celebrated by many as an instant hip hop classic, and who was the favorite for the award amongst virtually the entire Black hip hop community. Many were upset that Macklemore was placed in the rap category at all given that, although he raps, he makes more uptempo, spunky, tracks that often sound more like pop music than traditional hip hop. Too, many speculated that Macklemore’s skin color attracted the attention and votes of many of the predominantly White (and often older) Grammy voters who, more likely than not, had not even listened to – let alone understood – most, if any, of the rap albums nominated for the award (it was later revealed that Macklemore’s album was not even included among the original list of nominees for the award by the rap nominating committee, but that decision was overridden by a higher committee).
This year, Eminem and Iggy Azalea are nominated for the award for their albums The Marshall Mathers LP 2 and The New Classic respectively among such nominees as Childish Gambino, Wiz Khalifa, and Common and, if history is any indicator – every time a White rapper has been nominated for Best Rap Album that rapper has won, excepting one year – one of them will win it. Though Eminem’s most recent albums have been less than exceptional, many in the hip hop community don’t take so much issue with him winning awards because a large portion of his catalogue is phenomenal, and he’s hailed by many as one the greatest rappers to ever bless the microphone. But the prospect of Iggy Azalea winning the award next year has many people upset for a number of reasons, perhaps even more so than they were when Macklemore won this year. For one, like Macklemore, her music sounds more like pop than it does like hip hop, so some don’t think she should have been included in the rap category at all, myself included. Two, despite her commercial success, which is in large part due to the fact that her music does sound so popish and is so Top 40 radio-ready, she just isn’t that good a rapper and, even if you do consider her music to be rap music, there are a ton of other rap albums released this year that were better than hers and deserved a nomination over hers. But, third, and most importantly, Black people are furious because Iggy Azalea appropriates a stereotypical image of Black women in her rap persona. A lot of Black rap fans don’t like Macklemore, myself included, because, aside from the fact that his music is mediocre, his skin color has allowed him to position himself, and White fans and critics have celebrated him as, the non-violent, tolerant, cleancut alternative to vulgar Black rap artists while simultaneously expressing himself through an art form that evolved out of the very culture, and was created by the very people, that he has distanced himself from. Macklemore is not the first rapper to talk about stuff besides money, hoes, and clothes, but because of his skin color, he is able to appeal to a wider – and different – fan base than Black artists who have done the same thing, and achieve far greater success. Iggy, on the other hand, has not distanced herself from that culture, but has appropriated and exploited it and has become widely successful doing so.
Iggy Azalea is a White woman from Australia who sounds Australian in interviews or when out in public, but raps in a Black American accent – performing what has been dubbed vocal blackface – and a particularly southern one, using Black American slang. Like many other Black female rappers, she presents a “bad bitch” image of herself and, through usages of urban Black cultural symbols and actual Black people as props in her music videos, she attempts to connect herself to urban Black culture and urban Black spaces. Take, for example, her music video for her song “Pu*sy” (you can check it out here http://vimeo.com/29514207) which went viral in 2011 and was the video that first got her looks from major record labels. The video begins with Iggy in the kitchen with curlers in her hair eating cereal out of a large mixing bowl while sitting on the table next to an elderly Black woman (presumably her grandmother? Her aunt? Who knows. It doesn’t match, that’s the point). She runs out of milk, and the woman adds water to her bowl. She exits the house and can then be seen on the front stoop chilling with two Black women, presumably her friends, and a little Black boy as they vibe to her track. At one point, the boy, hanging over her neck, makes gun trigger gestures with his fingers and nods in the camera with a grit on his face. As the video progresses, two Black men are seen leaning against a fancy car wearing shirts that say “Drugs Not Hugs.” Iggy and her friends then are seen dancing in front of an ice cream truck as they lick ice cream snacks seductively. All this is going on as Iggy raps about how much she likes oral sex and as the hook repeats its refrain “pu*sy, pu*sy, pu*sy.” Watch the video yourself. It’s rife with cultural appropriation, and blatantly so. The video looks like every rap video filmed in the hood in the early 2000s. It’s problematic for so many reasons. It reinforces for her White audience negative stereotypes about urban Black people and their culture. From the blatant association of Black men with drugs and aggression, to the subtle association of even Black children with guns and violence, to the hypersexualization of, and characterization of Black women as promiscuous through the images of Black women licking ice cream to the sound of the song’s raunchy lyrics, the video hits on almost every Black stereotype in the book. Also problematic is the image of the elderly Black woman adding water to Iggy’s cereal bowl when they run out of milk, associating Black people with desperation and poverty. To White youth, this is “ghetto” Black culture (a term which I hate: it’s racist: it’s used to stigmatize and belittle urban Black culture because of its distance from mainstream cultural norms), a culture that is different from and beneath their own. But at the same time, they are fascinated by this culture and they think it’s cool. Black urban youth have long set the trend for what becomes popular among American youth nationally, be it how we dress, the slang we use, the dances we invent, or the music we create. By associating herself with Black people and with Black culture, and by pretending to be a Black woman – though she’s one of only two White people in the entire video – Iggy earns cool points with her White audience who buy her records and pay for her concert tickets. White kids already pay for Black culture from Black artists, but they are even more willing to buy it from a White artist who they can see themselves in. So Iggy has achieved a level of success that other Black women artists doing the same things have not been able to achieve because, frankly, White people can sell Black culture to White people better than Black people can. Iggy profits from exploiting Black culture and Black people while simultaneously degrading the culture and the people she’s exploiting. That video was from 2011, before she became the superstar she is today. But, as I mentioned earlier, it was that very video that initially made major record labels pay attention to her, and it is those very tactics which she employed in the video which propelled her into superstardom. Last year she became the first female and the first non-American rapper to be featured on the XXL magazine freshman class cover, a highly coveted position recognizing the year’s 12 best and most influential new rap acts (I would consider her the latter, certainly not the former). Her song “Fancy” was number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven consecutive weeks this year, and she broke several records among women artists of any genre. But Iggy Azalea is not the only White person to achieve success by pimping Black culture in recent memory – far from it. 2013 was a particularly irritating year for Black music fans and followers of pop culture because a handful of White artists achieved incredible success last year by appropriating Black culture. Miley Cyrus twerked her way into the spotlight performing – or attempting to perform – a style of dance that, whether people like it or not, has become a cultural staple among Black youth (and, now, youth nationally, as many of our inventions often become). Robin Thicke finally broke into the mainstream with his song “Blurred Lines” which features a bounce reminiscent of 1970s funk. The song became the most downloaded song of all time and – literally – the most played song of all time on the radio. Thicke was sued, however, by Marvin Gaye’s family who claimed the song was copied from Marvin’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.” Justin Timberlake (whom I’m actually a fan of) released his long-awaited third studio album which featured traditionally African American R&B styles, and his live performances of the album on tour, at award shows and on late night talk shows featured heavily jazz-influenced song arrangements performed by largely Black band members accompanied by largely Black back-up singers, and sometimes included nods to popular rap songs like “Bands A Make Her Dance” by Juicy J and “N**gas In Paris” by Kanye West and Jay Z. Justin Bieber, whose image – from his baggy, sagging jeans, to his backwards fitted caps and beanies, to his gold chains – has been molded in that of urban Black youth, was constantly in the news because of the shenanigans he pulled with, as the media was keen to point out, his Black rapper friends. And Macklemore not only (we felt) stole the Best Rap Album Grammy from Kendrick Lamar, but was recruited to perform his song “Same Love,” which is celebrated by fans and music critics for its embrace of gay rights and marriage equality, at a mass gay and lesbian wedding ceremony at the award show when he is suspected to have stolen his biggest hit “Thrift Shop,” which became the most played rap song of all time, from a Black gay rapper from New York City named Le1f (listen to the two songs; “Thrift Shop’s” beat and the flow Macklemore uses in his delivery are almost identical to those of “Wut” by Le1f; too, pay attention to the introductions and the first rap lines of both songs).
All this transpired over the course of last year while, at the same time, Black people were anxiously following the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. So as White artists were winning and breaking records for appropriating Black music, Black culture, parts of Black identity, Black people were losing – reminded that, like awards that Black artists compete for against White musicians, because of the very identity that White competitors were exploiting, not even our lives are guaranteed to us. These reminders continued into 2014 with the non-indictments of officers in the killing of Michael Brown and the strangulation of Eric Garner on camera, and the shooting deaths of Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and countless other unarmed Black men, women, and children by police officers. So, for many Black rap fans, myself included, it has been particularly painful to watch Iggy Azalea shoot to fame this year by pretending to be a Black person yet not having to share in the experience of what it means to be Black in America and while, like Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, and Justin Bieber, remaining silent on the issues that impact us.
Azealia Banks, a 23-year-old Black female rapper from Harlem, New York, in a frank and emotional interview with New York radio station Hot 97 last week, articulated why she takes so much of an issue with Iggy Azalea and with award shows that give awards to White artists who make Black music and exploit Black culture. Banks explained that, “and when they give these Grammys out, all it says to White kids is, like, ‘Oh yea. You’re great. You can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to Black kids ‘You don’t have sh*t. You don’t own sh*t. Not even the sh*t you created for yourself.’”
Indeed, what it says to White youth when White artists who appropriate Black culture win awards over actual Black people, is that they can even be Black people better than Black people and do Black culture better than Black people do it. But what it says to Black youth is that they are less than. Indeed, the message I take from White people succeeding by appropriating Black culture is that, as a Black person in America, I can’t have anything of my own. So much of African American history has been Whitewashed and erased – inventions that were created in Africa but have been intentionally attributed to other people, Black American contributions to American society that are overlooked and ignored in official historical narratives and excluded from teachings in school, stories and “facts” about American history and historical narratives about Africa pre-colonization that are completely fabricated. So, as Azealia Banks articulated in her interview, it is hard to watch rap music, one of the few things that we know is ours – that we know we created, because we did so only within the past 45 years – co-opted and exploited by White artists, and to watch Black rappers compete with White ones for awards they probably won’t win. Banks put her feelings on the matter bluntly: “I don’t want to share this with y’all.”
Now, I don’t personally feel this way. I’m not saying that White people shouldn’t rap. I’m not saying they should not use slang or do the Dougie or twerk or wear their baseball caps backwards. But what I am saying, is that I hate watching them do it, or use Black people who do it as props, and get rewarded for it at the expense of Black people who do it better than them, and Black youth who do it and get nothing for it. Too, White rappers should understand their place in hip hop as White people, and that’s not to say that their place is beneath Black artists either. Eminem is demonstrative of that – he has been embraced by Black hip hop fans as one of the best ever, better than most Black rappers. But it is to say that White rappers should understand their place in a historically Black genre of music and one that evolved out of, and as, a Black sociopolitical movement. Hip hop evolved in the hood in New York City in the early 1970s following the Civil Rights Movement and during the Black Power Movement. It was a vehicle for the expression of Black reality by Black youth, and continues to be so in many respects. With this as its roots, hip hop has spread to become a global phenomenon. But in this country, given our racial history and present, and the origins of rap as an art form, it is important for White artists to understand where they stand in the modern landscape. It is important for them to use rap as a vehicle to express their reality or, if they choose to express an alternate one, as many rappers in fact do, it is important for them not to wear someone else’s culture as a costume in doing so, in an attempt to fit into the rap landscape, or as a gimmick to sell records. Eminem is a shining example of this. Eminem today expresses his reality, his truth, but early on in his career he often portrayed an invented character, yet one that was informed by, and fit into, the culture he was familiar with having grown up as a poor White kid in Detroit, Michigan. Eminem pretended, but he didn’t pretend to be Black.
It’s insulting to watch White people celebrate each other for appropriating things that we created. And, because of this (among other reasons), after Macklemore won in January, I made the decision to stop watching White award shows – music, film, or otherwise – or atleast stop caring about who wins an award, and instead give my attention to award shows like the Soul Train Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards, the BET Honors, and BET’s Black Girls Rock, shows where Black people celebrate Black culture and Black people’s contributions to society. I don’t need White people to tell me that my music is good or that my movies are worth watching in order for me to believe it. I know my own worth. I know the value of my culture. Yet still, the Grammy nominations for the 2015 awards, which were announced earlier this month amid heightened racial tensions and emotion following publicized police killings of unarmed Black people, could not have come at a worse time. They are yet new reminders that, as a Black person in this country, I can’t have anything: not the culture or the music I created for myself, not even my identity – not even my life.
Amid reminders that many White people don’t like us, Black people face, too, reminders that many do like our culture. They imitate it and then celebrate each other for doing so. Iggy Azalea can pretend to be Black and reap the commercial benefits of Blackness and Whiteness at the same time without having to struggle with the traumatic reality of actually being Black in America. She doesn’t have to walk around in constant fear for her life because of her skin color. She doesn’t have to memorize the names of dead people who look like her. She doesn’t have to endure constant reminders that the masses think she is less than. As popular as Black culture is among the White masses, despite the fact that Black youth continue to set the curve when it comes to popular trends among American youth, Black people remain incredibly unpopular. We remain under assault. And Iggy Azalea’s omnipresence in the Grammy rap categories serves as a reminder of both of these notions at the same time. That’s why I don’t like Iggy Azalea. That’s why the prospect of her winning Best Rap Album is biting for so many Black people. It’s a slap in the face amid slaps in the face. But neither notion looks likely to change anytime soon.
You can watch Azealia Bank’s interview with Hot 97 here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFDS-VEEl6w
Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist. Follow him on Twiiter @myblackmindd.