For the longest time, I’ve always considered the most inflammatory and controversial question one can ask of something is whether or not it is racist. Today, the hot button question for well over a year has been whether or not the hip-hop artist , Iggy Azalea, is racist. I will be discussing the question itself from numerous angles, but to be clear, this isn’t going to focus only on whether or not Iggy Azalea as a person is racist. Despite that being an important discussion in its own right, it really isn’t my place to be making personal accusations like that at her. Behaviour like that is why legitimate grievances against the artist are drowned out by cries of “reverse-racism” (a problematic phrase in itself). What this article will be primarily examining is whether or not the “Iggy Azalea” brand and its success is racist, and what the common reaction to her presence means for us as a supposedly post-racial society.
It has been about a year since the breakout success of her album “The New Classic”, and the public still doesn’t know what to say about Iggy Azalea, so I’ve decided that the best way to go about discussing her is with examples of commonly held sentiments regarding Azalea herself, along with my responses to them.
“Iggy is only being singled out as racist because she’s a woman”
Here’s an example of a defense Azalea herself uses as a response to her criticisms, and it’s a common one used by many of her supporters out there. Her main point being that no one says those things about fellow white rapper Macklemore, and are only targeting her as a result of her ownership of a vagina (an argument she claims to be “100, 000 percent” sure of). Unfortunately it has been frequently shot down just as easily as it is brought up, and there are three reasons for this.
1. Iggy Azalea is not just a white rapper. She’s a white rapper that performs with a spot-on impression of the southern black hip-hop vernacular and style of speech and it’s incredibly jarring to hear that in contrast to her actual Australian accent. Macklemore and Eminem don’t put on impressions of what black rappers sound like when they rap, and that alone makes all the difference in the world. Considering the historical context of privileged white people doing impressions of black people for the purposes of entertainment, you’d think Azalea would have a more intelligent response to the criticism she has received so far that goes beyond “it’s because I’m a girl”.
3. Unlike Azalea, the likes of Macklemore and even Eminem have acknowledged that they owe a lot of their success to the fact that they are white. Macklemore has gone on record to describe the advantages he is afforded due to being white, and despite being vocal about some of the roadblocks he had to face in the industry because of the colour of his skin, Eminem has famously rapped about the fact that he also owes a lot of his success to it too. Azalea on the other hand seems dead set on refusing to acknowledge anything of the sort and tearing down anyone who so much as suggests it.
“Iggy is trying to troll the black community”
This is one I see thrown around on Twitter a lot. Here’s why I don’t want to get involved in debates about whether or not she’s racist herself. It always devolves into he-said-she-said nonsense with ridiculous tweets being used as evidence to support it. Azalea has made her fair share of ignorant tweets, has referred to herself as a “slavemaster” in one of her songs, and has used the phrase “nigga” to refer to a group of fellow rappers.
What does this tell us about her as a person though? Pretty much nothing other than the fact that she feels confident enough to get away with this stuff. Honestly, I read more from her little heart symbol at the end of that message than her liberal use of the ‘N’ word. As much as we like to think otherwise, we can’t really read into what kind of person someone really is from just their social media activity (in fact, attempting to do just that is incredibly destructive). We can maybe draw a general attitude, but nothing much beyond that. So when people collectively decide that Azalea is making an attempt to mock black artists based on just that, I’m going to have to disagree. Just watching some of her early videos from before she got famous and was just some kid in her room with a camera and reading her interviews should be enough to see how she really feels about the hip-hop industry. When she puts on her “blaccent” and performs, I don’t see a snide college-aged racist hiding behind the label of subversive humour. At best, Azalea is a passionate fan of the hip-hop genre wishing to pay it homage in a manner that is a little overzealous at times, at worst she’s a fan girl wannabe with absolutely no self-awareness. Say what you will about her, but when I see her talk about hip-hop culture, I see someone that shows genuine reverence for it rather than someone who is just looking to exploit it (this isn’t to say that she isn’t doing just that however).
“So white people aren’t allowed to be successful in hip-hop?”
This concern right here is probably the most pressing issue of all when it comes to this controversy. This is the most volatile statement, and the one that leads to all the most vitriolic internet arguments. Iggy Azalea hit it big with “The New Classic” and has become a household name. Many people are fans of her now, some are indifferent, and others absolutely hate the fact that this happened. One of the key reasons for the outrage is that hip-hop, like rock and roll before it, is a genre of music that was born out of the historical struggles faced by black people and that Iggy Azalea is aggressively appropriating that culture for her career and is getting rich off of it. The argument being that like Elvis Presley before her (whom Azalea has compared herself to), she is taking a style of music mostly associated with black culture and projecting it to an audience that is more receptive to it because she is white. Eminem did it, Macklemore did it, and now Iggy is doing it too, but with the added step of putting on a voice to make her sound like a black performer. For many fans of hip-hop, this is the equivalent of adding insult to injury, to Azalea herself, this is probably her attempt to sound like all her favourite artists do. So the case is made that Azalea is a person who “steals” from black culture and is profiting off of it mainly from a crowd of people who support her because they feel her music is more accessible to them because she herself is white. For a lot of people invested in the hip-hop industry, this is problematic, but things go completely off the rails when one asks what the solution to this problem should be. The questions start expanding from there too, “Should white people just not get involved in hip-hop? Is that how you feel? Then isn’t that its own form of prejudice?”, which are all legitimate concerns when we go down this line of reasoning. This is where accusations of “reverse-racism” come in, this is where people get passionate about “how hard it is to be white these days”, and this is also where someone gets into a slippery slope argument about how white people are going to “steal hip-hop like they stole rock and roll”. This is a lot to unpack.
First of all, before one is to begin, let’s summarize why Iggy Azalea is so infuriating to so many people just as a refresher.
Iggy Azalea is:
– A privileged white girl from Australia.
– An artist that has found huge success in a genre of music that is heavily tied to the historical oppression of black people in America.
– A rapper that speaks in an imitation of what southern black hip-hop artists sound like in a country that has a dark history of minstrel performers who impersonated black people for the purpose of entertaining white people.
– A celebrity that wholly embraces hip-hop culture to the point where she generally speaks in a vernacular that is viewed as inappropriate for a white person to be speaking in because it is something white people have historically used as an obstacle for black people in society (harder to get a job with a “blaccent”).
– A performer that is often praised by white journalists who proudly make claims like “Hip-Hop is Run by a White Blonde Australian Woman” with an attitude that comes dangerously close to racial pride territory (because white people have had a tough go of things and definitely need this boost!).
Outrage with Azalea’s presence in the world of hip-hop does not come from a place of jealousy as many would like to believe. Slip into the head-space of those annoyed with her and it’s so easy to feel irritated as well. This just feels like another thing that went wrong, another advantage white people have that other don’t. With all that said though, what does anyone involved want done about it? Should she stop performing because she’s white and white people are more comfortable with other white people? Should there be no white hip-hop artists? Should she change her speech style (the one she got rich off of) to appease people who probably don’t listen to her music anyways at the detriment of her own career as Questlove has suggested? It’s just not plausible or fair (for anyone really), and it’s difficult to even discuss at times.
One really can’t talk about the race politics of Iggy Azalea without discussing her feud with the similarly named rapper Azealia Banks, who has been very outspoken about her passionate hatred for the artist. Dubbing her “Igloo Australia” (a nickname I am ashamed to admit earned a few laughs out of me), Banks has gone on record to state in an interview (that reduced her to tears that) “When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids 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.’ And it makes me upset,” and “At the very f***ing least, y’all owe me the right to my identity. That’s all we’re holding on to in hip-hop and rap,” and with this it’s clear how deep Banks’ passion for all this is. Iggy Azalea’s harsh response to that, which reduces Banks to being just a crying “bigot”, just exacerbates the situation and brings more attention to the race issues that lie at the heart of the controversy. This is not the end of it either. Iggy Azalea’s employer (rapper T.I.), who endorses colour blindness when dealing with people who question his decision to sign her, is only adding fuel to the flames. Look, “colour blindness” is nothing. It doesn’t exist. No one is colour blind, and saying nonsense statements like “I can’t believe we’re at a place in America where we still see color” doesn’t help anyone (we know what colour he’s really seeing, and it isn’t white or black or something that can normally be found on people’s skin).
What I draw from all this, the conclusion I wring out at the end of this lengthy “Iggy Azalea Saga” (a bona fide hip-hopera), is that she is a product of racial naivety. She is loved by a lot of white people that would not be comfortable listening to her if she were black, she is hated by people who don’t understand that there are no “solutions” to the “problem” she represents, she herself is a white artist that doesn’t understand anything about the race politics of her situation and just wants to pursue a career in a genre she clearly loves, and she is backed by black producers who only care about the colour green. The thing about Iggy Azalea and all this discussion about the advantages her race creates is that it is beyond our control and something we shouldn’t lose ourselves in either. Hip-hop is not going the way of rock and roll because of one white performer, you can’t convince white people to be more comfortable with black artists when most of them don’t realize they have those biases in the first place, and you can’t just decide what kind of person someone is based on their social media activity. I fully understand why her existence is so bothersome to so many people, and the response to those grievances have often ranged from mediocre to blatantly racist (looking at you “reverse-racism”), but it’s for the best if people could accept reality for what it is and let go of that hatred. Iggy Azalea as a brand is something that has certainly benefited from structural racism and white privilege, but is it a construct that perpetuates racism and further oppresses people of colour? To that, I say no, but it can be said that it sure as hell created a conversation that couldn’t have existed in a “post-racial society”.