So Phony: Iggy Azalea is Rap’s Jim Crow
Last week, Langston Wilkins published an article on Iggy Azalea in the Washington Post stating that “hip-hop is no longer a culture owned by black Americans.” And he might be right. White people now account for up to 75% of hip-hop album sales in the United States, so it should come as no surprise that as the influence of hip-hop has diversified, so too have its key players. This is likely the reason that Lupe Fiasco defended Iggy Azalea this past December by asserting that she “has a place in hip-hop.” He sees the changing demographic landscape of the genre’s influence and he doesn’t believe that Iggy should be excluded because of her race.
However, to quote Ebony’s Jamilah Lemieux, the constant controversy surrounding Iggy Azalea “isn’t about keeping white artists out of Black music, it’s about acknowledging how a mediocre one can dominate unfairly.”
And dominate she has. During her meteoric rise this past summer, Azalea matched the Beatles as the only acts to ever occupy the top two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 charts with their first two hits, and she passed Lil’ Kim for most consecutive weeks at number one by a female rapper – a list that is only four acts long and does not include Nicki Minaj or even Missy Elliot. Azalea’s tracks may be catchy, but come on! Her popularity clearly exceeds her talent, and given the demographics of her listenership, it’s not hard to tell why.
Make no mistake, Iggy is hardly the first musician to benefit from white privilege. Just peep this infographic created by the Huffington Post on white rappers at the Grammys. Kanye West is the only black rapper to ever win a Grammy for Best Rap Album against a white nominee (and even he couldn’t take down Macklemore), and it seems as though fellow Caucasian Eminem – the highest selling and most awarded rapper of all time – was the only thing standing in the way of Azalea winning the award this year. Soul music, too, is currently being dominated by Adele and Sam Smith. And it has happened time and time again throughout history, from Benny Goodman to Elvis Presley to Justin Timberlake.
Why? Because America loves black culture, but not black people. Like hip-hop today, jazz and rock and roll were denounced by white culture as scandalous and degenerate before white artists broadened their appeal. And now twerking, big butts, cornrows, and Timberlands – shit black people have been doing and appreciating for years – are in vogue now that a critical mass of white celebrities have begun adopting them.
Obviously, you can’t necessarily blame white artists for this. But at least folks like Eminem and Macklemore have acknowledged their privileged position in the industry, and have used their platform to speak up about it. Azalea only gets defensive and refuses to acknowledge the important role that race still plays in America when she is criticized. While Macklemore was demonstrating in solidarity with Ferguson protesters in Seattle, Iggy Azalea was nowhere to be seen or heard from until Azealia Banks called her out on Twitter. In case you couldn’t already guess, her response did little more than prove Banks’ point. Clearly she has no problem using black culture for her own benefit, yet she remains silent on issues like racism and inequality that are ailing the black community. Like Banks said when she paraphrased Paul Mooney, “everybody wanna be black, but don’t nobody wanna be black.”
And that brings us to the single most problematic thing about Iggy Azalea, and it is something you absolutely can blame her for. Other white rap acts may have also garnered a lot of success – and some of that success may have been unfair – but they largely did it while being themselves and rapping in their own voice. Azalea’s rap persona, on the other hand, is anything but. The native Australian’s entire get-up is nothing more than a white caricature of blackness, and her “blaccent” is pure imitation. It is the modern-day equivalent of a minstrel show. Azalea and acts like her (lookin’ at you, Riff Raff!) play off of harmful stereotypes from the white imagination about what black people are supposed to be like. But naturally, what is viewed as pathological in the black community is celebrated and reveled in when undertaken by whites.
The bottom line is this: Iggy Azalea has unapologetically plundered black culture for her own personal gain. But what makes this fact so important to point out is that it is so much bigger than just music. It’s about the erasure of blackness in American society and the symbolic violence of that act; it’s about the knowledge that nothing black people do has value until white people take it from them; and it’s about the continuing persistence of white supremacy in a supposedly post-racial society.
Photo credit: Owen Sweeney / Associated Press