In one corner: Iggy Azalea, Australian rapper, number one hit maker. In the other: Azealia Banks, viral sensation, Twitter-active rap star. As celebrity feuds, go, theirs is one of the most public to come out of Hollywood in the past few months. However, what could be just one of many tabloid catfights actually raises much more serious issues over celebrity, activism and cultural representation.
All around the world, race is a hot topic – from people coming to blows over comments from a loud-mouthed UKIP politician to the Ferguson race riots in the USA. Last month, Azealia Banks called out both the music industry and Iggy for what she felt to be yet another attempt by white culture to appropriate something that isn’t theirs. When she said “That Iggy Azalea shit isn’t better than any f******* black girl that’s rapping today, you know?” she made her message quite clear: Iggy is only getting the awards and recognition because she’s white and not because of merit.
You might ask why she’s creating so much fuss – after all there are white rappers like Eminem or Macklemore that manage to do well, with the latter particularly respected. However, you’d be in serious denial for suggesting that the hip-hop/rap scene isn’t deeply entrenched in African-American identity. From the days of Motown, Isaac Hayes and James Brown, many of the pioneers of hip-hop and rap come from the African-American community. Banks’ view that rap is a part of black identity is by no means unfounded.
But this leads us to questions about the extent to which artists are expected to be a symbol for anything other than their artistic output. After all, they’re musicians, not activists. By no means am I belittling what it seems Banks truly believes: that African-Americans should fight for a part of their cultural identity that they can tangibly claim is theirs. But at the same time, if we ask artists to become advocates for things far bigger than themselves, it could end up turning these issues into a popularity contest.
For every Angelina Jolie or Emma Watson that gets lauded for a valid point, there’s some airhead ‘celebrity’ simply putting her name on something so that others will follow. It’s a tricky line to toe and one that I think artists, with their huge superstructures of media management, haven’t yet balanced.
The notion of musicians being figures more public than they might have bargained for is not a new one, so I wonder why these industries haven’t been more responsive. In 2015, race is not just an issue in the musical arena. It’s on the fashion runways and in the recent Oscar nominations too. It’s fair to say the music industry is lagging behind somewhat.
It’s not to say that some artists aren’t trying to achieve that balance: Macklemore recently made a statement saying he’s “aware of where the music comes from.” Clearly it’s still an uncomfortable statement, toeing the PR line nonetheless. Eminem is well known for giving credit to the many people of colour he works with – credit where credit is due is an important thing.
Banks’ point is one that transcends music. I believe the best person should get the job and if there are rappers – particularly black ones – that are better than Iggy Azalea of course it’s natural to feel that they’re being short changed, and that this is indicative of a bigger problem in society. But at the same time, this isn’t a discussion to be bandied about like playground insults on Twitter. Musicians, actors, models are all so for a reason, and instead of rallying round them like it’s a popularity pageant, perhaps we should let their artistic output speak for themselves.
PHOTO/ Pooneh Garner
PHOTO/ Laura Murray