Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Iggy Azalea and Black Culture: Homage or Appropriation?

The Australian Hip Hop star taps into a problematic cultural trend of enacting an essentialised African American culture. 
  by GrantAndrews

Iggy Azalea is currently perched at the top two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 with her first two entries, an incredible feat last accomplished by the Beatles. Her infectious Summer smash hit “Fancy” has topped the chart for five straight weeks and has sold over 2,3 million copies in the US, and her canny collaboration with YouTube sensation and rising star Ariana Grande on “Problem” has been latched to its tail at number two throughout its reign.

But despite her overwhelming commercial success, the music of Iggy Azalea is problematic on many fronts. Firstly, there is her shameless use of her sexuality to gain attention. This positions her as anti-feminist and as projecting a version of womanhood as only validated through the male desiring gaze. If men didn’t find her sexually appealing and women didn’t want to be her in order to be found similarly appealing, she might not have had fame at all. Her early prominent videos for the songs “Pu$$y” and “Two Times” were shameless sexual pandering. Watch them below, but be warned, very NSFW:

For those who question whether any particular act is anti-feminist, try and imagine a man doing the same act, or needing to perform that act in order to gain validation in his field. If an up-and-coming or established male rapper, say Big Sean or Drake, made a song called “Penis” and had endless shots of male crotches, it would be seen as a potentially career-ending joke, but in the case of Iggy Azalea, the female equivalent of this video went viral and launched her career.

In addition to this problematic aspect of her music, there is the inauthentic racial appropriation which permeates her songs and videos. She is a well-spoken middle-class Australian woman, yet she raps in the dialect common to African American people of lower socio-economic status. She is almost always flanked by black people in her videos, and often has them enact most of the stereotypes which her music relies on: wearing grills on their teeth, t-shirts that read “Drugs not Hugs”, twerking, and in the “Pu$$y” video, a black woman serving her and later a white man looking on at their antics in disgust (a white man also shakes his head at her in the "Fancy" video).

Her uncomfortable racial politics are further complicated by the video for her song “Bounce”, which has Iggy Azalea located in a shockingly Orientalist Indian reverie. This constant appeal to a sense of otherness seems to point towards a very colonial attraction to the mystical, essentialised other or the exoticism of difference, and makes her appropriation of African American culture all the more problematic.

So why is it a problem if a white person acts like a black person or uses particular cultural symbols? This does become a problem when it is done for profit, hence becoming cultural exploitation, and when similar artistic expressions from black individuals themselves seem to be consistently less successful, pointing to an underlying racism in the entertainment industry. A recent article on Soundcheck points out how there were no black artists at the top of the Billboard chart for the entire year of 2013, the first time in nearly 40 years that this has happened. However, most of the singles which topped the chart still fell within the traditionally “black” genres of Soul, R&B and Hip Hop, including Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Robin Thicke, and Eminem. Clearly, it is not wrong for these artists who make great music to top the charts, but it does raise the question why similar (or, in my opinion, vastly superior) talents such as Nicki Minaj do not achieve the same commercial success or top the charts like Iggy Azalea.

While Iggy Azalea might seem to be continuing this tradition of white artists emulating black culture, there is a major difference between these other artists and her: other white Hip Hop artists who have achieved mainstream success rap in their own dialect and use lyrics which authentically reflect their backgrounds, they do not speak in a way which is completely outside of their cultural frameworks in order to appeal to a particular audience. Eminem does not try to “sound black” when he raps, but Iggy Azalea clearly does, with nonsensical lyrics like the following:

I said, "Baby, I do dis, I thought that you knew dis." 
Can't stand no haters and honest the truth is 
And my flow retarded, each beat did depart it 
Swagger on stupid, I can't shop in no department

To get my money on time, if they not money, decline 
And swear I meant that there so much that they give that line a rewind 
So get my money on time, if they not money, decline 
I just can't worry 'bout no haters, gotta stay on my grind

Through these lyrics, she is clearly taking on a persona which appeals to the usual Hip Hop tropes of self-aggrandisement, machismo and consumerism, and there is very little here that is an authentic artistic expression the likes of which many of the other white artists listed above have achieved.

While her music might seem like harmless fun (and I must admit that I will continue to dance along to “Fancy” because of the infectious beat and chorus), these problems do point to a larger trend of racial appropriation which could indicate a form of othering that further disenfranchises African Americans. Azalea might be an unstoppable musical force, but her racial politics need to be assessed in the spirit of cultural respect.