Monthly Archives: December 2014

Iggy and Azealia: Good and Evil In Black and White

The coin has two sides.

The coin has two sides. (Left: Revolve Clothing; Right: Jason Nocito/Spin Magazine)

I’ve spilled virtual ink on Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, and their complicated relationship to each other and to music before. Twice in fact. But that was back in 2012, during this particular play’s first act. It looked like both were poised for big success and that we were destined to witness even more episodes of The Flora Wars because of it. But that was only half right.

Thus far, commercial competitiveness hasn’t been a defining element of the relationship between these two at all; it’s been the overwhelming unevenness of it. A month after Iggy’s debut album “The New Classic” dropped in April 2014, she was already standing toe-to-toe with the Beatles as the second artist in history to simultaneously occupy the #1 and #2 spots on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The album itself wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, but it debuted at #3 and has gone on to sell over 420K units in the U.S. alone as of early December 2014 (and that’s before counting the “Reclassified” reissue). Meanwhile, Azealia’s first official album finally made a surprise landing on November 6, 2014 and lo, the critical acclaim rained down in buckets…but sales have not. It entered the Billboard 200 at #30, selling 11K or so albums in the U.S., and if its second week sales of about 4K were any clue, it won’t be setting any records unless Black Jesus decides to grant Ms. Banks a holiday miracle.

“Black Twitter” (whatever that means) would like you to believe that Azealia is a 21st century lovechild of Nina Simone and Moms Mabley, while Iggy is just a cultural appropriator, an interloper looking to make several million fast-twerking bucks off of hip-hop culture. On the other hand, there are those who cast Iggy as a beautifully enchanted, fat-bottomed elf (the Tolkien variety, not the Christmas variety) from the Outback, who made her mark in a highly competitive genre despite being the wrong race and sex, and despite torrents of venom spewed her way by a rabidly envious, tragically wasted talent in the form of the Great Serpent, Azealia Banks.

The truth is that they’re both wrong.

We all know that Vanilla Ice was a pretender who hid behind a papier-mâché street resume and hi-top fade, but can we really say the same thing about Iggy? I’ve never heard of her misrepresenting who she is or where she’s from, in any sense of the words, as an attempt to gain acceptance or recognition. If you want to argue that because Iggy raps in an accent that is uncharacteristic of her race or where she’s from that she’s faking the funk, I’ll kindly ask you to pop in a Dana Dane tape or stream some French Montana and have a sofa’s worth of seats. Iggy grew up listening to black American rappers, so she raps like a black American rapper. Simple mathematics.

Then there’s the unspoken implication that talent is the deciding factor for whether someone gets an unrestricted pass into the Halls of Blackness. J. Cole’s recent words aside, very few black folks have anything to say about Eminem or Justin Timberlake. Of course, Eminem and J.T. happen to be top-class artists, and I’m not suggesting that Iggy is in their league. With that said, let’s be real: as a professional rapper, the woman is at least average.

I enjoy the hell out of “Work” and even as far back as “Pu$$y,” her talent was obvious. If her tracks were movies, maybe they wouldn’t be “Mad Max” yet, but cats are trying desperately to throw her in the discount bin with “Crocodile Dundee II,” and dude, that’s just wrong. I can think of multiple currently hot rappers who I’d rank like 13.7 levels below Iggy. (Cough. Migos. Cough. Young Thug.) The fact that there are constant rumors swirling that her mentor T.I. writes most/all of her lyrics, despite any real proof, should be a strong testament to her skill. Yet the hate persists.

And Iggy’s biggest hater is her nemesis, Azealia. She certainly not lonely though, ‘cause over the years Ms. Banks has gotten into more beef than a top-class Wagyu stud. I mean, the woman is firece, fiery, and flamboyant, and woe to he who trips her wire. She’s bickered with what seems to be a never-ending cavalcade of other artists and industry insiders, most importantly Interscope—which had been her major label home since 2012—before they dropped her in the summer of 2014, prior to even releasing her album. The woman has burned more bridges than the Luftwaffe, and as I’ve said before, she just seems so damned mean.

Then, last week, Azealia did an interview on Hot 97 where she articulated the frustrations that led to her most recent attack against Iggy. During the conversation, she talked about the latter’s silence in the wake of recent police violence and her view that it reflects a general lack of true concern for black people on Iggy’s part, despite an avowed love for their cultural artifacts. Overall, she lent a powerful voice to the sense that despite a general consensus that she and other black women like her are tremendously talented, many seem happy to ignore their contributions to culture.

“When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids is: ‘Oh yeah, 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 shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.’ And it makes me upset.”

Her teary emotional breakdown inadvertently exposed the depth of the wounds that she’s been nursing these last few years as a black woman in her early 20s, trying to navigate the landscape of an industry built on the immolation of your kind and the appropriation of its gifts. Despite being a thirtysomething black American man, I understood her plight in a deeply personal way, without ever having walked specifically in those mesh, platform wedge boots. There’s an undeniable truth to her recognition that there’s been a consistent effort to mine black cultural talent, refine and repackage it for white audiences, then enjoy the fruits of that appropriation.

Still, I wasn’t ready to lay the blame for that at Iggy’s feet…and Iggy wasn’t ready to accept it. Instead, she pointed at Azealia’s “piss poor attitude” as the cause for her inability to capitalize on critical success. With uncharacteristic bellicose gusto, she went on taunting Azealia: “Make it racial! make it political! Make it whatever but I guarantee it won’t make you likable & THATS why ur crying on the radio.”

The truth is that they’re both right.

It’s easy to look at the two artists’ mismatched outcomes and see a classic good vs. evil struggle in progress. The simplicity of a story with a well-defined hero and villain can be seductive—it’s worked nicely as the foundation for mountains of myths, fairy tales, and movies, and it makes for effortless moralizing—but the best modern storytellers understand that real life isn’t always so simple. They know that the boundary separating hero and villain is often blurred, if it exists at all. And it’s actually there, in that moral no man’s land, that we find Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, their allies, and their armies, engaged in a pop cultural proxy war for control of black identity in general and black female expression in particular. The ones funding the war on both sides are the millions of white fans who prop up an exploitative system, most of whom are just young, dumb teenagers, woefully and sometimes willfully ignorant of the real cost of the album that they just downloaded, even if they jacked it for free.

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After Ferguson, Is Violence An Answer?

50 years later and we’re still holding the same signs. (Credit: Wiley Price/St. Louis American)

For my initial commentary on the killing of Michael Brown, see my earlier piece, “No Escape: The Realities of Living with Police Violence.”

I watched the post grand jury decision protests in Ferguson morph into a riot on live television, and by the time a police cruiser went up in flames my blood was boiling. I was afraid, but there was more than a little excitement coursing through me, too. I could hear the part of me that I usually don’t bring to dinner parties whispering, “Take this to Clayton. Take it to Ladue. Take it to the suburbs that white folks actually care about.” And it was that small, dark prayer that led me directly to a question: Can violence in any way help Black America in its struggle for justice?

As those thoughts crawled around my head, I tried to squash them. They embarrassed me. I knew that, one way or another, rioting would inevitably produce innocent victims. Still, I’ll be damned if watching it all unfold didn’t make me feel alive on a day in which the central message appeared to be that, at any moment, I could be killed with impunity. After a few hours though, I made an uneasy peace with that surprising sense of vitality. In so doing, I realized that I was actually entertaining the possibility, no matter how distasteful or remote, that rioting might have a role to play.

A protest is a sternly written letter to the management. 21st century America is immune to them. You can march until your feet bleed, but unless you and your faithful companions are playing bagpipes or holding a string with a colossal, inflated cartoon character at the end, you will most likely fail to capture the American imagination. Violence, however, seems to work like a bloody charm. It’s in our national DNA.

In 1773, a group of American patriots demonstrated their displeasure with a certain British tax policy by dumping what would be the equivalent of over $1.7 MM in corporate property into Boston Harbor. Less than 100 years later, 11 southern states snatched a page from their colonial forbearer’s playbook and took up arms against the U.S. government, resulting in 620,000 deaths and an estimated $1.5 B loss in Southern physical capital alone (not to mention the billions in other direct and indirect costs on both sides), and that’s in 1860 dollars: it would be more like $39 B today. The slavers lost, but they’d made their point, and after a few short years they succeeded in resetting the clock on their social and political dominance of Southern life. Fast forward one more century and the American Civil Rights Movement, the very campaign created to counter the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, was relying on violence for its effectiveness, too. Oh, it’s unequivocally true that Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed for non-violent action by protestors, but he knew very well that every blow from a policeman’s baton in Selma was worth 10,000 renditions of “We Shall Overcome” on national television. Police held those nightsticks, but they were King’s weapons.

I realize that burning and looting, even if executed in a tactically sound way, is a far cry from the noble social jujitsu that King et al. practiced. I’m not attempting to suggest otherwise. I am, however, suggesting that they both spring from a recognition that the only means of affecting change in a corrupt system is to dismantle it, either in whole or part. That process is chaotic and violent by its very nature.

If you believe that a solid proportion of your fellow citizens are aligned with your cause, no matter how quiet they may be, you might be encouraged to press forward with less aggressive displays of frustration, hopeful that those demonstrations will turn silent supporters into active advocates. On the other hand, if you find that despite crying out until your voice is a memory, most of your neighbors are either apathetic about your cause or worse, antagonistic, it becomes more difficult to trust that signs and songs will save the day.

And it in fact, it does seem as if we’ve reached a point at which learning that unarmed black people are being beaten, gassed, and killed, even when the acts are perpetrated on camera, no longer elicits a sympathetic response from much of White America. Case in point, only 15% of whites agree that Darren Wilson should’ve been charged with murder for the killing of Michael Brown—not convicted, mind you, charged—as opposed to 59% of blacks. Then, just nine days after the Ferguson grand jury’s decision, we were told that Eric Garner’s killer wouldn’t be prosecuted either, despite the fact that millions of us watched the life get choked out of him needlessly, over and over again on YouTube and the news. How can you find common ground with someone when you apparently live in entirely separate dimensions?

Here’s to hoping that this image is the first word in an answer to my question. (Credit: Johnny Nguyen)

It should be apparent that I have no answers to present here. I don’t fancy myself a revolutionary. I’m certainly not foolhardy enough to think that any sustained violent interaction with the police or other authorities would ever lead to the establishment of a somehow more just regime in our country. And I’m loath to picture an America where destructive clashes with the powers that be become as common here as they are in…well, much of the world touched by European colonialism. Yet I now find it difficult to rid myself of this question of violence, and I’m a thirty-something MBA who’s a product of prep school and the Ivy League.

Many of the people in my circle share similar pedigrees, and I’ve been shocked at the number of them who’ve almost squealed in agreement when I’ve relayed my dismaying thoughts about the Ferguson riots. We are not disaffected urban youth with nothing to lose. Not by a long shot. We’ve got careers, and summer shares, and kids. And still, here we are, basking in the televised glow of a burning cop car, asking ourselves whether launching a brick through a window might bring us at least some small measure of psychological relief. It’s a question we don’t want to ask, but it’s becoming difficult to avoid. And that should scare America to death.

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