Hip Hop’s Quandary

Photo by Jørund Føreland Pedersen, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

By: Larry Zhang, Senior Editor


Iggy Azalea and Macklemore?

Some have accused the two rappers and the many more Caucasian musicians before them of “whitewashing” black culture, ever since African Americans sparked the birth of Jazz music nearly 100 years ago. This jazz was quickly rebranded by white musicians who were influenced by blacks into a state of rock n’ roll, where white musicians quickly outsold, outnumbered, and ultimately outgrew their black counterparts to become more successful from African American music than African Americans themselves.

Some have even gone to claim that white musicians “stole the sound” from blacks, exploiting their creative genius and using the color of their skin to reach success some of those minorities in the United States could never achieve. Modern Hip Hop, a musical genre born out of pain and struggle, was essentially a by-product of white oppression. The modern-day irony is that this form of expression has proliferated further than race. Hip Hop is and will forever serve as a voice for many African Americans, but the homogeneity of the genre has largely disappeared.

Namely, an emergence of non-black artists have quickly come to dominate the scene. Marshall Bruce Mathers III, more famously known as Eminem, has won 13 Grammy awards from 42 nominations and has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide. More importantly, however, is that there is simply no question on whether or not his success has purely come from the fact that he is a white artist who can make award-winning music in a black genre. Even without accounting for the color of his skin, Eminem’s lyrical ability surpasses that of most rappers alive today, black or white. The Beastie Boys are another hip hop act, a group of white musicians who quickly found their way into the mainstream with their talent. Big Pun and Cypress Hill represent two of the most successful Latino acts ever in rap. But what about some of the most recent non-black rap musicians, such as Iggy Azalea?

Iggy Azalea, born Amethyst Amelia Kelly in New South Wales, is an Australian rapper who emerged into the American hip hop and pop culture scene with her numerous chart-topping singles, such as “Fancy”, “Black Widow”, and “Problem.” Regardless of the enormous differences in opinion on her, Iggy’s debut album The New Classic quickly made her a household name, though not without controversy. Recently, an article from The Daily Beast accused her of committing cultural crimes, saying, “Iggy Azalea doesn’t wear blackface, but that doesn’t mean her drag performance doesn’t share some essential genetic code with the old-school American minstrel show” (The Daily Beast).

Despite the harsh backlash some have placed upon her, has she really committed any “cultural crimes?” To put into perspective, it seems quite hard to ignore the large discrepancy of her speaking voice and performing voice. Mentor and fellow rapper T.I., a black rapper and self-proclaimed “King of the South” who has dominated the Southern rap scene, recently defended Iggy’s place in hip hop music. But unlike T.I., Iggy cannot attribute her music to the origins of her upbringing, whether to a specific place or culture. With nothing to build her music on, she essentially mimics the influences she receives from the South on what Dr. Brittney Cooper (scholar and professor of African American Studies) claims, “this Australian born-and-raised white girl almost convincingly mimics the sonic register of a down home Atlanta girl.”

Her influence undeniable and upbringing questionable, it is no surprise that for somebody like Iggy Azalea partaking in a predominantly African American culture, controversy becomes the norm. Whereas Eminem’s humble trailer park roots found himself struggling against the stigma of white poverty, Iggy can make no such claim. In many eyes, she is “unauthentic” and hence raises many eyebrows on the topics of race, gender, and co-option within today’s larger issues.

Azealia Banks, a black female rapper, recently announced to the world on how she felt regarding the prominence of white artists like Iggy in hip hop culture. When interviewed by HOT 97, she proclaimed “that Iggy Azalea [expletive] isn’t better than any [expletive] black girl that’s rapping today.” Whether one professes Azalea or Azealia’s music as better than the other, such opinion does not obscure the greater debate at hand: the apparent co-opting of  predominantly black music and rebranding it to the American public, proclaimed by some as in “whiteface.” However, the process is far from new, so Iggy cannot be put to blame in such regard. Regardless, jazz, blues, ragtime, soul, country, and rock n’ roll were all invented or inspired by black musicians. Amy Zimmerman of the Daily Beast makes a wonderful point regarding the evolution of historically black music:

“What’s disturbing is the fact that the names, faces, and recordings of those early black influencers have been all but erased. Sometimes this phenomenon has a one to one ratio, like when Chuck Berry’s rock and roll star was totally eclipsed by Elvis Presley, a white man who could ‘sound, feel, and perform black.’ In this way, inspiration becomes appropriation, which leads directly to theft and erasure. White musicians are rewarded for their ability to imitate their black counterparts, and decades of black achievement and musical genius are swept under the rug, forgotten and ignored.”

Whether deemed inspiration or theft, the practice white musicians have for so long taken a part in is virtually unavoidable to the point that denouncing it as “theft” is outrageous. However, this practice has been exercised by all people and is not limited to white musicians, nor will it ever be. For the genre of hip hop, though, the conflict goes beyond simply the appropriation of historically black music by non-black artists. Take for example Macklemore’s win at the 2013 Grammys. While most of the hip hop community expected breakout star Kendrick Lamar and his debut studio album good kid, m.A.A.d city to receive the Grammy for Best Rap Album, it was instead handed over to Macklemore for his work, The Heist. His recognition, however, outshines that of many black rappers in the game, ultimately coming across to many as discriminatory and unfair. While some may doubt his talent, in reality he is also a talented star that has successfully broken down the race barrier in hip hop.

Part of Macklemore’s appeal comes from his accessibility to audiences outside most of hip hop and rap. His popularity and profitability can be without a doubt attributed to the fact that he is more “palatable” to some audiences, winning them over and overshadowing those rappers who may have more outstanding work but more questionable subject matter. Because of this, Macklemore later sent a text message, which went viral online, containing an apology to Lamar. In it he says, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.”

The problem most apparent with Iggy Azalea, as opposed to artists like Macklemore who at least sound authentic and reminiscent of their upbringing (the Pacific Northwest), is that she profits off of her appeal to white audiences while mimicking the unmistakable culture and creative genius unique to many black musicians. In this sense, many believe Iggy benefits from her ability to appropriate “blackness” while washing it off at her will.

The most pressing issue at hand, thus, may be the ability of non-black artists to benefit economically and socially from co-opting black culture without suffering from the weight of those problems that are so deeply intertwined within said culture. For instance, Banks tweeted on Twitter, “black culture is cool, but black issues sure aren’t huh?” in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s controversial death, obviously targeting Iggy.

On the other hand, many do not acknowledge “cultural appropriation” and its inherent relationship with systemic racism. The U.S., a nation founded as a result of a melting pot of unique, diverse cultures, inevitably allows for the cultural influence upon Americans by Americans, whether in the realms of art, music, food, language, sports, etc. Whether this influence leads to “borrowing”, “imitating”, or straight-up “stealing”, all subgroups of Americans have and will always benefit and regress from others, especially with the expedient proliferation of culture via the internet and social media.

The argument that Iggy Azalea is an artist performing in “blackface” thus fails to legitimize in the views of some, black or white. Instead, she is seen as a commodity prepackaged to appeal to a certain audience, not unlike the beginnings of hip hop itself, where certain artists made music for certain subgroups of people. Thus, “cultural appropriation” finds itself in a dilemma on how legitimate such a concept actually is.

Whether or not one thinks Iggy is indeed guilty of the cultural crimes many accuse her of, her place in hip hop is not undeserved. Her appeal is obvious to America, even if it is more from whites than blacks. Given the success of her debut album in both sales and award nominations such as the 2014 Grammys, scheduled to take place in a little over a month, there is no question that there is a fan base devoted to her music. However, her authenticity is also without a doubt entirely another.

As the 57th Grammy Awards approach this February, the presence of white musicians in a historically black art form will only grow more controversial. Some, like Eminem, have established their place as legends in hip hop and cannot be subject to such controversy. Others, like Iggy and Macklemore, are surviving for the time being. On the other hand, YG, a new rapper restoring West coast gangsta rap to its former glory, recently stated in an interview,

“Some of them albums is wack. I already knew I wasn’t gonna win a Grammy, but it was just that when I saw some of them albums on there, it was like, I ain’t really get it. And I know it got something to do with me being from the streets representin’ what I’m representin’.” The self-proclaimed “people’s champ” of 2014 recently won Best Rap Album from Billboard and a spot as the runner-up award from The Rolling Stone, yet failed to be recognized as even a nominee for the Grammy.

With Iggy’s album nominated for Grammy Best Rap Album of 2014 while the top three rap albums of 2014 (Run the Jewels’ Run the Jewels 2, YG’s My Krazy Life, and Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint) as proclaimed by The Rolling Stone make no such appearance, the state of hip hop and rap will only become more enshrouded in controversy. The battle for the best work of art, even with competing albums from artists of different backgrounds, however, is far from anything like a race war. As Jay-Z, one of rap’s greatest icons, put it,“I think that hip hop has done more for racial relations than most cultural icons. It’s very difficult to teach racism when your kid looks up to Snoop Doggy Dogg.” Snoop may not be a great role model, but the point is well-taken. No matter the nominations, I would be lying if I told you My Krazy Life wasn’t my favorite rap album of 2014.

Questions, Comments, Concerns? Contact Larry Zhang at lzhang@atlasbusinessjournal.org