To say that the deaths of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner—and the subsequent decisions by grand juries to not indict the police officers who were responsible—were a big deal would be the understatement of last year. For months, news outlets, activists, and social media slacktivists have buzzed about the two deaths and their implications for police brutality and race in the United States.
In early December, right after a New York grand jury chose not to indict Eric Garner’s killer, members of the hip-hop community began tweeting their outrage at the jury’s decision and hope for change. One black artist, Azealia Banks, posted a scathing Tweet calling out white, Australian artist Iggy Azalea for not joining in.
“Its funny to see people like Igloo Australia silent when these things happen… Black Culture is cool, but black issues sure aren’t huh?” Banks wrote. Azalea replied the next day, telling her followers that change doesn’t happen on social media—implicitly accusing Banks of just trying to get attention by starting a fight.
While I do think that Azalea comes out on top in this Twitter fight for putting up a calm, reasonable defense and not just escalating things further, I can’t help but feel that she’s just deflecting the bigger issue with her response. The fact of the matter is that Azalea and other artists just like her are ruining hip-hop, but not precisely for all the reasons her critics list.
On the surface, Azalea’s work is pretty unusual. Azalea is white and Australian—not exactly the pedigree expected of brag-spitting hip-hop artists. More importantly (and problematically), Azalea’s act and singing style seem to draw on African American stereotypes.
At best, Azalea’s career is nothing more than a whitewashed version of Nicki Minaj and, at worst, an appropriation of a genre of music that has historically been created by black people and has typically had an activist message. Hip-hop has its roots in the black activism of the 1960s and 70s. By the time hip-hop came into its own in the 80s, groups like Public Enemy wove stories of activism and political dissent into almost every song.
Azalea clearly does not live up to that legacy in any way. When she’s not bragging it up about how sweet and “fancy” she is, she’s—well, that’s about all she does in her music. It’s Iggy, Iggy, and then more Iggy. There’s not a message to be found—certainly not one that is in solidarity with the black portion of the hip-hop community. And Azalea’s sole defense against these criticisms is a weak deflection, saying that people calling her racist are sexist because no one says the same thing about white artist Macklemore.
Azalea is wrong about that. Plenty of people see Macklemore as another whitewashed artist who’s ruining the genre. Azalea’s critics are right to call her out and draw attention to her cultural appropriation and bad music.
Where Azalea’s critics falter is that they attribute Azalea’s failure to her race. Azalea is neither bad for hip-hop nor bad at hip-hop because she’s white. Azalea is bad for and at hip-hop because of her shallow music and appeal to the least common denominator.
Some of Azalea’s critics seem to assume that white artists inherently dilute and weaken the genre. They cite Eminem and Macklemore as contemporary successors of Elvis: stealing away black music—dumbing it down, making it white, and then getting rich off of it.
Just last month, hip-hop artist J. Cole released 2014 Forest Hills Drive. “While silly n****s argue over who gon’ snatch the crown / Look around, my n****, white people have snatched the sound,” J. Cole raps on “Fire Squad.” He also calls out Justin Timberlake, Eminem, and Macklemore. But J. Cole and people who make similar claims are wrong. White hip-hop artists are not an inherently bad thing. It’s white and black hip-hop artists who do not respect the political origins of hip-hop and strive for mass appeal as opposed to a meaningful message who are the problem.
No genre of music should be reserved for any one race. Of course, hip-hop has its origins in black communities, but that influence does not fade when some white artists adopt hip-hop music to tell their own stories in an appropriate way.
Hip-hop’s biggest battle shouldn’t be over race. It should be over quality.