Call: A friend recently asked me to respond to some of his recent inquiries about the Iggy Azalea phenomenon. He asks, “So I’ve read a handful articles about Iggy Azalea and “cultural appropriation.” I didn’t really know who that was until she popped up on my wife’s gym instructor playlist. So I can now agree she sounds kinda like an African American lady from Atlanta to my white Texan ears. And she is neither African nor american nor from Atlanta. 1. Is this bad? 2. If so, who is to blame? Iggy? TI? Listeners? “Culture?””
Response: Thanks for reaching out! First, I should begin this response by saying that this is the first time I have bothered talking about Iggy Azalea because she is not worth the mass attention she receives. Next, the fact of this mass attention and the social, legal, and economic rewards she inherits from a long tradition of cultural appropriation is the purpose of most black people’s outcry. Towards this end, I will focus this response on the double standards of mimesis and the degrees to which appropriation serves to disrupt two concepts: the norm and the natural. This point is worth dwelling on because without a comprehensive understanding of history, we cannot really appreciate how Azalea has managed to weasel her way into an industry that has never appreciated the origins of rap music and hip-hop culture.
Q-Tip’s detailed Twitter history of hip-hop/rap sought to remind Azalea that the culture she has chosen to join consists of a history, rituals, and practices embedded in black suffering, rage, and pride. This particular exclusion, which is shamelessly part of American’s performance of “the normal,” gave birth to a creative culture that would later give life to those who could care less about the source from which the funk comes. He defines hip-hop as a creative response to economic stratification and racial oppression that empowered East Coast youth. In doing so, he offered Azalea the opportunity to begin a dialogue. However, he was met with cold, lackluster resistance. If she found his generous attempt to connect to her “patronizing,” it is only because she feels zero obligation to prove any “authenticity” beyond her ability to mimic black Southern poetics. Throughout many black artists’ attempt to discover her investment in the socio-political character of rap music and its discursive forms, she has been disrespectful, dodgy, and downright despicable. Indeed, I certainly blame her for failing to engage in one of the most basic rituals of hip hop discourse, which is ATTRIBUTION. Azalea may do a fantastic job imitating women like my lovely homegirl La Femme Nikita, who has been putting it down (this vid for example, produced 4 years ago) for YEARS without the recognition Iggy Azalea enjoys for her mediocre miming. Unlike my girl, whose videos include a NARRATIVE of her life in Texarkana and her personal experiences with sexism, poverty, colorism, racism, jealousy, and madness, Iggy Azalea is “so fancy” because she clearly does not understand the CULTURE she has decided to participate in, nor is she required to. All people hear is her ability to master Trap music’s social language.
To her credit, it’s not that bloody hard since T.I. wasn’t exactly the world’s most linguistically dexterous rapper. I can happily contend, from a literary perspective, that Eminem puts him to absolute shame, as he did many rappers when he basically mainstreamed a rather stagnant industry that stalemated after the “coast wars” culminated in the deaths of Tupac and Biggie–both of whom he idolized and gives credit in his music. Again, Eminem has a NARRATIVE, he tells HIS STORY in his music, and raps in a style he is happy to attribute to the influences of Biggie, Kurupt, NAS, and others. His familiarity with these artists, the marginalization of hip-hop, the racialization of ownership and expression clearly contributed to his rejection of whiteness and blackness as categorical “givens” that technologically determine who will or won’t be able to master the poetic expertise necessary to innovate the industry, culture, and the music. This is why Eminem is respected by most black people–even as he is liked, but not at all understood by most of his white fans. He admits what Azalea does not, his whiteness inhibited him from entering the space of hip-hop, but it also enabled him to reach the hip-hop industry’s greatest height.
Historically speaking, I do not individually blame Azalea for utilizing her whiteness to shamelessly profit on a form of music that has been ripped from the center of its birthplace and distributed throughout the masses. She cannot be blamed for the fact that black cultural production almost always gets de-racialized and categorized as a non-property to justify and permit white legal ownership. [J. Rodriguez writes about this transformation in his ethnography, “Color Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop.”] The fact is, “American music” *is* black music, as LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka argues in “Blues People,” and the first “Pop American Artists” were black women, as Angela Davis argues in “Blues Legacies and Black Feminisms, and Daphne Harrison argues in, perhaps my absolute favorite book on blueswomen, “Black Pearls.” The issue with Iggy Azalea stems from the fact that copyright laws originated when black people were still defined as property, and subsequently handled as half-humans, less-than-animals, sub-properties, which has systematically excluded us from being the widespread economic privileges incurred from burgeoning entertainment industries. K.G. Greene describes this landscape in his fascinating article, “CopyNorms,” and Nate Harrison’s brilliant audio documentary about the recent appropriation of the Winston’s “Amen Break,” copyrighted in 1969 and also copyrighted by a UK advertising agency in 2002, also provides some historical context for this problem. I also attempted to trace some of these issues by asking the simple question, “Is Betty Boop Black?” in a recent blog post, in which, I examine Helen Kane’s lawsuit against Max Fleischer/Paramount, which failed because of her ‘borrowing’ the style of Cotton Club singer “Baby Esther” Jones. Despite the fact that she lost the suit, Jones didn’t see a crumb or a dime from either Jones or Fleischer’s use of her signature “Boo, boo, bee, doop” style. This case reminded me of the fact that Bessie Smith’s family didn’t get a penny from her music either, and she was one of the most saavy black female musicians alive at the time–demanding to learn about royalties from executives. Scores of blueswomen were just happy to make a few dollars from a phonograph record, and excited to travel on the TOBA and be featured in Vaudeville shows all over the country, unprotected by copyright laws. Despite Smith’s caution, her crooked manager deliberately misinformed her and had her sign away her rights on a shady deal that essentially continues to inhibit her family from acquiring the rights to her music.
Now let’s talk about ass. Mainstream culture’s recent interest in ass as a ‘phenomena’ is pissing off lots of black women. Suddenly, white women are getting booty for booty. First, we have Vogue’s bold claim that this is the “era of ass,” in which they erroneously lament that, “Perhaps we have Jennifer Lopez to thank (or blame?) for sparking the booty movement. When she first arrived on the scene in the late nineties, a lot of the buzz surrounding her focused on the back of her voluptuous body. Her derrière quite literally stood out against the other sex symbols of the moment, signaling a shift away from the waif era of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Moss and the outrageously large-breasted Pam Anderson. Lopez’s behind was so unique, and evidently so valuable, there were rumors she had taken out insurance worth millions to protect the asset.” Notice that their discussion of J.Lo could be re-coded as simply, “Big Butts Now Popular Among Middle-Class White People,” because their comprehension of sex symbols in the excerpted passage includes zero black women, and they obviously missed the memo from decades before that because when black people celebrated ass, it was “ghetto,” “filthy,” and “gutter.” As lyrically bankrupt as Nikki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video is, one must admit that she is attributing one of the first mainstream proclaimations of butt love to Sir-Mix-A-Lot. ATTRIBUTION. She knows that her big ass needs to give some props to that man for celebrating the power of bootay. In the spirit of hip-hop tradition, she ensures that listeners know that she is hardly taking her back *that* seriously. Examine the “mainstream” reaction to Minaj–focus is on bananas, and such, mind you, no one acknowledges one of the most viral sex symbols in black culture (pre-plastic surgery) the Queen B sang similar songs! Listen to Anaconda’s lyrics and you see a clear tradition in hip-hop, the narrative of prior lovers and promiscuity. Lil Kim does this in “Not Tonight,” and plenty of male artists do it, as well! Too Short’s famous recurring character, “Blowjob Betty” appears in one of his well-known tracks “Freaky Tales.” Similarly, Devin the Dude does this in his comedic tracks, “She Useta Be,” (Note all the talk about ASS!), and “She Want that Money.” Meanwhile, Iggy Azalea and J.Lo rub asses in some posterior rendition of hip-hop/pop music and they are considered “glamorous.” Miley Cyrus twerks with her flat pancake booty covered in beige spandex against a married man, and she is lauded as a “pop culture icon.” Indeed, she received criticism for abandoning her good-girl image, but that’s what pisses us black women off…whether she is praised for “coming into her womanhood” or shamed for being a “bad girl,” Miley got to be innocent. Her whiteness affords her access to taboo expression and she is able to capitalize on it as she pleases. Hell, she can even include a faceless, nameless black woman bending over and shaking her ass in her shows and videos. Miley can slap that ass alright. She knows that if she does the same thing, she’ll be celebrated for some kind of rebellion, coolness, or innovation. The black woman whose face we never see, whose name we’ll never know, whose history we could care less about, is just being (naturally) “black.”
On the other hand, white woman “work hard for the booty.” Ask Jen Selter. A white woman whose made about every top Internet list of fine derrieres. Ask her rival Caitlyn Rice. Again, black women who have been perculating, twerking, and pop-lock-and dropping it for years are not considered to be “hard-working fitness gurus or fashion models,” They are just being ghetto (video) ho’s. To fully understand how black women’s asses are commodified, look at any free porn site like PornHub or RedTube or XHamster to learn more about the social spaces that finance black women’s asses. In sum, the respectability that white women like Azalea, practically white women like J-Lo, (yeah I know she’s Latino, but like Beyonce, J-Lo’s race is an amalgam depending on the time period she wants to seem relevant in–Fly Girl one minute, Selena the next, Jenny from the Block on Friday, Super Glam Red Carpet Diva on Wednesdays–whatever), earn through their use of body parts, cultures, and languages that marginalize their black female counter-parts reveals that the dynamics of “whiteness” and “blackness” lies in an ability to access legal and social channels of ownership and mass marketing.
One may say, well, black people can “appropriate” white culture too. Ah, but to say that would be to admit that white people are a culture–which will simply not enter the conversation if a person wants to claim that Azalea is some color-blind entity. Meanwhile, they must also admit that black people must speak and act in ways that will reduce their own cultural productive capacities because they seek to appear “less threatening” to whites. In my personal experience, I found it demeaning to participate in a high school debate tournament, and later an academic conference, or even more recently, an academic talk that I was invited to give at my alma mater, and be praised for how “articulate” I am. I have never before in my life heard a white colleague provided the same compliment for speaking in similar ways. It is as if they are observing a talking monkey or Orangutan. I have also received hostile responses from competing with whites. I learned very quickly in graduate school that many of my colleagues–liberal, progressive people on paper–felt “sorry for black people,” or seemed to like them well enough when they were serving them food, entertaining them in sports, music, or pornography, or making their hotel beds. However, when you are vying for similar positions of power, the snide remarks come out. I must be “angry” for looking them in the eyes when they speak, I must feel “upset” for being a black woman (I am VERY PROUD to have centuries of human survival under some of the harshest conditions ever imposed on a human in the history of humans running through my veins thank you very much), and that I should be “thankful” that I may get chosen as an Affirmative Action hire. This idea of the tables turning, or all imitation as occurring under equal conditions, is absurdly false.
In sum, the blame game does nothing more than perpetually erase the historical facts of unequal personhood between the white and black races that inhibited the legal access necessary to equally compete in the ownership society. Azalea won’t be the first or last white woman to derive value from a culture that mainstream society continues to draw on for its definitions of thugs, criminals, and ho’s. Fortunately, for the blonde cutie with no booty from down under, none of these categories will ever apply to her. Therein lies the problem.