There is a saying about artists: “Good artists copy; Great artists steal.” In a post-modern context, this would be referred to euphemistically as ‘appropriation’, and when it comes to hip-hop, there is perhaps no instrument from the hip-hop tool box used more commonly than the one called ‘appropriation’. Why, then, does it create such a stir when an Australian performer like Iggy Azalea chooses hip-hop as a way to express herself? People of colour have a legitimate concern, and conversations about cultural appropriation are important to have. After all, we don’t want minstrel shows and Amos and Andy to make a comeback. However, these antiquated practices weren’t instances of cultural appropriation; they were instances of cultural ridicule. Derogatory jokes based on perceived race persist, and anybody who has access to the internet will testify that that there remains any amount in insensitivity regarding ‘otherness’, but does celebrating, admiring, and sharing culture pose the same kind of problems? The short answer is that yes, it can, so conversations are central to raising awareness; however, what Azalea is doing is no different than what every artist and performer does: she has found a voice that allows her to express herself, and for that, there is no reason to attack her. Her derogatory comments about ethnicity and perceived race are certainly fair game for criticism, but in terms of music, it seems counterproductive to suggest that one must be of a specific colour, ethnicity, or nationality to engage with certain genres of music or artistic modes of expression.
When delving into this discussion, it is important to speak to the nature of the accusations. The issue is that many claim Azalea is appropriating ‘Black’ music because she records rap/hip-hop music. It has always been my understanding that music does not have a colour, unless you have synesthesia. To suggest that rap is ‘Black’ music is problematic. Shane Thomas, who is critical of Azalea, takes issue with a radio station because it refers to its playlist as ‘urban music’ and not ‘Black’ music. However claiming that the way Azalea talks is ‘Black’, or that hip-hop is representative of how ‘Black’ people express themselves, is potentially insulting. How many people of colour do you know that use the word ‘realist’? There is a subset of people who use language like this, to classify it as ‘Black’, however, is to make a broad sweeping statement. This dialect is of course a legitimate form of self-expression, but stereotyping it as ‘Black’ is problematic even if most of the people who employ happen to be of colour. This sounds like an echo of the Mylie Cyrus debate, where after behaving in an erratic and overtly sexualized manner, she was accused of ‘acting Black’. Is that really what ‘Black’ women act like? Was there something about Cyrus’s behaviour that left the audience thinking that her performance was representative of Black culture? There are people of colour who twerk and use the word ‘realist’, but there are also people of colour who reject this kind of behaviour and dialect, and neither is any more or less authentically ‘Black’ because of the dialect and dance moves they may or may not employ.
Outside of problematics of such a statement, it is also simply wrong to call hip-hop or rap music ‘Black’ for the simple reason that it is not exclusively Black and likely never has been. Run DMC recorded a cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”, in part as an argument that rap music was the new rock and roll, but also to demonstrate the genre had its roots in rock and roll (an argument recently restated by Kanye West). Run DMC is one of the groups that defined the genre, and given that their Caucasian producer, Rick Rubin, had a huge influence on their sound, as well as other pioneering rap artists like Public Enemy and LL Cool J, it seems fair to suggest that rap is a multicultural art form. Rubens founded Def Jam Records for crying out loud, which many view as the birth of modern hip-hop. Suggesting that the genre is inherently ‘Black’ would be to discount the work of one its pioneers. The Beastie Boys likewise served to define the genre in its earliest stages and were authentically a part of the cultural movement that shaped it, and all of its members were Caucasian. Was this also an instance of cultural appropriation? Aside from the production side, I can’t think of a single hip-hop artist who hasn’t sampled music recorded by Caucasian artists. Puff Daddy sampled The Police. Jay-Z sampled Nirvana. Nas sampled Carl Orff. Carl Orff! You don’t get any whiter than that. Not to mention the unending examples of collaborations. Is Kanye West’s “Homecoming” not an example of hip-hop because it features Chris Martin? Is Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre” not hip-hop because it features Eminem? Of course not. This would be ridiculous. But if so many works in hip-hop are collaborations with Caucasians, whether it be people featured in a record, or on the productions side, then is if fair to call the genre ‘Black’?
The collaborative approach is very much present in Azalea’s work as well. Though Azalea is the artist featured on the recording, she is not the only person whose voice is represented in the work. Just as Dr. Dre helped to shape Eminem’s voice, so too has T.I. served as producer to Azalea’s work. Her finished product, then, is not her voice alone, but a collaboration with a person of colour. Azalea hasn’t even written most of her songs, so even the words she raps/sings are not her own. Given that she is produced by a person of colour, and has other people writing for her, we must realize that to a certain extent Azalea is really a puppet. Aside from producing credits, T.I. is also featured on a track, as are artists like Mavado, and Watch the Duck: all of whom are Black. Azalea has also since recorded with Jennifer Lopez. Her work, then, is not recorded in the vacuum of some exclusively Caucasian town in Australia; it was a collaboration with a number of diverse people. This, of course, does not suggest that because some people of colour are alright with her art that all people of colour must be, but it does demonstrate that the music that she has released has been, at least in part, shaped by people who critics would have to concede are ‘authentic’ hip-hop artists, however that might be defined.
One of the issues that differentiates Azalea from other artists who have been accused of doing ‘Black’ music, is her accent. Whilst Elvis, Rick Astley, Vanilla Ice, Eminem, and Macklemore have all been accused of appropriating Black music, each of them at least used their authentic voices. Azalea, though, has adopted a kind of accent and dialect commonly associated with Crunk, a popular subgenre of hip-hop. In adopting an accent and dialect associated with Ebonics, it seems fair to discuss this approach. The first thing to keep in mind here is that Azalea is not simply and artist, she is a performer, and as such performs. Whether Nicki Minaj’s recent comments about ‘authenticity’ were directed at Azalea or not are irrelevant: art is a construct, and as such it is always performative by its very nature. Minaj herself adopts a British accent, specifically a cockney accent. Working-class Britons could justifiably take issue with this and suggest that Minaj is not being ‘authentic’, but anybody who thinks critically about this for more than half a second will realize the performative nature of music. Minaj does no pretend to be British, just like Azalea does not pretend to be from Atlanta. Azalea is upfront about where she is from, and so adopting an accent suited to the genre in which she performs in is no different than Green Day singing with a British accent when performing punk songs, or The Beatles singing in American accents when they are recording rock and roll, or Lawrence Fishurne using a Southern accent when he sings country music. If one cannot accept that musicians are performers, then they must accept the performative nature of the art and concede that challenging an artist’s ‘authenticity’ is problematic at best. If such conversations are going to be brought up, then a very slippery slope will ensue and things from hair dye to plastic surgery will be brought into the conversation, at which point I’m sure Minaj will quickly try to change the conversation as quickly as she changed her own name.
In terms of cultural appropriation, Azalea has received a significant amount of criticism for her video “Bounce”, which is set in India and sees Azalea don traditional Indian attire. The video, which is directed by the Japanese-American directing team BRTHR, is set in Mumbai because Azalea said the song was inspired by Eastern culture and her love of Bollywood. The video opens with commonplace scenes from India, showing the richness in culture and sport, as well as the reality of the poverty that exists in the country. Some have taken issue with Azalea wearing a sari and a bindi in the video, as if wearing such clothes needs an explanation. The other dancers in the video are wearing the same outfits, so why wouldn’t Azalea also wear it? She is embracing and promoting the customs and practices of the culture. Like music, fashion has no colour or nationality. Nobody would dare ask a woman from India why she was wearing yoga pants or jeans in America, so why would somebody question why a Western woman would wear a sari and bindi when visiting India? The fact that anybody thinks this requires an explanation is emblematic of a biased and prejudiced logic. I have heard enough ignorant people use derogatory terms for a bindi and I personally find it refreshing that Azalea, like Gwen Stephani did before her, embraces and promotes this kind of cultural osmosis. Just as her music was produced by people within the culture she was adopting, the video, which was directed by people with Asian ancestry, featured a number of people from the culture it was representing, so it is not as if this video were filmed in a vacuum. Azalea even went to India to film it. It’s not as if this is akin to the culturally insensitive tone of Mike Myers’s The Love Guru. I’ll concede that riding the elephant was a little over the top, but it is a music video after all. If we are going to attack people who explore and embrace other cultures, how are we ever going to break down barriers that exist between us?
This aside, there are some serious concerns about Azalea and her views on perceived race on culture. There were a host of Tweets that were ‘unearthed’ in which she makes a number of comments that are demonstrative of prejudicial sentiments regarding people of different colours, ethnicities, nationalities, and orientation. She has used phrases like ‘homo’ and ‘dyke’. Sadly, however, this is as much a reflection of the homophobic streams present in hip-hop music as it is a part of Azalea’s own personal flaws. Yet, I see nobody framing her homophobic comments as ‘cultural appropriation’, a claim which may tragically have some credence given the frequency with which the homophobic ‘f’ word is throw about in hip-hop. Azalea has likewise made disparaging comment about other people’s languages, whilst also indulging in comments related to colour. Perhaps some could be considered less offensive if explained in a broader context, but not all of them could be explained away. Her response was less than encouraging, stating that the public shouldn’t have seen them as they were meant for friends and family, as if making comments like that among friends and family makes them any better. I do realize that when speaking to friends, people will use words ironically with the understanding that the terms are being criticized or mocked, but this does not seem to be the case with these Tweets. It is sad that a figure as popular as Azalea, who has seemingly made efforts to bridge gaps between cultures and appears to show great appreciation for cultures other than her own, would be as insensitive as to make such comments. In this context, I completely understand that many will justifiably boycott her work for making these comments. As a person who is not a fan of her work, this will not be an issue for me, but if I were, I would certainly count myself among those who would join such a boycot. However, in terms of her music, I believe telling somebody that they cannot explore a certain genre of music because of their skin colour is counterproductive to what we are should be trying to do as a society.
There is no doubt that Azalea serves as a problematic figure when it comes to issues of perceived race and intercultural interactions. Her past comments are repulsive at best, but part of what we do as a society is try to change the minds of people. Music is one of the best ways to do that, as demonstrated by musician Daryl Davis, who used music to encourage members of the KKK to reconsider their prejudicial and hateful views. This, however, is not a ‘save Azalea’ pitch; this is about art. Art transcends all barriers. Beautiful music is beautiful music. A voice has no colour, and an instrument has no nationality. The sitar, for instance, makes a beautiful sound, so it is only natural that a musician like George Harrison would want to experiment with it, and when he did, it opened up doors to other cultures. Sharing art opens our minds and encourages us to find commonalities with others. Telling a person that they can’t embrace or explore a specific genre of music because of the colour their skin is an inherently backward logic, and it is one that we need to collectively reject. Artists need the freedom to explore because they are the people we count on to introduce us to new ways of thinking. We might not approve of Azalea or the way she is representing other cultures, but rather than throwing up stop signs in response to this cultural osmosis, we should be optimistic that art is serving as a tool that transcends cultural barriers.
If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @MarthaLQueen, and get updates from Literary Ramblings by following @LiteraryRamber. Please feel free to contribute to the conversation with constructive responses in the comments section below. I realize that this is a sensitive topic and that some will passionately disagree with me, and such views are welcome here. In the spirit of an open dialogue, I would encourage folks to read other views on this debate. Some have already been hyperlinked in the article, but @professorcrunk wrote an excellent piece that takes up the other side of the debate, and I would encourage you to read Jeff Chang’s piece on the subject, as well as an exceptional piece by Travis L. Gosa.