Azealia Banks Is Right About Iggy Azalea and, More Importantly, Race in America

There’s a point during the lengthy interview that Azealia Banks gave Hot 97 yesterday where she laments how what she says will probably be received: “I talk about so many things on my Twitter; [the media] pick and choose what they want to hear. Get your fucking clicks. Here it is! Here it is.” Which, of course is exactly what’s happened: sites like Gawker have pulled out the juiciest quotes, which largely concern Iggy Azalea and T.I., and in isolation serve to perpetuate the narrative of Azealia-Banks-as-the-crazy-girl-who-starts-fights-with-everyone.

But watch the whole thing. Listen to everything she has to say. She’s not crazy. She’s not even particularly obnoxious. She comes across as a whip-smart kid with a big mouth who’s angry about things she has every right to be angry about. Hot 97 host Ebro Darden perhaps has a point when he suggests that her social media presence has a tendency to overshadow her music, but then, Banks has a point when she suggests that music journalists should be the ones focusing on her music anyway.

So go on, seriously, take an hour and watch, or just have the YouTube audio playing in the background while you get some work done. I defy you not to come away with, at the very least, a bit more respect than you might have had for Azealia Banks in the past.

And then read this:

Which, dear god. Look, I’m Australian, and I’ll say this for Iggy Azalea: for all that American culture is as omnipresent in Australia as it is in the rest of the world, you really don’t begin to understand just how deeply ingrained matters of race are in American society until you live here. To use a silly analogy, it’s like someone telling you that Indians are crazy for cricket, but you can’t understand just how crazy they are for it until you spend time in India. There are some things that only firsthand observation and immersion in a culture will teach you.

This isn’t making excuses for Iggy. It’s quite the opposite, in fact: she moved here when she was 16. She’s been here eight years, which is three years longer than me. She should know better. These certainly have the air of tweets posted in haste after a few drinks, but, y’know, in vino veritas. “Make it racial”? “Rant”? Accusing Banks of not having the “mental capacity” to understand her? Retweeting pissant platitudes about happiness being an “attitude”, as if all anyone has to do is believe hard enough? Fucking hell. These tweets say a lot about Iggy Azalea, and precisely nothing good.

Not long after I moved to New York, I interviewed the actor Jeffrey Wright, and one thing stuck in my head: he told me, “White people generally don’t want to talk about race until they have a biracial child.” At the time, I thought, really? It doesn’t seem that way to me. But, of course, he was right: you don’t have to think seriously about race until it has an impact on your own life, and as a white person, the only way this will happen is if you have a biracial kid. Then you’ll think about race, every fucking day. This is a point that Banks made, too:

Until then, neither Iggy nor I nor any other white Australian has any place telling an African-American how they should or shouldn’t feel about race, or that they’re a “bigot.” The very fact that Azalea has a platform to be telling Banks this is proof of what Banks is saying. Iggy won’t get labelled “crazy” for these tweets. Whatever she says next will be termed a “response” or somesuch, not a “rant.” She can pretty much do whatever she wants.

No one’s saying a white Australian girl can’t rap — as I’ve written before, the idea that any performance of black music by white people is a matter of appropriation or theft only serves to disempower the subaltern, because it depicts them as a passive figures whose culture only exists to be pillaged by whites. This clearly isn’t true, and it’s also not reflective of the history of hip hop, which is more multicolored than one might think. And again, if you actually listen to Banks’ interview, she says very clearly that she has no problem with white people making rap music: “I don’t give a fuck… do what you want to do.”

Her problem, as she explains it, lies with the way that music is privileged over the music of black people. The example she cites is the Grammys, where, of course, Macklemore last year was given an award over Kendrick Lamar’s masterful good kid, m.A.A.d city. (At least Macklemore had the good grace to be embarrassed, even if he felt that he had to broadcast this fact to the world and thus demonstrate once again that he is the Nice White Guy of Hip Hop.) As Banks says:

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.

Which is all true, so if you’re Iggy Azalea, you at least need to have some sensitivity about what you’re doing. Don’t claim you’re “the realest.” Don’t make out that you’re something that you’re not. Understand why you’re where you are, why you have 3.5 million Twitter followers and Azealia has 548,000. Think about why you have this position, and what you’re doing with it. Be a pop star. Make a shitload of money. I mean, even Macklemore understands this (to some extent, anyway).

The racial history of hip hop is a complex one; so is the racial history of America, but what should be obvious to anyone who’s spent any time in this country is that race is omnipresent, and that from enslavement to incarceration to general exploitation, the racial hierarchy has oppressed African-Americans for centuries. This isn’t a complicated concept, and given how comprehensively Australia has screwed over its own black population, it’s not one that you’d think Azalea should have much trouble grasping. When Banks tears up on the radio, she’s not discussing Iggy fucking Azalea at all; she’s discussing generations’ worth of exploitation and disempowerment. She’s discussing reparations. She’s discussing an economy built on slave labor and still, today, propped up by what’s effectively indentured servitude:

Everybody knows the basis of modern capitalism is slave labor, the buying and selling of slaves. There are huge corporations still caking off that slave money and shit. So until y’all motherfuckers are ready to talk about what you owe me… at the very least you owe me the right to my fucking identity. Don’t exploit that shit. That’s all we’re hanging onto.

Indeed. If you grew up on the other side of the world, you might have trouble understanding some of that. But ignorance is no defense. And if anything has come out of this whole sorry business, it’s a confirmation that Iggy Azalea is awfully, awfully ignorant, and that while Banks has a tendency to talk herself into trouble, she is one of the smartest and most passionate artists we have today. As Darden says toward the end of the interview, “We need you.” And we do. There are much more important things to worry about than Iggy Azalea.