How Azealia Banks Dispensed With Respectability Politics and Brought the Mainstream to Her Turf

When it comes to Azealia Banks, the most difficult thing to reconcile may be the fact that despite her loose-cannon reputation, she’s actually quite lucid. As an artist, she moves between pop confection and introspective hip hop with a fluidity that belies burgeoning skill and talent as much as it does a rapidly developing sense of music business acumen. As a personality, she’s mastered the ability to create sound bites (and tweets) that keep her referential, controversial, and in the press.

Despite all this, when the 23-year old Harlem rapper announced her Playboy cover, the reactions were mild and unsurprised. News of the cover read like a litany of tame and not particularly witty press releases. Shocking, in light of the subject matter. Even #BlackTwitter stayed relatively silent. Had we really reached a point wherein Banks could do nothing to shock or surprise anyone? Throughout the history of the black female body in Western culture, society at large has always had something (typically wrongheaded) to say in reaction to said body. Yet when the announcement of Banks’ cover appeared, there was nary a concern troll in sight. Whatever naysayers or proponents existed seemed to be keeping their comments squarely to themselves.

Recently, when discussing body politics and Banks, a friend described her as, “beyond the realm of respectability.” Contrary to how that reads on the page, the tone in the delivery was actually one of admiration. Prior to the release of the interview that accompanies Banks’ Playboy cover, my own personal response to the reveal – literal and figurative – was simply to assume that, as a young millennial, she was potentially less aware of any expectations about her body. Or maybe she was unclear on the intersection between the stereotypes ascribed to her and the readiness with which she disrobed. First, I shuddered at the thought, and then I realized that the only person being naive was me. A cursory glance at Banks’ previous interviews shows a young woman actively staking territory that challenges the strictures of social mores frequently used against her and women like her. If Azealia Banks has managed to create a space beyond the realm of the respectable, what does it mean to exist there? And is doing so sustainable?

Banks makes her biggest splashes in mediums where the demand for constant apology matches the demand for constant entertainment and one-to-one interaction. Despite this, she is remarkably comfortable with dropping bombs and leaving them there, essentially turning her opinions into digital landmines and flipping the bird to anyone who would demand more from her. Whosoever is unfortunate enough to trip on them – intellectually, morally, or otherwise – is expected to deal with the fallout on their own. As Banks says in her Playboy interview:

And I am black, and I am a pain in your ass. But I’m not really talking to you, and that’s what makes those people mad. You’re not invited to this conversation. This is not about you.

The stance is a bold one, especially given that the above quote was aimed squarely at her white male interviewer. And it’s an idea Banks has repeated on several other occasions, whether speaking on sexuality, her creative process, or race. The systematic dismissal of those deemed unworthy of deeper engagement or explanation has become a fascinating tactic, providing just the right amount of coverage for her to discuss one thing while sliding something wholly new and different into mainstream culture.

So we return to the black body on the cover of Playboy. It’s not as though there’s never been one there before. Naomi Campbell made her high-fashion (and also cat-themed) debut in 1999, and Grace Jones landed German Playboy in 1985. What makes Banks’ different, of course, is her non-supermodel background coupled with her Black Americanness. She wasn’t softly lit, or gorgeously accessorized. She was raucous and aggressive — and unabashedly so.

Is it possible that in the course of joking about 21 Divinities, evaluating the merits of the female body over the male, and, well, denigrating Caucasians, that Banks forced America to see a sexually provocative African-American former stripper from Harlem as more than just a stereotypical Jezebel or Sapphire? The interview may not have done wonders for her public image – Fox News will continue to clutch its pearls about Banks until the next time Kanye decides to breathe too loudly. But perhaps the fact that she wasn’t neatly painted and packaged as an over-sexualized black woman was one (very) small victory.