What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Azealia Banks has been in the news a lot lately. Her beef with Iggy Azalea and the subsequent debate that followed, her response to Kendrick Lamar’s Billboard interview, and her recent brief Twitter battle with Lupe Fiasco have made her a constant fixture in today’s pop culture blogs. She seems to be more outspoken on social media lately, and I appreciate her for sharing her perspective. But something that is being overshadowed in this ongoing discussion about Azealia Banks is that, regardless of how you feel about her comments, it still stands that she makes great music.
I have been an Azealia Banks fan since the first time I saw the video for "212." I remember immediately thinking: “Who is this black girl doing this fly ass dance in a Mickey Mouse sweater?” I loved her lyricism and her style, and I’ve been following her music ever since. My favorite song of hers is "Liquorice," from her 1991 LP, and I was overjoyed when she dropped the surprise release of her official debut album in November 2014.
The album, Broke With Expensive Taste, is amazing. One song on the album, "Gimme a Chance," which samples "Knock That Door" by Enon, was first featured with different lyrics on an earlier mixtape. When asked about the song in her 16 Days of Azealia commentary, Banks explained: “It’s a song that I wrote when I was about 17… On this album, I redid it just as a nod to my 17-year-old self.” In addition to having new lyrics, this song also has a different ending than the previous rendition. Midway through the song the beat switches to what Banks calls a meringue- and bachata-inspired rhythm and she starts rapping and singing in Spanish.
I loved the song from the first moment I heard it and it has special significance to me. In the song, Banks raps about her ambition, her drive, and how she is coming into her womanhood and learning to love herself and life. As a recent college graduate, I resonate a lot with that experience, and as I reflect on my own journey from when I was 17 up until now, the song has helped me process how I’m feeling.
When I was 17 years old, my dream was to be an astrophysicist (yes, it’s random, I know). I had always been fascinated by science and the stars, so it was my dream to pursue that at a professional level. What was especially important to me was science communication and increasing the level of science literacy in my community. Everyone I met was impressed with that plan. Seeing a young Black woman interested in astronomy was not that common, and I was able to get a lot of support from people who wanted to increase the rates of underrepresented minorities in science. My family was also super excited for me, and they cheered me on through every internship and science project I did. My whole community rallied behind me when I got accepted to Stanford and planned to major in physics. Even though I was going 3,000 miles away, it made me feel very secure to know that I had people at home rooting for me.
When I got to school, things became very different. I almost failed my first physics class because my high school didn’t prepare me for the rigor of a college-level mechanics course. I had trouble adjusting to being so far away from my family and I got homesick a lot. November of my freshmen year, I was blessed with a surprise trip home thanks to my youth minister from church, and as soon as I saw my family I broke down in tears. I didn’t want to go back. The rest of the year was a struggle for me, and things didn’t get any better when, in 2012, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that completely surprised me and almost prevented me from completing my degree. Nothing was turning out how I imagined it would, and my plan was falling apart.
One cold autumn evening during my senior year, I was going to the physics building on campus to pick up a graded midterm from one of my courses. I was failing the class up until that point, and I needed a good score on this midterm to ensure that I would pass. When I got to the building and looked at my score I realized I had failed — again. I put my exam in my backpack and left the building. I felt a sense of hopelessness, like my dreams of being a physicist were officially over. But, ironically, I also felt a sense of freedom. As I walked in the dark I prayed, and I listened, and I had an almost supernatural experience where my whole life flashed before my eyes and everything that I had been through started to make sense. I realized that the common thread through all of my interests was not science, but rather serving marginalized communities. My calling in life wasn’t to be a physicist. It was to help people like me. People from my hometown. People in my family. I had been feeling guilty recently for allowing my budding interest in social justice to distract me from my science classes, but in that moment I realized that it was actually the other way around. From that day on I knew, and accepted, that working toward justice is what I was truly meant for.
Flash-forward to now, and I recognize how blessed I am to have had that experience. Some people make it all the way through college without any idea of what their values are or what they want to do in life. I have a good grounding in who I am, and I think that is more valuable than anything. I am in no way who I thought I would be when I was 17 years old. My prospective career field is completely different. I’m not in grad school. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t want to be. I don’t have a full-time job. I don’t have my own apartment. I don’t even have a stable source of income right now. But I am so happy. For the first time in however long I can remember I am content with who I am and what I’m doing. I dance. I write. I mentor. I love. And that has given me more joy than any amount of money or status could ever bring. I’m no longer living to please others. I’m living. Period.
I write as a nod to my 17-year-old self. To prove that even though my life is completely different than how I thought it would be, I am still just as successful and just as amazing as I had imagined. In fact, I think I’m even more successful than I would have been had I stuck to my plan. I have developed who I am as a person, and that is priceless. I feel confident in who I am. And I love it, that’s what’s important.
I don’t have everything planned out for the future, but I do have plans. I don’t know much now, but I know a lot more than I used to. I don’t have everything figured out, but I am excited. And if you just gimme a chance, I’ll show you what I am capable of.