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A couple years ago, I stumbled upon a song called “Work” by a white rapper I had never heard of named Iggy Azalea. The lyrics tell a story of how a young woman, determined to follow her dream of getting into the music industry, moved alone from her home in Mullumbimby, Australia, to Miami at the age of 16, and struggled to get noticed as an artist. It was a story of perseverance, hard work, hardship, dedication, and accomplishment. At the time when I had downloaded the song, I had just finished a terrible AmeriCorps year, was drowning in bills, working at a job that I hated while trying to find something better, and I had been rather depressed and lonely for a long time. (Living in a dark, smelly, moldy basement in Northeast D.C. certainly didn’t help.)
The song spoke to me, because I figured, if a 16-year-old girl could fly across the world and figure out how to become successful as a rapper, then surely I can find a job and get through my summer blues. Together with Janelle Monae's “Dance Apocalyptic,” a song about staying positive through hard times, Azalea's music got me through that summer.
Last month, I deleted “Work,” the only Iggy Azalea song I had, from my iTunes library. It was not simply a matter of purging my library of problematic media, for if that were the case, most of my music would have been deleted. But over the past couple of years, Azalea has revealed her cluelessness about race issues and her responsibility as a white person who has gained incredible success in a genre that was originally by and for black people. When listening to “Work,” I no longer feel inspired, I just feel like rolling my eyes.
The Grammy-nominated artist has been called out time and again. There is a Tumblr dedicated to her racist lyrics, tweets, and music videos. Azealia Banks has spoken on Twitter and on the radio about the rapper's tone deafness about black issues and cultural appropriation. In my opinion, if Iggy Azalea were to acknowledge her privilege and role in cultural appropriation, to apologize, and then be open to learning, she could possibly have redeemed herself. But she would also have to get rid of her blaccent in order to get back on my playlist.
Azalea was and still is mentored by Southern hip-hop artists such as T.I. and the Dungeon Family. After living in the South for just a few years before moving to L.A., and being influenced by Southern rap, she decided to adopt a Southern black girl accent in her music. Professor Brittney Cooper describes her rap persona accent and dialect as "offensive because this Australian born-and-raised white girl almost convincingly mimics the sonic register of a down-home Atlanta girl." I admit that this is impressive, because I grew up in the South (well, central Florida, if that counts), and after living there for 22 years, I just couldn't get a Southern accent even if I tried. Saying "y'all" even feels weird to me.
The problem isn't just that her accent is Southern, it's that it's black. And the fact that she is performing an aspect of blackness for entertainment as a white woman makes this, as many have called it, verbal blackface. When you listen to her, as Emma Carmichael noted in her profile of the rapper back in 2012, she “sounds practiced.” When listening to “Murda Bizness,” on which she collaborated with mentor T.I., “it can almost sound like she's straining to match the assertiveness of the beat. You can hear the effort in every rhyme.”
Perhaps I should give her credit for her business savvy, though, especially as a woman in a male-dominated genre. Her blaccent is her gold mine, because the public loves it when white people do black things. On the topic of music, some attribute the success of artists like Sam Smith and Adele to the fact that they are white people who emulate the voices of black soul singers. When it comes to black beauty, Kylie Jenner comes to mind as lead Columbuser for being praised by beauty critics for popularizing typically black things: full lips and locs.
Black people doing black things have to try twice as hard to get noticed. In November, Azealia Banks released her critically acclaimed and boundary-defying debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste. But Iggy Azalea's "Fancy," while catchy, just isn't that great of a rap song, despite topping the charts. And as Cooper explains, Azalea profits from her appropriative accent, a costume that she can remove at will. Besides code-switching, black people cannot remove certain aspects of our blackness when it is convenient.
People who speak AAVE, for example, are viewed as lazy or unintelligent. One study even found that AAVE speakers were more likely to experience housing discrimination during telephone interviews, compared to those who speak Standard American English. Azalea gets the blaccent without the burden, and it's a perfect example of the saying I've been hearing so much lately: Everybody wants to be black, but nobody wants to BE black.
Eve and Jill Scott, who recently appeared on a radio show, said that they wanted to hear the authentic Iggy Azalea. She is not a black woman from the southern United States, so why the hell should she sound like one? Other white rappers somehow manage to rap the same way that they talk. Macklemore, as Amy Zimmerman in the Daily Beast points out, sounds like who he is when he raps, “a white guy from the Pacific Northwest.”
Azalea once seemed to have a certain understanding of her role in the culture as a foreign white person, at least in 2012, as documented in Carmichael's profile of the Australian native:
"I don't ever want to be the person that takes something and doesn't give homage to where it's from," she explains now, in a room full of black people at a Manhattan nightclub. "It's like if you went to your boyfriend's house for Thanksgiving and you were like, acting disrespectful. I feel like in a lot of ways I'm a guest, sort of. And I think a lot of it is because I'm from Australia, too. I didn't grow up in this, I kind of dropped in it. And sometimes I do feel like a visitor and I feel like I have to be respectful like a visitor would be — to not just go dusting my feet on everyone's couch."
Her views may have changed since then. Just a couple weeks ago on Twitter, Azalea responded to Eve and Scott in a way that proves her indifference to learning about knowing her place in a genre rooted in the oppression of black people. This is what she tweeted.
Eve and Scott made legitimate points. They said that it would be great to hear who Iggy Azalea is instead of an offensive caricature of someone else. They didn't say that Azalea should be an Australian stereotype. No one is imploring the artist to rap in a kangaroo costume while wrestling a crocodile with one hand and scooping heaps of Vegemite into her mouth with the other (as awesome as that sounds). They're criticizing her for being a stereotype of another group of people. She is doing exactly what she said she wouldn’t do: visiting the home of black hip-hop culture, being offered a warm meal (mentorship, money, fame), and then dusting her feet on the couch.
She tweeted about being complex, multidimensional, and interesting. But by performing with a blaccent, she is none of the above. Instead she is basic, predictable, flat, unoriginal, and practiced. My message to Iggy is simply this: Be who you are. If you are as creative and innovative as you say you are, show the world that. (I, for one, would love to hear a few bars in an Australian accent.) You are not doing yourself or anyone favors by hiding behind an accent that is not yours. Live up to the words of your own song. If you say you are the realest, then first things first: Be that.