In what might be the longest viral video since KONY 2012, New York City radio station Hot 97 last week did a filmed interview with seminal 23-year old rapper Azealia Banks. Banks’ much-anticipated, long-delayed debut LP “Broke With Expensive Tastes” may be one of the year’s best albums, but the video is making headlines for a different reason.
One quote in particular has made the rounds on social media. Roughly 10 minutes in, Banks explained that “Everybody knows that the basis of modern capitalism is slave labor. The selling and trading of these slaves. There are fucking huge corporations that are caking off that slave money … So until y’all motherfuckers are ready to talk about what you owe me…” For the first of two times in the 47-minute interview, Banks then breaks into tears after talking at some length about Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s cultural appropriation of hip hop, and unlikely fame in the genre, saying: “At the very fucking least, you owe me the right to my fucking identity. And to not exploit that shit. That’s all we’re holding on to with hip-hop and rap.” She argued that music like hers’ and fellow white rapper Macklemore should be evaluated in pop rather than hip-hop categories in industry award shows: “When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids is ‘You’re amazing, you’re great, you can do anything you put your mind to,’” Banks said. “And all it says to black kids is ‘You don’t have shit, you don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.’”
Banks had previously criticized Azalea — who was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Album — for her silence around the recent non-indictments of police officers in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, stating “It’s funny to see people like Igloo Australia silent when these things happen … black culture is cool, but black issues sure aren’t, huh?” The “Fancy” singer fired back, writing, “There’s more to sparking change than trolling on social media.”
A few months back, the blogosphere uncovered a just-beneath-the-surface archive of racist tweets from Iggy, who was revealed to be — in no uncertain terms — racist. All this is especially bold for a rapper who, as Brittney Cooper wrote for Salon this summer, “almost convincingly mimics the sonic register of a downhome Atlanta girl.” Reni Eddo-Lodge went so far as to say that, “Watching one of her music videos is like watching a modern day version of the blackface minstrel show.” Even Macklemore, who won a Grammy for his rap last year, has at least some public criticism of his white privilege in the world of hip-hop. To top it off, Azalea responded to Banks’ interview by calling her a “bigot” for “[making] it racial.”
Fader reports that Solange Knowles and Tyler the Creator quickly leaped to Banks’ defense. Rapper Q-Tip has also jumped in on the feud, in a series of nearly 40 tweets explaining the genealogy of hip-hop: its roots in the civil rights movement and Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs, which fueled the criminalization of black and brown communities already under greater state scrutiny as a result of COINTELPRO’s orchestrated take-down of the Black Power movement. He advised Azalea, “Hip-hop is fun, it’s vital, it’s dance, it’s traditional, it’s light-hearted, but one thing it can never detach itself from is being a socio-political movement.” In slightly longer form, Jeff Chang’s 2005 book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” further traces the far-reaching history of politics in hip-hop, from Africa Bambaataa to Public Enemy and beyond.
Hip-hop has long been political, but the Azalea/Banks feud has taken on a new meaning following the recent explosion of #BlackLivesMatter protests around the country, including their most recent foray into the Mall of America. There is a larger debate to be had about what this grudge means for hip-hop (well-put by David Drake at Complex), but the role of artists in this emerging movement moment casts what might otherwise be seen as standard celebrity beef in a different light.
Months after the murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, 87-year old singer and longtime activist Harry Belafonte — asked by a Hollywood Reporter correspondent if he was “happy with the image of minorities in Hollywood today” — replied “not at all,” taking issue with celebrities like Jay Z and Beyonce who “turned their back on social responsibility.” Belafonte is perhaps better positioned than anyone to make such a claim, boasting over 50 years of engagement with progressive causes. In the 1960s, he funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into the civil rights movement, as a main funder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, not to mention a close confidant of Martin Luther King. More recently, Belafonte joined the Dream Defenders in their occupation of the Florida State House last summer as they sought the repeal of the ALEC-sponsored “Stand Your Ground” legislation credited with exonerating George Zimmerman.
Belafonte, though, was hardly alone in his activism. Some of the era’s biggest names lent hearty support to civil rights groups, in their words and from their wallets. Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and Sammy Davis Jr. all took highly public stands against segregation, with many directly involved with organizing on the ground.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement is quickly creating a national context whereby celebrities across industries are being forced to take sides. To date, sports stars have been the most active in their support of the movement. As it grows, more TV, movie and music personalities are likely to follow suit. Iggy Azalea’s racism, then, isn’t just in poor taste, but also beginning to fall out of step with a new mainstream of dialogue on race in the United States, one being crafted by organizers both online and in the streets. It’s a context, like that of the 60s, which gave artists like Harry Belafonte an even wider audience, and made his messages — not dissimilar from those of King and other movement leaders — resonant with increasingly broad swaths of the American public. Hip-hop artists have kept a critical consciousness on race alive in the United States, even as other genres — and a number of mainstream hip-hop artists — have drifted back towards a detachment from politics. Messages like Banks’ on Hot 97 are nothing new, but might finally become the new normal.