Rapper Iggy Azalea has been the central focus on a debate about cultural appropriation – particularly when white artists take on cultural tropes of nonwhite cultures. Now, before I go on, it should be noted that Azalea, who’s Australian, does claim to have some Aboriginal ancestry. And though she’s Australian, she has lived in the United States since she was sixteen, living in a series of cities in the South including Atlanta. As hip-hop is a diverse and multicultural genre that was essentially created by African-Americans, the voice of a white Australian woman could be an interesting and intriguing one to hear.
But some accuse the rapper of essentially hiding her Australian culture and appropriating black culture because it’s possibly more commercial. It’s not a new trick – white artists have been swiping away at black culture for decades. Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Eminem, Lisa Stansfield, Madonna, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele, the Beastie Boys have all – to various degrees of success and acclaim – found inspiration in black culture and black music. And though ideally we’d like to maintain that music is universal, the truth is there is a problem in privileged white artists – especially if they’re wealthy – taking on the sounds of black artists without credit or remuneration. Presley in particular is often cited for the soulful and bluesy influence in his music, but his legacy has also been shadowed by accusations of cultural colonialism and piracy. For example, his huge hit “Hound Dog” (written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller) is considered one of the greatest rock and roll singles, yet its original artist Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was the original artist whose scorching version has been usurped by Presley’s excellent, if smoother, version. And many have accused Madonna of descending from her Ivory Tower to grab at black and Latino gay culture to inject her sound and image with cred.
And Iggy Azalea, like Presley and Madonna, has also been accused of making a lot of money (her album The New Classic has sold over 400,00o copies and three of her singles landed in the top 10, one of which was number one) by heisting black music. Fellow rapper Azealia Banks voiced her frustration with appropriating black music by aying, “Whenever it comes to our things, like black issues or black politics or black music, there’s always this undercurrent of kinda like a ‘fuck you’ … Ya’ll don’t really own shit. Ya’ll don’t have shit.”
Other performers concur with Banks, including Eve and Jill Scott, who both see Azalea’s work as being derivative. Eve even suggested that if Banks were to incorporate some of her own background in her music “it would be dope” because “she’s from a different place.”
Azalea has dismissed these criticism as either racist/bigoted or simply “hating.” But she shouldn’t be so quick to do so because when she does, she misses the history of what these ladies are referring to: while few of these artists are suffering the financial graft that black performers and songwriters suffered up until the 1980s, they are touching on a troubling side of pop music history that has yet to work its way out: the devaluation of black contribution to popular music. Artists such as Little Richard, Jimmy Scott, Ruth Brown, and Sly Stone are examples of artists who made millions of dollars for their respective record companies and then had to do battle in the courts to earn back their due. It’s also difficult for some black artists to see their work – honed through years of performing in small clubs and the streets – be homogenized and sanitized for public consumption by white artists – especially since many of these black artists struggled financially while making their art. The most obvious example that comes to mind is Madonna’s success with voguing, and how she was able to take a dance style born out of the black and Latino gay subcultures and market it to soccer moms and suburban teens.
Despite the personal digs that Banks and Azalea have thrown at each other, the debate they’re having – if it could remain civil and constructive is a good one to have. Pop culture – specifically pop music is all about making things marketable to a large audience – to do that, one must make it smoother and less challenging (think crossover opera). And Banks has tapped into an emotional issue about cultural appropriation – in her radio interview, she exposed just how painful cultural theft can be to those who still struggle to make authentic art.