Iggy Azalea & The Gentrification of Hip-Hop

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Last Sunday night, I excitedly turned on this year’s American Music Awards. I’m a big fan of music award shows, regardless of how watered down they may have become. There's still something nostalgically special about them. The show began with wins and performances from some of pop music’s biggest artists like One Direction, Lorde and Sam Smith, and at first I was going to write about how the American Music Awards seemed to be dominated by non-American artists, but then another trend caught my eye.

First things first, let’s talk about Iggy Azalea. Let’s look at the facts here: She’s a big booty, pale Australian white girl who raps with a “fake” accent and dominated the mainstream rap game this year. So, what’s wrong with that?  Well, nothing necessarily. Every day my timeline is filled up with such hate and disdain for this woman, who is simply playing her part in this whole game called the music industry. It’s what she represents that people have a problem with, but many don’t really seem to know why they dislike someone like Iggy. They don’t have reasons that go any deeper than “she’s white” and she’s “cheapening hip-hop.” These are not just comments from black music fans, but all types of fans. But what's floating in their subconscious that many aren't able to pinpoint is that they dislike her because she represents something like a parody of hip-hop, yet seems to be universally accepted. It’s almost like the feeling I had when The Lonely Island was nominated for a Rap Grammy. (I think that really happened, right?) Her sexually-driven look and lyrics are directly extracted from black culture and hip-hop. 

Black music's styles and tendencies haven’t necessarily been accepted on a mainstream level when they come directly from black artists themselves, but along comes someone like an Iggy Azalea. She flaunts the ass mercilessly and partakes in everything that hip-hop culture is supposed to represent, and she gets multi-nominations and awards. She gets a pass. Does it remind you of anything? Old heads might remember the Little Richard vs. Pat Boone situation back in the 1950s. But unlike back then, when white artists would take black music, “clean” it up and watch it hit the top of the charts, nowadays, they aren’t watering anything down. They are perpetuating the lewd nature of it all in raw form and getting a pat on the back; the same type of behavior that was looked down upon by mainstream media when black artists were doing it. I observed the same thing occur with Fergie later on that night on the show. So when people are up in arms about these double standards are they reaching, or is there something to this? 

In some ways yes, personally, I think we are reaching. You can hit me with the Uncle Tom comments all you want, but I’m just looking at what we really have here. First, we are currently situated in a very racially charged climate in our country, due to the recent events in the news. What I’ve observed from this is that we (we, meaning black people, I'm black) are hopping on any and every injustice and magnifying it. Along the way, things can get confused. I don’t think the artists who are creating this music are maliciously doing it. These artists are creating something they admire, just like any other artist, influenced by another. I certainly wouldn’t shun them for these things. (How the chips fall on the board as far as awards and accolades is another conversation though). We’re talking about higher ups, and that usually always ties back to the concept of “institutionalized racism.” But that’s above and beyond the initial intentions of the specific artist.  

With that said, it doesn’t escape me that white artists, though highly talented, get to explore black culture at will, capitalize on it, and profit from it as they please, without necessarily dealing with the backlash of it all. Let’s face it – if the whole cultural appropriation thing goes sour, artists like Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Fergie, Katy Perry and even Sam Smith, have the option and privilege to jump ship and do something different; something “safer,” stylistically. What the awards show represented this year were white artists taking a field trip into black music and culture and dominating it on one of music’s biggest national platforms. The show was almost void of any solo black acts, aside from Nicki Minaj (performing a much tamer song, “Bed of Lies” with Skylar Grey and her inclusion in the pop smash, “Bang, Bang”), as well as a very dope, yet sort of out-of-nowhere verse from A$AP Rocky on Sam Smith’s already successful single, “I’m Not The Only One.” With the exception of Mary J. Blige, black artists were relegated to supplemental duties that night. Am I looking too deeply into this? After all, black people don’t necessary OWN a style of music, right? Labels like hip-hop, R&B and “Urban” influence has proven time and time again to transcend race, age, gender and more.

I like all of these artists. I like the fact they are showing appreciation to music that has been generally understood to be stylistically created by black people. I love Iggy Azalea. I think Sam Smith is one of the best singers to break out this year. I think Taylor Swift’s T-Swift antics and her awkward interest in hip-hop is cute. I have personally accepted and I am okay with this happening in music. For one, I know we’re not going to go backwards. Generally accepted black culture is going to continue to perpetuate the hearts of a generation, and eventually become a part of mainstream culture period. It basically has already. Of course there are pros and cons to it all, but it is what it is.  

Being a black American though, as well as an artist, I can admit that I have a hard time with issues like these. I find myself defending these ideas from a cultural side, but then I also have to understand my personal tastes as a music fan and as an artist. It does not escape me that the powers that be understand what they are doing when they allow what they allow, and that might be what doesn’t sit well with me. Money is green, and the exploitation of black culture and the no-shame approach in appropriation smugly hides behind the “blurring the color lines” theory. Now for many of these artists, I believe they genuinely like the style of music they make from an appreciation standpoint, but they have no reservations as serving as the pawns in the larger money-making scheme of things. So what do we do about it? I say, we let things be and take them as they come.  Maybe it’s not a huge deal. I mean, it was T.I. who "discovered" and put Iggy Azalea on. Artists like Sam Smith have worked and collaborated with Mary J. Blige, the proclaimed Queen of Hip-Hop Soul and one of the most successful Black singers in history. Maybe it’s not some big conspiracy being perpetuated by “THE MAN” to gentrify black music, and do us some kind of injustice.   

Or maybe it is, and I just may be slowly becoming a sheep. My own thoughts can be as complicated and conflicted as the issue itself. The only thing I really know for sure is that we need to talk about these issues. So, what are your thoughts?

[By Michael Hannah, a.k.a. Mike Dreams, a writer and artist who can be listened to here and tweeted at here.]