Last week, when the cultural appropriation debate was going strong on DJBooth, I got sucked into clicking on a Vanity Fair interview with Iggy Azalea. The article was mostly a giant softball lobbed up so Iggy could argue she was the one being discriminated against, and so I only casually skimmed through it. At this point, Iggy's seeming obliviousness to her place in hip-hop culture is old news, but dropped ever so casually in the intro was this line:
"At 16, she told her parents she was going on vacation, traveled to Florida, and never went back."
At first that line barely even registered for me, but it must have stuck in my subconscious, because its meaning slowly began to sink in. I'd heard versions of Iggy's origin story before 100 times, I'd listened to "Work," but I never really gave her coming to America story some serious thought - until now.
At 16...a white Australian girl told her parents she was going on vacation, alone, to a foreign country....which they were apparently totally cool with...and then she just never came back...and that was also apparently not a problem. Wait, what?!?!?! That's insane, how is this not a bigger deal? I've seen some version of the sentence, "She left for the United States at the age of 16 to pursue a career in hip hop music," one hundred times, but everyone just seems to be like, "Yup, that's a totally normal thing that happens." How is every interview with Iggy not about this story? Doesn't anybody notice how bananas this is? Am I the only one?
I had so many questions. First, who just lets their 16-year-old daughter travel to Miami alone? And when Iggy didn't come back, her parents didn't just fly to America and get her? Who was she staying with at 16? Was she homeless? Did she go to high school in the U.S.? Nowhere along the line did any authority figure (the police, school officials, immigration) notice a teenage Amazonian white girl roaming the streets of Miami? Do you realize this means Iggy Azalea was an illegal immigrant? And then what happened in the years between being a teenager in Miami and a superstar?
Even in hip-hop, which has its fair share of incredible origin stories (shot nine time in the face!!!) that's pretty remarkable. So remarkable, that I had to fill in some of the gaps enormous holes in Iggy's story and get her life and rap timeline really down. That's right, I was going to have to be a "real" journalist and do some research (aka Google things). After some serious investigatoryness, here's my best shot at laying out Iggy's story.
1990: Amethyst Amelia Kelly is born in Sydney, Australia. Her family moves to Mullumbimby, New South Wales, where she grows up.
1991 - 2004(ish): Growing up, Amethyst is teased and bullied for dressing different and being "weird." She hates living in a small town, falls in love with hip-hop, and dreams of one day becoming a rap star.
Side note, her dad is the author of several children's books including, The Perfect Poo and The Runt Who Said Cunt. Yep, seriously. The Runt Who Said Cuntis a real thing. Take note parents, that's a little thing called creatively inspiring your children.
2005(ish): Now devoted to hip-hop, Iggy enters every rap battle she can find and hits up every hip-hop label in Australia - no luck. She becomes convinced that if she's going to escape her hated small town and become a big rap star, she's going to have to move to the U.S.
Also, this entire time she's working with her mom as a maid and saving all of the money she's made. That job cleaning houses will play a pivotal roll in the story shortly.
February, 1996: Ok, so far this is all pretty interesting, but nothing particularly crazy. Here's where things start to go off the rails a bit.
According to Iggy, it was always her plan to move permanently to America, but she didn't tell her parents that. Instead, she told them she was depressed, really needed to get away and wanted to go visit a friend in Miami. Her parents were reluctant, but they knew she wasn't happy, and especially because she was paying for it all with her maid-savings, they said ok.
She went to Miami, stayed with that friend for a short time, stayed at a hotel for a month, found an apartment with some roommates, moved in and told her parents she wasn't coming back. (Although she would go back to Australia every few months to keep her visa current.) In Miami, she worked under the table jobs for money, got involved in a credit card scam or two and just generally tried to jump start her rap career, which wasn't really happening because, you know, she was a semi-homeless, illegal immigrant white girl trying to rap.
Notes: This is where I really need to sit down with Iggy and get the details. Who rents an apartment to a 16-year-old? Even with her maid savings and her side jobs, how is she able to pay for everything, plus multiple flights back and forth from Australia? In retrospect it worked out, but her parents were never like, "Nah, you're not living in a foreign country barely able to buy food"? No other adult questioned this arrangement? This is exactly what I'd spend all of my time asking Iggy if I ever got to interview her, which is exactly why publicists keep me away from their artists.
2008: Notable producer Mr. Lee discovers some of her music on MySpace, because MySpace discoveries were an actual thing that happened in 2008, and after traveling to H-Town to record with Lee, she decides to leave Miami and move to Houston.
After just a few months though, Hurricane Ike comes along and destroys the city. Iggy packs up and moves to Atlanta
2009: In Atlanta doing various Atlanta-y things, including starting a hair business with her friend. (For the record, I don't really know what a "hair business" is, but that's probably because I'm a white guy.) She's still making music, but interestingly, her time in the ATL comes and goes without her linking with T.I. That would be later.
2010: Some managers in L.A. discover her on the internet and convince her to move out there, which is essentially the story of how every girl ever ends up in porn . She does some kind of deal with Interscope and they try to make her an outright pop star, which is probably where this comes from:
2011: The attempts to make her a straight up pop star don't really pop, so Iggy goes back to the more rap side of the equation. In the lead up to her Ignorant Art mixtape she drops her "Pussy" video, which starts to build her first real buzz because it's a rap video titled "Pussy" and it looks like this.
Yep, that'll do it. Now she's got some people's attention.
2012-2013: She links up with T.I., at first as a mentor for her The New Classic album, ends up signing with Grand Hustle, and launches into full on hype building mode. Tours, an EP, magazine covers, anything that will get people talking, and people do start talking. Iggy's not a big deal, but people know who she is.
April, 2014: Finally, about two years after it was first started, her album drops. It does well, about 50K copies in the first week, but not mind-blowingly well. Similarly, the three singles she's released so far - "Work," "Bounce" and "Change Your Life," have done well but aren't hits in any real sense. It's "Fancy," her fourth single, that blows her up. "Fancy" had been out for months to lukewarm response. The Illuminati convenes, decides they're going to make "Fancy" a hit and it works. (Seriously, the Illuminati really did that.) Suddenly, Iggy Azalea has the biggest song of the summer, maybe the year, and she's made the leap to certified star.
And you know the rest.
Putting all of these together doesn't essentially change my views on Iggy - she's still a not very good rapper who's famous for reasons that don't have much to do with being a good rapper - but it is fascinating to lay out her career in timeline form like this. She simultaneously has one of the most likely and unlikely success story in hip-hop history. What are the odds that a white girl from Australia would move to the U.S. under very shady circumstances and end up a star? Very low. What are the odds an attractive white girl who can rap at least decently would end up a star? In retrospect, pretty decent.
But perhaps most importantly, you can see how much of her success if both due to her direct actions and the various twistings of fate. Change any one of those events - her parents tell her she can't go to Miami, she never moves to Houston - and the whole story changes. And in that sense, is she really any different than any artist? (You know, other than her balls crazy coming to America story.)
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]