Making dope music is all about strategy: How do you portray a familiar feeling in a novel, unfamiliar way? Audacity is one of hip-hop's favorite strategies, one it does better than any other genre. From its park-jam origins to Diddy's desert two-step as hip-hop entered the commercial era, brash, unapologetic presumptuousness—a defiance of the natural order—has been one of rap music's great strengths. And perhaps no one in recent history has been as audacious as Iggy Azalea. The blonde Australian jumped to the top of the pop charts rapping in a jarring imitation of a rapper from the American South over a fake version of a DJ Mustard beat earlier this year, and it's propelled her to superstardom. At once an intruder in hip-hop's house and a student of its every dropped "g," Iggy personified audacity, a bull switching into a china shop built on a fault line. Last week, when Ebro Darden conducted an interview with Azealia Banks on Hot 97, there was an earthquake.
Even if Iggy happens to have stumbled into a situation larger than herself, she's certainly done her best to aggravate it from the jump. The discussion around her place in hip-hop has snowballed for some time. It first began publicly when Iggy Azalea landed on the XXL freshman list. Social media provocateur and rapper Azealia Banks called Iggy out on Twitter, citing Iggy's lyrics about being a "runaway slave master," which had received blowback for the obvious reason of being, best case scenario, in terribly poor taste. Iggy's past, it turned out, was full of offensive tweets and poorly formed opinions: Bossip collected a gallery of them. But Iggy's audacity was best epitomized by her gratingly effective vocal style. The sour taste of her note-for-note recreations had an outsider's obliviousness that was, at best, socially tone-deaf.
Even if Iggy happens to have stumbled into a situation larger than herself, she's certainly done her best to aggravate it from the jump.
For some time, the media covered Iggy and Azealia's running Twitter beef on a spectrum ranging from mild derision to bemused indifference. Neither artist was particularly beloved within hip-hop; neither made music that had much of a popular profile in the U.S. Both created spindly hip-house and rapped with unconventional accents, which, despite the cosigns, only really found traction in the U.K. and on hip coastal dance floors. Neither artist really fit in with American hip-hop's dominant or secondary sounds; both artists had a tendency to say something ridiculous or offensive. (Indeed, Azealia Banks was no stranger to cringe-tweeting, dropping an F-bomb on Perez Hilton back in March.)
Then came "Fancy." Credit for its massive success has widely gone to its fake Mustard beat and Charli XCX's undeniable hook. But it's become apparent that as much as Iggy's voice has been a distraction for hip-hop's core fans, for others it's a huge part of the appeal. At Gawker, Rich Juzwiak argued Iggy was rap's "best drag queen," that to complement her conceptual focus on "work" and grinding, Iggy's voice was always in a state of effort: "'realness' within drag contains within it an awareness of its own inattainability—realness is not so much about how convincing you are, it's about how convincing you are within your limitations." For that large swath of pop fans for whom hip-hop has always been mediated through music videos and radio, its inauthenticity was authentic; fans for whom rap music is, and always has been, a collection of cliches, tics, slang, and attitude; a caricature one simply had to master, a performative mask. Ann Powers argued that it wasn't the mask of black women Iggy was co-opting, but of black men, that "adopting masculinity is as important to Azalea's shtick as taking on blackness."
With this sudden success, concerns about her appropriation of black art increased. Iggy became only the fourth female rapper to notch a No. 1 single in history. But "Fancy" was still an undeniable hit, and a record that proved she had what it took to be a star. Azealia Banks was struggling with Interscope and had yet to produce a hit record; onlookers safely assumed Banks was either jealous, or beefing in a cynical attempt to draw attention. When Banks called Iggy out for her silence on Ferguson, Iggy responded on Twitter without tagging Banks directly, as if trying not throw the spotlight her way.
But Azealia Banks' interview on Hot 97 proved to be a tipping point for public sentiment, as the world finally seemed to fall into solidarity with Azealia Banks. The 45-minute interview has already crested a million views on YouTube in three days; any day now, it's en route to surpass Banks' own single, "Chasing Time," which has already been out for a month. In part, the interview works by humanizing someone typically experienced through shrill headlines and bursts of Twitter controversy. At one point, she's moved to tears, putting appropriation in the context of a history of slavery: "At the very fucking least y'all owe me the right to my fucking identity and not exploit that shit." At this point, Ebro and Banks have a private conversation rarely seen in public, as they discuss the world's callous response to her feelings. But when he suggests she'd be better off putting these arguments into her music, she sees no reason to. "I'm a creative. I can do or say whatever the fuck I feel."
After Banks reiterated her criticisms of Azalea and T.I. on air, Iggy took to Twitter, attacking Banks directly for her "piss poor attitude": "Your inability to be responsible for your own mistakes, bullying others, the inability to be humble or have self control. It's YOU!" Soon after, Action Bronson and Azealia were tweeting angrily, and Q-Tip, Solange Knowles, and Tyler, the Creator got involved. Then the collective of self-appointed moral guardians known as Anonymous threatened to publish stills from an Iggy Azalea sex tape unless she apologizes to Banks—the kind of threat one doubts they'd make of a male artist. And lastly, T.I. swooped in to defend Iggy yet again, and to suggest that black people in America have "an almost incoherent overly defensive, paranoid sense of…'All White People Wanna Steal Our Sh–’ mentality."
T.I. was roundly mocked on Twitter, which gave the sense that Banks had tapped into something true. But it was about more than simple appropriation. The fault line in this instance isn't just race and ownership, which has always been a part of hip-hop's conversations and conflicts, but new concerns about the genre's direction, and the way its stories are being told. With Iggy's success this year and Macklemore's a year previous, two white performers have successfully become major hip-hop stars in a very brief period—at a time when hip-hop as a genre has contracted, relative to its massive successes a decade earlier. The perception is that hip-hop is being rapidly gentrified by white performers at the expense of black innovators, that its stories are being documented by white journalists and celebrated by white Grammy voters, that people of color are becoming less visible in an art form they created and sustain.
The perception is that hip-hop is being rapidly gentrified by white performers at the expense of black innovators.
Q-Tip addressed this in his series of tweets, explaining rather patiently to Iggy why the costume she wears is, for those who work from hip-hop's center, more than just music; even at its most "vile," it is a socio-political movement because of its links to American slavery. In this sense, appropriation feels like a misleading concern, albeit still one responsible for exploitation: Theft has been a part of the give and take of music's evolution forever. White rappers have always existed, including popular ones. What is different now is that hip-hop's cultural relevance feels at low ebb; that its popular peak as a black art form, now a decade past, is in the rear view window. The Internet has enabled a new way to connect with audiences; it's enabled Azealia Banks' career; many of the artists she's collaborated with she'd discovered online and work across the Atlantic. But it's also diminished the influence of Hip-Hop and R&B radio—black radio—on the pop charts.
It is in this environment that a next generation of artists will fight to sustain hip-hop's connection to black America's socio-political reality. Whether this can be done independently, without a direct line to the traditional commercial labels, is hip-hop's next big step, and Azealia Banks now joins a raft of other artists who will be testing those waters. It may mean moving against the tide. But if there's one consistent quality hip-hop has in moments like these, it's audacity. Or as Tyler, the Creator put it while describing Azealia Banks: "I LOVE PASSIONATE PEOPLE SPEAK YOUR FUCKING MIND BE A FREE BIRD FUCK EVERYONE YES."
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him @somanyshrimp.