A year after Macklemore, a white rapper from Seattle, publicly apologized for winning the Grammy award for Best Rap Album, another white artist is poised to score hip-hop’s top honor at Sunday’s music award show. Iggy Azalea, the Australian rapper who dominated Billboard charts last year with “Fancy” and “Black Widow,” is nominated for four Grammys and is up against some of hip-hop’s most celebrated artists and hottest newcomers. But if Azalea’s recent responses to critics are any indication, there won’t be any apologies from her this weekend.
The charges against her aren’t unfounded. Her style is ripped from a culture born half-a-world away from her own birthplace, and she rhymes in an accent that’s less Aussie than urban American. She raps “I’m the realest” while using what some have called a “blaccent” – a distinctly inner-city African-American female vocal style. These criticisms have come from all directions: scholars, journalists and fellow artists alike. But Azalea has shown no shame. She insists that she is being herself. She says she has changed hip-hop. And she’s right.
Azalea recognizes something that her critics ignore: Hip-hop is no longer a subculture owned by black Americans. Today, it’s a mainstream industry crafted in the executive offices of major record labels. The heavy beats and lyrical rhymes born in the Bronx in the 1970s have been legitimately bought, repackaged and commercialized for a new, larger audience. This music defines the culture of a large segment of young white people across the world. It has been integrated into the experience of a generation. This shift happened a while ago: According to MRI’s American consumer survey, 70 percent to 75 percent of the adults purchasing rap music in 2001 were white, and the percentage undoubtedly has grown since then. Azalea didn’t cause this — she’s the result.
Hip-hop emerged in the 1970s as a social outlet for black and Latino youth living in the severely impoverished and neglected South Bronx. In the early 1980s, black-owned, independent labels such as Sugar Hill, Enjoy, and Def Jam Records commercialized the art form by selling records to hip-hop’s then relatively small, core fan base. Major record labels — Sony, Universal, and Warner — then noticed the genre, and since the late-1980s, have dominated the hip-hop market, turning it into a multibillion-dollar, global industry. Hip-hop, in this context, is now controlled by a handful of corporations invested not in cultural legitimacy, but in crafting and trading musical products for profit. They are in the business of packaging cultural identities and practices they deem most marketable and selling it to the widest possible consumer base.
It’s not the first time the mainstream music industry successfully used this strategy. In the 1950s, Elvis Presley, Pat Boone and numerous other white artists built their careers by remaking songs previously released by black rhythm & blues artists and imitating their performance styles. A half century later, white rapper Eminem (though skilled and respectful of the culture he emulated) became one of hip-hop’s most profitable artists in large part because his bleach blonde hair, nasally vocal tones, and trailer-park based lyrics appealed to white listeners. Rap artists like Macklemore and Iggy Azalea exist in this tradition.
Azalea says she fell in love with hip-hop at 11 years old after hearing Tupac Shakur’s “Baby Don’t Cry” on a local radio station in Australia. At 14, she began to rap herself, and was heavily influenced by Missy Elliot, a Southern black rapper. Two years later, at 16, she moved to America to begin her recording career. She was mentored by hip-hop artists T.I.,from Atlanta, and Jefe Wine, from Houston, who introduced her to the southern hip-hop music that became a key influence on her vocal style. These artists were not working from an allegiance to hip-hop culture or black-American identity. They were businessmen who saw the commercial possibilities of a thin, blonde-haired Australian woman with adequate rapping skills. In the process, Azalea simply adopted a style that worked for her, the one she grew up listening to – that of a southern black female rapper.
Azalea is not an active participant in traditional hip-hop culture. You won’t see her rocking the stage at underground clubs. You won’t see her freestyling at cyphers (unless it’s one manufactured by BET). And based on her recent exchange with rapper and producer Q-Tip, of the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, she has little knowledge of or interest in hip-hop’s dynamic history. That’s because Azalea isn’t a product of that culture. Her ascent is a result of the increasing whiteness of hip-hop’s consumer base. It’s a commercial response to the tastes and demands of the audience that’s driving hip-hop sales.
College students have fueled the success of white rappers. “Frat rapper” Mac Miller’s debut album Blue Side Park topped the pop charts in 2011. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” climbed atop the billboard charts in 2013 because it was a funky lyrical dedication to “thrifting” – shopping for vintage clothes at thrift shops – a practice popular amongst white collegiates. I discovered Iggy Azalea and her music through a white student in my summer hip-hop course at Indiana University, who told me that Azalea made music that reflected her lifestyle. This is what rap artist Lupe Fiasco meant he tweeted that Iggy Azalea had a “place in hip-hop…her place.” Mainstream hip-hop is firmly rooted in popular culture and is largely shaped by tastes of young white consumers.
Of course, there are issues stemming from the mainstreaming of hip-hop. Talented artists are overlooked for accolades like Grammys. The profit-driven world of mainstream hip-hop has spawned popular television shows like Vh1’s Love and Hip-Hop franchise, and Fox’s Empire, which present woefully stereotypical images of hip-hop life as violent and ignorant. And hip-hop artists are going to disturbing lengths to grab attention and dollars through disturbing lyrics, musing about date rape and even liken their sexual prowess to civil rights-era horrors.
I’m not suggesting we simply throw our hands up in the face of these cultural distortions. Fans of traditional hip-hop are not completely powerless. We can divest from corporate hip-hop, giving less attention to Iggy Azalea types and focusing more attention and money on talented hip-hop artists like Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Mick Jenkins, and Isaiah Rashad. These talented artists released stellar records in 2014 that did not receive nearly the amount of critical and commercial praise they deserve. None were nominated for Grammys.
Certainly, divesting from corporate hip-hop is a symbolic move. There’s no way to stop the commercialization of the genre. But I argue that’s not as tragic as some fear. Traditional hip-hop will live on, as long as its fans support it. It may not win the attention of the Grammys, but those awards long have valued popularity over originality and authenticity. It’s not where traditional hip-hop’s real value lies. It’s power is in connecting with the people and the culture who created it. Elvis didn’t kill rhythm & blues. And Iggy Azalea won’t kill hip-hop.
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