Over the past few years, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea has been at the heart of controversy over what should or shouldn’t be said in hip hop music. Critics, since the release of songs like “Pu$$y,” and most recently the billboard topping “Fancy,” have argued at length over whether the young artist, who raps with a Southern twang – according to various sources, her hip hop education reached its zenith in Houston – is authentic or just a replica of other minstrel show hip hop acts. Beyond just the question of authenticity, which seems to plague many rappers and MCs, she’s been accused of racism in her music by rapper Azealia Banks, and by the Internet public upon viewing a picture of her with TI, Drake, and B.O.B., the caption reading, “Me and Ma Nigga’s<3”.
Some critics view this use of the word “nigga,” a purportedly slang-friendly usage of the horrific term utilized frighteningly recently (relatively) to denigrate and dehumanize people stripped of almost every single basic right, as blatantly ignorant and disrespectful. The word “nigger” immediately relates back to slavery, and linking her use of the word, along with that lyric of hers that reads, “When the relay starts, I’m a runaway slave… master. Sh-ttin’ on the past, gotta spit it like a pastor…” paints the picture of a pretty dire influence to be running around sold out stadium shows and on iPods owned by teenagers and children.
The critics who align themselves with this very black and white morality, of course, are not reporting the whole story and haven’t seen the global picture. First off, Azalea has apologized across numerous channels about offending anyone, suggesting that the heat of the artistic moment often has you pushing boundaries, not deliberately pondering what could hurt as many people as possible. And the picture with her and her “niggas”? Despite the ill grammar, I could guess that this was not meant as a way of dehumanizing her compatriots in the hip hop community. If anything, it was an act of inclusion, as she’s entered into the hip hop world and wishes to thrive as one of its stars.
Talking to Time, Questlove (or ?uestlove), the legendary drummer and leader of The Roots, remarked that critics of Azalea have to realize that hip hop is a global culture, with mass proliferation and an incredible influence on many, many people. Everyone is welcome to it, the production and writing side as well as the fandom. Most important out of everything is that Questlove simply loves the tune, calling it “catchy as hell” and a “game-changer.” Yes, it stirs up controversy, but to musicians like Questlove it’s just a great tune. If it weren’t, in some way, it wouldn’t be in the same commercial/chart ballpark as Beatles’ tunes. Questlove actually says it would be preferable if Azalea used hip hop slang “with her regular dialect”; slang should be set free and used, especially when the music producing such slang and culture has a huge impact.
In an interview with The Guardian, Azalea commented that most of the negative criticism was from sources outside the industry. Besides the Twitter war with Banks, which coincided with an incident of miscommunication between Azalea and Nicki Minaj, the most up in arms about Azalea have been music writers and incensed fans with a penchant for Internet commenting. Azalea’s lyrical content and image have been put under scrutiny, but at the same time artists like Questlove are praising the tunes and thousands of screaming fans are packing into stadiums.
So what’s really going on? The answer to this question is confusing if completely existent at all. Hip hop is generally surrounded by an atmosphere of controversy, racism, classism, authenticity, and many other themes, culture as a whole universally responsible. Azalea’s presence in the industry highlights many of the inequalities within the genre, and the many problems culture has in getting over certain stigma. Dr. Boyce Watkins writes that hip hop has the tendency to caricature black culture and create a minstrel show that shows the very worst of its people. The fact that many who look at Azalea and most likely believe that she’s trying to be black means that they already have a set definition of what it means to be not only a black hip hop artist, but a black individual. Watkins also reminds readers of the immense power money has in making people do things that may be denigrating. Having an entire arena scream a lyric that contains “nigga” may be an intentional branding of the term and faux re-appropriation to be sold for glorified cash. Justifiable paranoia, thy name is everyone studying cultural economics.
It may be that the controversy surrounding the word “nigger” will never be dealt with correctly, especially because it’s a dichotomous term that at once harkens back to the slave narrative but at the same time conjures up images of rappers with gold chains, guns, and the thug identity. The past and the present commingle harmfully here, and there’s been no solution yet to rectify all of this. Writing for Slate, Jonah Weiner makes it pretty clear that there’s not going to be some perfect future world in which any person can say “nigger” without referencing years and years of suffering, especially as that would be a direct ignorance of the past. But at the same time, people shouldn’t be hiding behind slightly altered versions of the word. Gwyneth Paltrow once tweeted the word using asterisks, and that was still pretty bad, especially when you think about Louis C.K.’s assertion that using that option or even the “n-word” just makes the other person or people have “nigger” spelled across out in their brain. I even notice that I use quotations in some futile attempt to invoke the academy. If you’re going to use it, use it and accept that you’re doing something pretty offensive; trying to mask the use of the word doesn’t make it any less hurtful or make you free of responsibility. It should be known what is being communicated.
Nicolas B. Aziz of The Huffington Post also comments on how widespread hip hop is, and how little the historical significance of prevalent language is known. People all across the world use the word, as well as phrases with the word heard in popular hip hop songs (“nigga please” has appeared in surprising places), in conversation because they’ve seen their hip hop idols do the same, and enjoy the culture shown in the hip hop world. Much of this is not blatant racism, but it is ignorance of a kind, especially in that the artists who proliferate sometimes don’t want people using the slang they market so effectively, and in that fans think that the “if they say it, I can” mentality drives away significance. Globalization has done its work, and any music that leaves the lips and instruments of its progenitors no longer belongs to these creators. Culture will follow icons like Azalea, slang and style morphing at an impossibly quick rate. Should the word nigger be removed from all media and discourse? It won’t be, so a better understanding of where it comes from, and how “nigga” still holds the same weight as its supposedly worse linguistic counterpart, is warranted.
Azalea’s image is controversial, yes, but let’s face it, her music made Questlove sit up and take notice. And huge numbers of people are jamming along, the vocal minority enraged by her lyrics and place in the culture also enjoying a listen even through gritted teeth. Maybe this whole thing can be linked back to the former soul and R&B industry going the way of music icons–Michael Jackson was an incredible figure, but his first performance of the moon walk was markedly solo with no band in sight (see Standing in the Shadows of Motown)–creating a culture where content has to legitimately shock and/or be so catchy so a dumbed down consumer can dig it. An executive definitely doesn’t believe that the consumer wants anything to do with the in depth history of the music provided. Seemingly, hip hop and the genres related to it have become a place for selling massive quantities of not only very brief, easily understood titles, but also a specific type of cultural branding. Much respect to the artists, but the guidelines for a successful song put visual and shock value first a lot, and that’s up to an unequal mix of fans and executives expectations.
If anything, a solution to all this lies in letting go of past grudges and conceptions of what people should be allowed to say, while also understanding why those conceptions have become what they are today. Questlove’s been the most reasonable in this debate; his arguments amount to the idea that Azalea should be herself, as a hip hop artist with full access to slang if used respectfully (my approximation of his words). I truly don’t believe Azalea is any more racist than the person who defines her as such. She’s just caught in a swirling commercial madhouse of miscommunication and monetized identities. We won’t get anywhere throwing hate her way. For those who enjoy her tunes, enjoy them without wondering whether or not you should be offended. I personally haven’t been able to listen “Fancy” once through, but I can’t bring myself to take offense with an artist trapped in a cycle we’re all kinda responsible for, even in a tiny, but measurable, way.