By T.S. Leonard
Editor’s note: Since the second half of the twentieth century, music critics and scholars have talked about the “whitening of black music.” This phenomenon is ever present on the airwaves and on music shows as African American musicians are receding to the background of mainstream entertainment, taking a backseat to the new generation of white R&B, pop, and hip hop artists. Here, T.S. Leonard tackles the complex issue of race and immigration in US popular music by taking on the artist that has emerged at the top of the charts in 2014, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea.
Fans and critics will probably be shocked that after all the speculation and anticipation Iggy Azalea did not walk away with a single Moonman at last night’s MTV VMA Awards show. If you were anywhere near a radio this summer there is no doubt that the mere word “fancy” calls to mind the icy, incessant, staccato synths of Iggy’s breakout hit. Iggy Azalea was everywhere, and most notably at numbers one and two on the Billboard Hot 100, a major feat for a debut artist previously only claimed by the Beatles.
“Fancy” was the de facto Song of the Summer, an ambiguously ranked yet coveted claim for the pop industry. Azalea got everyone’s attention with many wondering “where on earth did she come from?” Her whiteness and her Australian nationality quickly became requisite identifiers of this 24-year old hip-hop artist who exploded on to the American music scene earlier this year.
Her identity has raised two serious questions that have plagued the music industry. First, there is the century-long issue of white artists appropriating black culture and gaining more notoriety and success than black artists. Second, in this new globalized world where international artists are gaining ground in the pop music arena, how Azalea’s immigrant story aligns with the direction of contemporary hip-hop is notable. In the midst of these two questions, is Azalea’s talent truly special or have other factors given rise to her fame?
Last spring, Azalea broke through with the lead single, “Work,” from her debut album The New Classic. In this rousing, heartfelt booty jam, this pop star wants to “let you know what the fuck I’ve been through.” She details the floors she’s scrubbed, the shit she’s seen, and the work, work, workin’ she did to survive. But the song’s bridge, where Azalea repeats “no money, no family, 16 in the middle of Miami” is a bit misleading. In interviews, Azalea candidly talks about her move to the United States as a high school dropout and aspiring MC, a decision that sounds like it was received by her parents with cautionary disapproval. It is not exactly the little orphan Iggy scenario one might imagine listening to the growling “Work.”
In the early 1990s, when rappers like Jay-Z or Nas claimed cred by talking about hustling on the street, talent was their auxiliary survival strategy, a way to achieving independent wealth. For the young Azalea, adversity was a lifestyle choice. Her decision to immigrate to Miami and hustle in the rap game seems to exemplify the ongoing debates about racial appropriation and hipster phenomena like “slumming it.” The rapper’s boasting about leaving behind a home of familial support and putting herself in a presumably undesirable situation is not dissimilar from the trend among some privileged young adults who move into “bad neighborhoods” with a sense of self-congratulatory nobility.
When Azalea felt her calling to be a famous rapper, she pursued it by claiming an identity as an impoverished and unsupervised teen trying to get by on the streets. She intentionally pursued a lifestyle associated with southern blackness. Her delivery and phrasing are highly influenced by that sonic tradition, and she has broken through to the mainstream in a way no black southern female has before. Ironically, the narrative of survival as told by a “southern” female MC has reached its widest audience when performed by a white girl from Australia.
The persona that Azalea has so successfully shaped is the realization of a particularly millennial American dream. A young white immigrant girl comes to America, pulls herself up by her Louboutin straps, and rises to the top of the pop music industry, achieving her sought after dreams of success. The rapper’s fixation on the achievement of fame—and the audience’s eagerness to applaud it—seems to fit comfortably into the cultural tapestry of reality TV competitions and the Kardashian clan.
This is not to argue that Azalea has no talent; her incisive flow and distinct accenting have naturally received the respect of fellow rappers and producers. Still, her meteoric rise to the top can be attributed primarily to bold image and packaging. “Fancy” exploded after its instantly iconic music video went viral. Azalea’s Clueless-inspired spot struck a resonant chord with fellow children of the 1990s. The film’s satirical send-up of wealth and popularity has become a cultural touchstone for those who were reared in that decade’s prosperity but have entered adulthood in this one’s economic downturn. For middle-class twenty-something listeners, “Fancy” evokes a powerful feeling of nostalgic opulence and a desire for “Generation Me” individual success.
Azalea has successfully packaged her rags to riches immigration story or as she raps in her lead single “Work”: “Two feet in the red dirt, school skirt, sugar cane, back lanes, three jobs, took years to save, but I got a ticket on that plane.” Although Azalea certainly is not obligated to explain or apologize for her upbringing, since she has chosen to propagate an image that mythologizes her struggle before success and appropriates what can be perceived as a Southern black woman’s persona, we can’t help but scrutinize these factors in her race to success.
Azalea was up for a slew of trophies at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, including top prize Video of the Year but, notably, not Best Hip-Hop Video. Instead, “Fancy” was nominated in the Pop and Female categories. Although “Fancy” has logged more than 200 million YouTube views since March, Azalea went home empty handed.
Even if Azalea is being pigeonholed into the Pop category, she has enjoyed more immediate success than her black peers on the charts. Talented black female artists like Jean Grae and Rapsody have been “working” hard for years, yet the most mainstream visibility Grae has attained has been in a cipher preceding last year’s BET Awards show. Azealia Banks is another young black female MC who has struggled for widespread attention, but her appearances in the mainstream press reserved for controversial outbursts including a series of Twitter fights with Iggy Azalea, centered primarily on the latter’s race. One cannot help but conclude that Grae, Rapsody, and Banks—all powerful MCs—will not and cannot win against a white blond Australian, at least not in this arena unless they employ “shock and awe” tactics like those displayed by Nicki Minaj.
With no wins at the VMAs, it will be interesting to see what comes next for Azalea. Is she the next Elvis or Vanilla Ice? For a determined defector hell-bent on making it big in America, her job may well be done. If equal footing as an unqualified MC with clout is what she desires, there might still be work left to do.
T.S. Leonard is a non-fiction writer interested in social justice and trend culture. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.