By Cory Herro
Late December is a time for celebration, New Year’s resolutions, and especially for hip-hop enthusiasts like me, end-of-year reflections from media outlets everywhere. The end-of-year hip-hop conversation usually revolves around albums dropped by the industry’s superstars, but this year, the conversation was about Iggy Azalea, and her place in hip-hop as a white, female rapper from Australia.
Unfortunately for Iggy, her meteoric rise to the top represents all the demons that hip-hop is dealing with right now, most importantly that black hip-hop music is being repurposed for a white mainstream audience.
Forbes first ignited passions when it published an article titled “Hip-hop is run by a white, blonde, Australian woman.” It cited Azalea’s chart-topping success this year with her single, “Fancy,” and her nomination for a Grammy for Best Rap Album.
The claim hit close to home for those hip-hop fans who worry that white mainstream rappers are erasing the genre’s black cultural roots. Everyone from Macklemore to Q-Tip to Azealia Banks to the writers at a number of websites subsequently weighed in. In his song “Fire Squad,” J. Cole summed up the reaction to the Forbes claim and the greater fears of the hip-hop community on the whole: “White people have snatched the sound /… Watch Iggy win the Grammy as I try to crack a smile.”
Of course, this is not the first time a white rapper has gotten popular. But in my opinion, most white rappers you can think of, like Eminem and Macklemore, never employed a cartoonishly black accent to get there. In the world of hip-hop, where authenticity is a premium, Iggy’s appropriation of a type of Black vernacular English that doesn’t belong to her is a big faux pas.
You could say that country music has had its own history with musicians faking accents to sell more records. Why does Iggy deserve more ire than fellow Australian Keith Urban, who sings with a Southern twang? Perhaps Iggy does not, but the obvious difference between hip-hop and country is the deeply racial roots and themes of hip-hop. Speaking on behalf of white hip-hop artists like himself, Macklemore observed in a Hot 97 radio interview, “This is a culture that came from white oppression… You cannot disregard this culture and our place in it as white people.”
In a series of tweets at Iggy, the rapper Q-Tip capitalized on this point by providing Iggy with historical context: “Hip-hop is a creative artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 1970s.” He echoed Macklemore when he said, “You have to take into account the HISTORY as you move underneath the banner of hip-hop.” Iggy fired back a tone deaf response that she found Q-Tip’s history lesson “patronizing.”
Like many of Iggy’s critics, I too am repulsed every time she raps, “Do dat, do dat” on her single “Fancy.” Like many of Iggy’s critics, I worry that Iggy represents a broader trend of hip-hop losing touch with its cultural roots. But in 2015 the hip-hop community and I should stop criticizing Iggy—not because Iggy doesn’t deserve it, but because it makes the hip-hop community look backwards. As America moves toward racial inclusivity, it looks more and more unbecoming to demand that hip-hop remain a Black art form based solely on the Black experience.
So instead of fretting about white, mainstream hip-hop losing touch with rap music’s cultural roots, in 2015 I’ll begin treating mainstream hip-hop like a sub-genre I just don’t care for. I’ll try to relax my instinct to save hip-hop from a music industry bent on marketing to a white audience. I’ll try to relax my urge to tweet at Iggy until she gives a humble nod to the culture she is so obnoxiously co-opting. I’m going to relax because I believe that for those who are interested in hearing it, there will always be room for the Black experience in hip-hop even as white rappers like Iggy and Macklemore achieve chart-topping success. Iggy does not, after all, compete for the same audience as black rappers like Kendrick Lamar or Pusha T, so she’s not crowding out artists who rap about the Black experience.
Perhaps we can learn from hip-hop producer 9th Wonder’s attitude, which he tweeted, that Iggy’s presence in rap doesn’t stop him from listening to his favorite hip-hop group: “You like FANCY? GREAT…that ain’t gone STOP me from liking BLACK MOON…21 years and counting.”
My hope for hip-hop in 2015 is that we as participants in hip-hop culture spend less time talking about the how the Grammys favor white rappers or how top-40 radio puts posers like Iggy on the air, and more time celebrating hip-hop’s rich cultural history. Celebrate jazz, as producer-rapper Flying Lotus did with his album “You’re Dead!” and Kendrick Lamar and Thundercat did on the Colbert Report. Include on your album a speech by one of hip-hop’s founding fathers, the soul poet-musician Gil Scott Heron, as Kanye West did with “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Infuse elements of “classic soul, juke, gospel, blues-rock, drill, acid jazz, house, [and] ragtime scat” into your music, as Chance the Rapper did with his mixtape “Acid Rap.” Remember that Chance needed no Grammy or top-40 radio airtime to get famous. Above all, keep in mind that Iggy does not want to celebrate hip-hop’s rich history. She wants to be a pop-rap artist, so it’s time to let her go.
Contact Cory Herro at cherro ‘at’ stanford.edu.