A Tale of Two White Rappers and Racial Injustice in America

The story of cultural appropriation in the United States is a long one. The story of racial inequality and of white privilege in the United States is even longer. Many people have called for a “national discussion on race” but where is such a discussion supposed to start. Concepts like racism are difficult to talk about in the abstract, while specific events are always diluted by a confluence of facts that make up any particular case. But the conversation has to start somewhere.

I’m a white person and a huge fan of hip hop. Recently a discussion about white appropriation has been re-ignited within the hip hop community. While pieces of this discussion involve personal feuds (aka rap beef) the larger series of events serve as an interesting look into how race and white privilege play out in the real world.

XXL Freshman Class 2012

XXL-Freshmen-2012 In 2012 hip hop magazine XXL released their annual freshman class edition, an issue that showcases up and comping hip hop artists. Among the 10 artists featured that year were Macklemore and Iggy Azalea. Iggy Azalea, a then 21 year old Australian, wasn’t chosen to be on XXL‘s coveted cover by the staff outright, but instead won a people’s choice vote held on the magazine’s website. Iggy who had released her first mixtape/EP only six months earlier also happened to be the first female MC to be featured in an XXL freshman class.

Meanwhile another young hip hop artist, Azealia Banks, took to twitter to criticize Iggy Azelea for calling herself a “runaway slave master” in one of her lyrics.

Iggy quickly responded…

Over the next months both Iggy and her record label boss, and famous rapper, T.I. minimized Azealia Banks’ critique by saying that Banks was only upset because she wasn’t as successful as Iggy. In the end Iggy released a public letter that was half defense of her actions, half apology. Her letter begins…

Im writing you today to address a lyric I said a few months ago in one of my songs that I feel has been used to unfairly slander my character and paint me as a racist person.

She then goes on to defend her lyric and explain how it was a “metaphoric take on an originally literal lyric”. In the middle of her letter is her apology…

Sometimes we get so caught up in our art and creating or trying to push boundaries, we don’t stop to think how others may be hurt by it. In this situation, I am guilty of doing that and I regret not thinking things through more.

The last piece of her letter argues that she is being targeted because she is white and that “It is unfair to say other races who also grew up listening to rap don’t get a place too”.

Macklemore at the Grammys

Fast forward to January 2014. Macklemore, who shared the same XXL 2012 Freshman Class cover with Iggy Azalea, had been an underground rap artist for fourteen years, releasing his first mixtape/EP in 2000. At the 56th Annual Grammy Awards Macklemore was nominated for seven Grammys after his album, The Heist, had swept the nation with songs like “Same Love”, “Can’t Hold Us”, and most popular “Thrift Shop”.

That same year a black Los Angeles artist named Kendrick Lamar had released his debut major label album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City”. Kendrick had been crowned the new king of west coast rap by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (I witnessed that moment in history first hand) and was being compared to rap legend Tupac Shakur. “Good Kid. M.A.A.D City” was received as an instant classic, a cohesive album of universal acclaim. Unlike many popular artists who rapped about gold chains and fancy cars, “Good Kiss, M.A.A.D City” told a sober story of the challenges, tribulations, and beauty of growing up in Compton Los Angeles. It’s gritty story telling, musical innovation, and unmatched lyricism made it a source of pride for the hip hop community.

Then Macklemore won Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance. He also beat Kendrick Lamar in the Best New Artist Category. Kendrick didn’t win a single Grammy.

The hip hop community was outraged. There was no way Macklemore’s The Heist was a better album than “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City”, period. Just hours after the award show ended Macklemore posted the following image on Instagram.
kendrick apology

Reactions to Macklemore’s ‘apology’ ranged from a mild appreciation of his recognition, to anger and rejection of what many saw as pitty from a privileged white man.

*Now this year, Iggy Azalea’s “The New Classic” has been nominated for Best Rap Album at the Grammys.

Mike Brown and Eric Garner

Fast forward to August 2014 when Mike Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson. Many black artists spoke out on social media, wrote protest songs (2, 3, 4), and visited Ferguson in person. Many people online note the absence of white artists’ voices on the subject…

Fast forward to Dec. 3rd when the police officer who killed Eric Garner is acquitted. Azealia Banks took to twitter to vent her frustration and call out Iggy Azalea for appropriating black culture (See the full set a tweets here).

Iggy responded several hours later (See the full set a tweets here)…

Azealia Banks on Hot 97

Several weeks later on December 18th Azealia Banks was interviewed on Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning radio show in New York City. During the interview she was asked about Iggy Azalea and her thoughts on cultural appropriation.

The most relevant sections of the interview above come at 8:30-13:33 and 35:00-38:50, though the entire interview is worth watching. During these sections Azealia Banks discusses the depth of white appropriation of black culture and tears up when she describes how black people are robbed of their own identity and their histories are erased

The day after the interview Iggy Azalea responded harshly and directly on Twitter saying…

Special msg for banks: There are many black artists succeeding in all genres. The reason you haven’t is because of your 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! – you created your own unfortunate situation by being a bigot and don’t have the mental capacity to realize yet. Probably never will. – Now! rant, Make it racial! make it political! Make it whatever but I guarantee it won’t make you likable & THATS why ur crying on the radio. – Enjoy continuing to bang your head against that metaphoric brick wall & Savor this attention. I’m the only way you get ANY. – You’re poisonous and I feel genuinely sorry for you because it’s obvious at this point you are a MISERABLE, angry human being. Regards!

Not long after came Banks’ response

Itchy Areola, you are so stupid and selfish to make any of this about yourself in particular, – My tears had absolutely nothing to with you and everything to do with society and the media in general. – You have absolutely no place to comment. – Stay out of this one…. – But, iffy azuzu will not play victim and make this about her, I made some very valid points about things that are important to me. – Things in society and culture. Things that really resonated with a lot of people.

The hot 97 interview, and the exchange that followeed, took the Azleais Ezlea feud to a whole new a level. Many people felt that Iggy’s response was calous and ignored the very real social issue that Banks brought up in her iterview.

Even hip hop legend Q-Tip (member of Tribe Called Quest) was compelled to write 40 tweet rebuttle(readable version) directly to Iggy, explaining the roots of hip hop and why her comments were insensitive.

HipHop is a artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 70’s Coming off the heels of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT and approaching the end of the Vietnam war it was a crossroads 4 America specially for blacks in the US Being a spirited, rhythmic & expressive people music art dance outlined our existence… it proved a way for us to exhault to scream to dance to laugh and find OUR VOICE Black and Latino Kids were carving out their space and it became infectious… eventually Keith Cowboy coined the phrase hiphop . Yrs later the first rap record was recorded and now we r moving. But during these strides this country still had the monster of racism and racial insensitivity breathing and ruling… believe it or not young black n Latino lives specifically weren’t acknowledged in mainstream American culture unless Of course.. the convo was abt gangs , being criminals or uneducated. And hey! Like I stated early our families were rushed our schools sucked and we were left to put devices to survive… but HIPHOP showed that we had DEPTH, fire, and BRILLANCE… the music was undeniable! It moved from NY N became national and even GLOBAL.” Hiphop now was FOR EVERYBODY!! All of those who cld relate to the roots, the spirit, the history, the energy.. It reached YOU… it touched your spirit n took u up. We magnetized you! That’s what BRILLANCE does… now u are fulfilling your dreams … BUT! you have to take into account the HISTORY as you move underneath the banner of hiphop. As I said before… hiphop is fun it’s vile it’s dance it’s traditional it’s light hearted but 1 thing it can never detach itself from is being a SOCIO-Political movement.

Macklemore on Hot 97

Less than two weeks later Macklemore was interviewed on the same Ebro in the Morning show.

Unlike Iggy Azalea’s dismissive response Macklemore appears very thoughtful and reflective in his opinions about cultural appropriation, racism, and the role of white rappers in hip hop. To me, this interview is a must watch for white people.

An index of the most interesting sections of his interview is listed below

  • 2:11 (to 6:00) – Mike Brown, Eric Garner and white privilege.
  • 11:40 (to 14:22) – White privilege in hip hop
  • 15:05 (to 16:40) – White America and rap
  • 27:47 (to 35:35)- Reflecting on Azealia Banks’ interview
  • 35:35 (to 39:04)- White rappers’ place in hip hop
  • 40:38 (to 43:07 ) – Making mistakes and race
  • 43:15 (to 44:10) – Kendrick Lamar’s “i” song
  • 45:54 (to 51:14) – Last year’s Grammys
  • 54:41 (to 55:04) – Will Iggy win rap album of the year?
  • 57:43 (to 58:12) – J. Cole calls out Macklemore on his record

In Macklemore’s interview you see a white artist at least attempting to grapple with many of the complicated issues around race and hip hop in a way that Iggy Azealia completely ignores.

Analysis

Looking at the story above it seems evident that being white has given both Iggy Azalea and Macklemore some advantage in their careers. Ebro mentions multiples times in his Banks and Macklemore interview that it is the American consumer, and broader American culture, that bestows privilege on white rappers but it is the responsibility of those white rappers to recognize and acknowledge this dynamic. While both Iggy and Macklemore continue to profit, at least in part, from their whiteness, the way each artists has dealt with addressing their privilege has been drastically different.

Whether Macklemore’s handling of his position justifies his role as a white artist performing black music is still up for debate. I know many people who would argue that Macklemore’s career is nothing more than black cultural exploitation regardless of how “enlightened” he is. After all Macklemore is still taking something that black people invented and profiting from it using his white privilege. On the flip-side, hip hop is all about taking, remixing, remaking,  and white people in all careers profit from their white privilege.

To be sure the issue is a complicated one, I’m still struggling to come to my own conclusion, but events like this can at least act as a starting point for future conversations on race that must be had.

Please feel free to comment below, share with others, and use this blog post to continue conversations with your own friends!

Notes