In Between Cultural Appropriation, Racism, and Sexism: Azealia Banks and the Erasure of Black Women in Rap
Rap artist Azealia Banks, who released her debut album, Broke with Expensive Taste, in November, made the news with her appearance on Hot 97’s radio show, Ebro in the Morning, in December. In her 47 minute interview, Banks railed against white Australian-born pop singer-turned rap artist, Iggy Azalea, Azalea’s boss, rapper, T.I., and against capitalism, slavery, and the appropriation of black culture. Azalea released her debut album, The New Classic in April, which shot up to #1 on Billboard‘s R&B/Hip Hop Album and Rap charts. Her song “Fancy” dominated the airwaves. The positive reception even led Forbes to initially declare that Azalea “ran” rap. This declaration, which Forbes eventually dialed back, underscored Banks’s critique about appropriation and black women’s exclusion and erasure in the corporate rap industry. Banks declared, “At the very fucking least, you owe me the right to my fucking identity. And not to exploit that shit. That’s all we’re holding onto with hip-hop and rap.”
Banks’s comments scandalized the blogosphere and Twitter. Jezebel‘s Clover Hope rightfully criticizes Ebro’s incessant condescension towards Banks, but the message embedded in Banks’s remarks signified larger issues within the rap industry than her beef with Iggy. It is clear that Banks is disgusted with Azalea’s elevated status within the rap industry, but the source of Banks’s frustration lays in white supremacy, cultural appropriation, and the racist and sexist structure of the rap industry. I would add that corporatization, gentrification, competition, and systemic racism and sexism are the main forces working to marginalize black female rappers in the mainstream rap industry.
I wrote extensively on systemic sexism within the rap industry in a prior blog post about Nicki Minaj’s dispute with Hot97 DJ Peter Rosenberg. In that post, I detailed the limited options that mainstream female rap artists faced while trying to create music, earn a living, and remain relevant within hip hop culture. I also discussed how artists like Nicki Minaj had to navigate those obstacles while walking the fine line between trying to control one’s image and destiny and appealing to the male gaze to sell records.
What I did not include in my prior analysis was an explicit discussion of the influence of the corporatization of rap. The corporatization of rap loosely refers to the absorption of rap artists and relatively-independent subsidiary rap labels into the large corporate structure of the music industry from the early-1990s to the present. Derek Ide, in “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Hip Hop: A People’s History of Political Rap,” also references the impact that music sales tracking system, SoundScan, had on the rap music market. Combining the absorption of rappers into large record labels, SoundScan, and the smashing commercial success of “gangsta rappers” Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and New York City rapper Notorious B.I.G., record label executives began to view rap as a profitable investment between 1992 and 1994.
In the corporatized hip hop world, record sales and profits were prioritized, and if one did not sell enough, the artist — male or female — became disposable. However, women, and women of color especially, had a greater chance of disposability because record labels saw them as costlier material investments. In an Ava DuVernay-directed BET documentary about black women in hip hop, My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop, Miami-based rap artist Trina explains how costs associated with physical upkeep — hair, make up, and clothing — influenced the number of women record labels signed. These expenses also influenced whether or not black women were seen as lucrative investments. “I’ve been in different meetings from the label. You know, being an artist that was signed to a major label — Atlantic Records — and with just the expenses, and the touring, and the glam, it just so many extra things that come along with being a woman that needs to be taken care of. I think, just for most labels … it just became too much,” Trina said. These costs, according to Trina, led to major record labels signing very few women artists. The dearth of women artists releasing commercially successful albums on major labels in the 2000s led to the Grammys dropping the best female rap artist category in 2005.
Individualistic competition reinforces the lack of visible, and consistently successful, black female rappers. Many black women earn a living from rapping, but fewer are recognized as among “the best” in hip hop publications, by critics, and by institutions like the Grammys. This was evident in Complex Magazine‘s recent story, “The Best Rapper Alive, Every Year Since 1979,” where the publication awarded a black female rapper (Nicki Minaj) the distinction once in thirty-five years. Three women — Roxanne Shante (1984), Lauryn Hill (1998), and Nicki Minaj (2010) — earned honorable mention. So, according to Complex, out of the hundreds of rappers, only three black female rappers have made an impact on hip hop culture as individual artists in thirty-five years.
The gentrification of mainstream rap music and the appropriation of black culture compound the already inherently sexist aspects of the rap market. Iggy Azalea not only appears as an outsider because of her race and nationality, but as an exploiter of privilege, of black southern vernacular, and sexualized body parts of black women like the “ass.” Azalea’s presence and success takes up more space within the genre the more she sells and the more accolades she receives. Her presence also allows for publications like Forbes to make hyperbolic proclamations about “running rap,” a declaration that few black female rappers have been able to garner in the last three decades. While Iggy Azalea’s presence may not push record executives to find, or manufacture, the “next Iggy,” it may accelerate the divestment in black female hip hop artists.
Many writers have already published great pieces analyzing recent instances of white men and women appropriating elements of hip hop culture — fashion, using black women’s bodies as props, language, etc. What is often missing from these discussions is the structural nature of the exclusion of black women within the mainstream, or commercial, industry. While it is important to lend a critical lens to Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea, and Lily Allen, as Brittney Cooper and Complex blogger Kris Ex contend, we often do so at the expense of exploring the actual exclusion and silencing of black women artists.
Ultimately, it may be more productive to think of the myriad of structural forces that marginalize black female rappers in the mainstream rap industry — corporatization, gentrification, appropriation, competition, and systemic racism and sexism. The question that remains, however, is whether one can provide such an analysis without mentioning Iggy Azalea at all because she, Azealia Banks, and Nicki Minaj are caught within, and are products of, the same system. Obviously, Azalea’s experience is much different than Banks’s and Minaj’s due to color, nationality, and body type. It is true that she experiences sexism, but to her dismay, that does not trump her benefiting from white privilege and exploiting black female sexual politics and black southern vernacular. Banks and Minaj have successfully carved out a space within hip hop culture. Yet, they often confront double jeopardy — institutional sexism and racism — that makes them more disposable to mainstream corporate record labels. And as Banks suggested in the interview, black women have to find ways to construct and preserve their own identities while confronting a double jeopardy within the rap industry. They contend with the misogyny embedded within the rap industry and cultural appropriation perpetrated by white female entertainers.
 After much controversy about Forbes‘s declaration, the publication changed the title of the article to “Hip-Hop’s Unlikely New Star: A White, Blonde, Australian Woman.”
 I have a correction: In my previous piece on Nicki Minaj, I claimed Lil’ Kim was the most successful female commercial artist. That is not true. Missy Elliot holds that distinction. Nicki Minaj is well-positioned to earn that title in the future.
 Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (New York: Picador, 2005), 443-448.
 It is important to acknowledge that white rap artists are not new and not all of them were seen as imposters and exploiters. One of the major differences between Azalea and Macklemore and Blondie singer Debbie Harry and the Beastie Boys was, despite questions about their place within the culture, they were seen as part of the rap and punk rock-led cultural rebellion of the early 1980s.
 Insanul Ahmed, David Drake, Noah Callahan-Bever, Christine Werthman, Ernest Baker, and Rob Kenner, “The Best Rapper Alive, Every Year Since 1979,” Complex.com, January 5, 2015.
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.
Cooper, Brittney. “Iggy Azalea’s Post-racial Mess: America’s Oldest Race Tale, Remixed,” Salon.com, July 15, 2014, accessed January 11, 2015.
Ex, Kris. “We Need To Stop Talking About Iggy Azalea,” Complex.com, December 31, 2014, accessed January 10, 2015.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1994.
Rose, Tricia. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop–And Why It Matters. New York: BasicCivitas, 2008.
Feature image: Album cover of Broke with Expensive Taste, by Azealia Banks.
Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.