The root of Iggy Azalea’s cultural appropriation isn’t simple racism; it’s total self-absorption
All year, the bizarre collection of affected mannerisms that is Iggy Azalea has been slowly gaining in momentum—first dropping the single “Fancy,” featuring Charli XCX, that became the song of the summer, sort of , as well as contributing rhymes to Ariana Grande’s “Problem” and teaming up with Rita Ora on “Black Widow.” Her fame has come hand-in-hand with notoriety; rumors fly that Azalea does not write her own lyrics, her live performances have been less than dazzling, and last but not least, her entire career seems to be built on shameless cultural appropriation.
Azalea, born Amethyst Amelia Kelly, is a white blonde girl from Australia, who illegally immigrated to America at 16 and worked as a hotel maid while trying to establish a music career for herself. The pathway she found was rap—and not just any rap, but as Brittany Cooper explains, Southern, ATL-style hip-hop. While black female rappers are marginalized or ignored, Azalea’s image has proved to be lucrative, and that has nothing to do with her talent. As numerous critics have observed, including Chris Molanphy at Slate and Molly Lambert at Grantland, Azalea is a mediocre artist using the toehold of her novelty for success. (This is what her voice actually sounds like, by the way; even her off-air persona is a carefully pruned minstrel show.)
Iggy Azalea’s persona would be less frustrating if she seemed even slightly aware of it. The relationship white musicians have with black musicians is in and of itself a significant sub genre of American race relations; musical cultural appropriation is rock ‘n’ roll, after all. Within the genres of rap and hip-hop—musical forms where black musicians finally got some credit for their creation—it’s even more important for white musicians to justify their existence.
Eminem is a dick to everyone, but especially following “8 Mile,” it’s hard to think of him as anything but a champion for the lives of the disenfranchised working-class Detroiters he grew up with. Macklemore’s stance on inclusiveness has more to do with him, most of the time, than it does for the marginalized groups he’s advocating for—his eagerness to be seen as progressive speaks of ego more than altruism. On the other hand, though, at least he has a stance—and when he marched for Mike Brown in Seattle, he did his best to blend in. Even up-and-comers like the charmingly named Machine Gun Kelly have a finger on the pulse of the conversation; that rapper played the part of a white, racist asshole in “Beyond the Lights,” demonstrating a willingness to confront his own complicity in the problems with hip-hop.
Wednesday night, one of the female black rappers Azalea feuds with, Azealia Banks, called out “Igloo Australia” for not speaking out on the Eric Garner case, as she herself was doing. Banks’ twitter is all kinds of profanity and calling-out, and there are dozens upon dozens of artists, black and white, who didn’t bother making a statement about New York’s decision to not indict the cop that killed Garner. Azalea’s silence wasn’t necessarily remarkable, just in-character. But her responses to Banks’ shade were uncomfortably clueless: The first noted that “all hell broke loose” while she was offline; the second urged an unnamed person to “find a new game plan.” Tellingly, the second could literally be directed at anyone, about anything—Banks, for calling her out on Twitter, continuing the feud; the police, for getting in hot water again over another unexplained black death; the protestors, even, for taking to the streets with the same cry for justice.
And then in a poorly executed pirouette, she turned to the news she’d come to share with Twitter:
It’s a nightmarish tweet that deserves careful examination. Every part of it is bad enough: “In other news”—what other news? Social media was on fire and cities were clogged with protestors; the NYPD brought out their sound cannon and had an order to arrest anyone creating a disturbance. The flirty little “<3” and “^.^” that seem to have no idea how angry people are.
This is underscored rather brutally by her further tweets on the matter. After spending some space making jokes at Nick Jonas and talking about her dogs, Azalea takes up several tweets observing that outsiders’ interest in this situation is about watching a rivalry unfold online. But she did hastily post a link, saying, “HERE ARE SOME ACTUAL PRODUCTIVE WAYS YOU CAN HELP.” Fine words, except the link is to an article on five different ways to help Ferguson. It has nothing to do with the day’s outrage over Eric Garner. Azalea missed the point entirely, multiple times. A true “let them eat cake” moment, really.
The real kicker, of course, is the tossed-off “that actually relates to me.” Iggy Azalea does not understand why Banks, and others on social media, would bring her into the conversation about a racially motivated police killing in Staten Island. Iggy Azalea feels unfairly targeted. Because in her mind, Iggy Azalea had nothing to do with it.
The problem is not that Azalea is a racist. It’s more that she seems so self-absorbed. The root of her cultural appropriation is her deeply held belief that she’s allowed to do whatever she needs to in order to succeed. And she lives with it by convincing herself—a starlet with two chart-topping songs and 3.34 million Twitter followers—that she can somehow wash her hands of responsibility for racial stereotypes she buys into and perpetuates for profit, daily. She has an incredible platform, and she can’t even get a link right. And while that might, to her mind, make her “fancy,” or “the realest,” it is, in fact, incredibly humdrum—the banality of passing the buck, the easiest of all political activities. “It’s embarrassing of T.I. to put Iggy on a song called “No Mediocre,” because she is the definition of mediocrity,” wrote Lambert of Azalea. “Iggy raps, but she never says anything.”
It’s not art; it’s commerce. But Azalea’s too busy making money to stand for anything. And while maybe we shouldn’t expect much from 23-year-old pop stars, when it’s true that even Macklemore showed up to protest, it seems like Azalea could take a break from self-absorption for the decency of googling, at least, what today’s protest was about.
Sonia Saraiya is Salon’s television critic.