Friday, July 25, 2014

Fancy Pantsy and the White Rapper Irresolution

Iggy Azalea
Writing in last week, Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper wrote a rather lengthy (by Internet standards) excoriation of the media attention accorded to Australia-born rapper Iggy Azalea. Iggy’s fourth single, “Fancy,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and turned her into a bankable star. It has also drawn criticism and praise in equal degrees, mainly for its white artist’s use of traditionally black styles. This reaction is distinctly problematic.

Fear of cultural appropriation has become a major bugbear in our time of multiple political causes. Cooper objects to Iggy, a white artist, replicating African American vocal mannerisms in her singing. Though Cooper stops short of calling Iggy racist, others aren’t so judicious; MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry dubbed Miley Cyrus “racist” for twerking at the MTV VMAs. Like some black artist somewhere laments the theft of her lucrative signature move.

Personally, I find this song profoundly unpleasant. The relentlessly repetitive electronic chord (singular); the lyrics vainly boasting of wealthy excess, common among poor artists; Iggy’s forced accent and Yoda-like diction, making her sound like she’s imitating, even mocking, Tara from True Blood. Consider the opening line: “First thing’s first, I’m the realest.” Anybody who knows culture knows that proclamations of authenticity usually precede imminent bullshit. Iggy doesn’t disappoint.

But as I've written before, music isn’t a colony for my values. ATL-style rap isn’t for me. Cooper acknowledges in her article that Iggy acquits herself well; “almost without fail,” Cooper writes of when this track emerges from her radio, “I immediately start bobbing my head to the beat.” Even Iggy’s vulgar boasts of material wealth reflect black American culture’s longstanding yearning for the economic stability white American culture historically hoarded.

Cooper’s complaint, therefore, rests entirely on “appropriation,” a politicized updating of look what they’ve done to my song, Ma. She dislikes Iggy’s “sonic Blackness,” citing “the Beastie Boys, or Eminem, or Macklemore… who’ve been successful in rap in the last 30 years and generally they don’t have to appropriate Blackness to do it.” That is, Cooper dislikes how Iggy sounds black—Cooper almost seems to resent Iggy for being white.

One wonders where Cooper excavates her facts. When Eminem broke nationally fifteen years ago, I read a Revolver magazine article wherein he bragged that, when he distributed his demo tapes without a headshot, A&R executives assumed he was black. Like Elvis, whom many DJs thought black because his early 45s didn’t feature his face, Eminem borrowed black Americans’ perceived against-the-grain authenticity to bolster his message and image.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “racism” as “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” I shouldn’t have to say this, but it bears emphasis, that one doesn’t steal from people one considers lesser, contemptible, or inferior. We steal from people we believe have something we need, but lack. That may be stuff, ideas, or perceived credibility.

Cultural acquisition always moves from poor to rich. Oh, sure, self-proclaimed culturati create rules to keep paeons obedient: poems must rhyme, or orchestral compositions necessarily beat self-taught instrumentalists, or a painting must “look like something.” But these rules represent authority’s last-gasp effort to marginalize art they consider subversive. True artists consistently find ways to circumvent fake rules and create pathbreaking, unorthodox artwork that actually touches audiences’ souls.

White artists frequently apprentice under black mentors, even when they don’t create “black” art. Hank Williams learned guitar from itinerant bluesman Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. As a teenager, Ringo Starr sought an American entry visa to meet Lightnin’ Hopkins. Back when American music was segregated, British mariners brought blues 45s home; many of their sons, including John Lennon, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards, reintroduced black music to white America.

Cooper’s complaint isn’t without merit. Iggy has left a trail of racially problematic tweets, has only sporadically contributed to the black culture that subsidizes her, and her public melodrama edges worthy black women from the culture market. Plus, her video, which pilfers everything moveable from Amy Heckerling’s 1995 orgy of excess, Clueless, kinda sucks. Nothing in this essay excuses Iggy Azalea personally.

But “cultural appropriation,” rather than a race-baiting conundrum keeping African Americans down, is simply art’s natural progression. White Americans already pinched jazz, blues, and hip-hop from their black cousins, just like the English stole Irish music, or everybody in Sedona, Arizona, stole every Indian artwork not nailed down. Iggy Azalea’s music could help heal old wounds, or it could re-open them. The difference is in how we receive her.

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