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Race, record sales and rap: The trouble with Iggy Azalea

Australian rapper Iggy Azalea had something of a coming-out party at last night’s 2014 Billboard Music Awards. Opening the show by performing her hit “Fancy,” as well as handing an assist to songstress Ariana Grande during a rendition of their hit collaboration “Problems,” it was an important moment for the female rapper from Down Under with the faux-Dirty South accent and part-time modeling career. “Fancy” which also features Charli XCX, currently sits at No. 3 on the Hot 100. And “Problems” is at No. 4.

For those keeping score, that means Azalea is the first female rapper ever to have two songs concurrently in the top five of the Hot 100 chart.

One has to wonder what that means for female rappers. Is it a breakthrough moment for lady microphone fiends everywhere or just a moment for Iggy Azalea? This isn’t her first “first,” either — in 2012, she became the first female rapper to be featured on XXL’s much-ballyhooed “Freshman Class” cover. This year, there were no women represented.

Azalea’s high-profile success has brought the age-old controversy that surrounds white artists performing black music back to the fore. But unlike white male rappers like Macklemore, Iggy Azalea isn’t just a white face in a sea of well-known (sometimes even better-known) black faces. Aside from Nicki Minaj, female rappers are the least visible that they’ve ever been in the genre’s history. The lack of notable women in hip-hop became so obvious that the Grammy’s suspended its “Best Female Rap” category almost a decade ago and in the years since only one female rapper —Young Money superstar Nicki Minaj —has been a consistent presence on the charts. Right now, Azalea is the biggest female rapper in hip-hop under 30 years old.

And Azalea’s own controversies shouldn’t be glossed over.

Last summer, she was forced to respond to criticism after earlier racist tweets made by her were brought to public attention. In the tweets, she made jokes about Mexican women’s bodies, black men being arrested outside of Popeye’s chicken restaurants and also made derogatory comments about lesbians. Some would argue that these were just misguided and tasteless jokes made by a girl barely out of her teens; but another female rapper, Harlem-born Azealia Banks, became notorious for posting inflammatory tweets and was generally criticized by media and fans, to the point where she was branded a provocateur and even a racist and a homophobe. Banks is a year younger than Azalea but her snarky Twitter posts weren’t dismissed as simply immature or trivial. She can’t just be a smart-mouthed kid like Iggy?

How did Iggy respond to the controversy regarding her tweets? By chastising people for holding her accountable for them. “Listen. I see a trend on Twitter in the last week that involves ppl retweeting artists old tweets. I’m talking OLD, done and dusted ass ones.” She also lamented not being able to tweet whatever she wants because “you guys would make life a nightmare” and it would be “unprofessional.”

The 2012 Twitter-feud between Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks centered on Banks’ belief that Iggy didn’t deserve to be included on XXL’s Freshman cover that year, but it also had to do with Iggy’s reckless and tacky rhyme from her song “D.R.U.G.S:” “When the relay starts I’m a runaway slave … Master, s–tting on the past gotta sp-t it like a pastor.” Iggy later described the line as “a metaphoric take on an originally literal lyric” from Kendrick Lamar’s “Look Out For Detox.”

Meanwhile, Banks has yet to release her debut album and has been vocal in her frustrations with her record label. The album, Broke With Expensive Taste, is expected to be released sometime in the summer of 2014. Angel Haze, who was featured on XXL’s 2013 Freshman Class cover, released her debut album Dirty Gold in late 2013. It failed to crack the Billboard 200. North Carolina-born emcee Rapsody had one of the most acclaimed indie rap albums of 2012 with The Idea of Beautiful, but she failed to make much of a commercial impact and also wasn’t featured on an XXL Freshman Class cover.

So what does Iggy Azalea’s success mean for black women in hip-hop? Does it keep them invisible?

Even at the Billboard Awards, the only black performer other than a hokey CGI hologram of Michael Jackson was John Legend. The award winners were also pretty monochromatic: The winner of Top Rap Artist? Eminem. Top Rap Song? “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore. Top R&B Song? “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. The Billboard Awards are largely based on chart success. That says a lot about who’s buying and who’s selling.

Azalea’s success doesn’t seem to be an indicator of a swing in commercial success for female rappers who happen to be black and not named “Nicki Minaj.” In watching her Gwen Stefani-channeling rap-cheerleader performance at the Billboard Music Awards, one couldn’t help but wonder if we were watching an anomaly —the latest in a long line of novelty rap superstars —or a harbinger of things to come.


  1. MUSIC is the ANSWER. on May 19, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Great article. Honestly, it’s all about race. Even though many of the top selling artists last year happened to be white, positions on the Billboard charts (like the Hot 100) are influenced by other factors such as airplay and popularity. The top female artist at the 2014 Billboard Awards: Katy Perry? It was clear that Beyonce’s eponymous December 2013 album outsold Katy, Miley, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga, but yet she loses to Katy. Also, there has been a blatant redefinition of the R&B and hip-hop genres, with gimmicky pop/soul or pop/rap placements, in an effort to “mainstream” their sounds. What has resulted is a collection pop/dance music made by predominately white artists that are greatly influenced by R&B and hip-hop. In the past, there has always been hesitation to label black artists as pop or rock, despite their true, obvious representation of the genres; however, white artists are easily graced with the R&B/hip-hop stamp, despite their stark pop appeal and lack of connection to the genres. Iggy is an example of just that: a seemingly disconnected pop star, influenced by hip-hop.

    Even if African Americans spontaneously started supporting black artists by purchasing their music in ridiculous amounts, those artists would still falter against the “mainstream” popularity of those marketed to the masses. In a fair, impartial musicsphere, there should be no question that a Jay-Z, Kanye, and potentially a Kendrick or Drake, should be able to do the same numbers as an Eminem or chart the same as a Macklemore. They are just as – if not more – popular and influential in mainstream culture and relevant in hip-hop. The truth is, they just can’t do it. To accomplish such, it would take more than just blacks buying their music, they would also need the equitable support of their white audience (the same ones that faithfully purchase every Eminem album) and with the same ease that comes with a Katy Perry or Taylor Swift smash. This was evident with Pharrell’s “Happy” and John Legend’s “All of Me.” It took the white audience’s embrace of these records to propel them to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. But why doesn’t Jay-Z sell like Eminem or Kendrick go over as well as Macklemore on Billboard? Afterall, the audiences at many hip-hop shows these days are growing more and more “diverse” from the norm – in other words, more white. But what seems to still stick out like a stubborn spear is the age old problem of the color line. For white audiences, identifying with Kendrick and Jay-Z is far different from that with Eminem and Macklemore. There’s a connection there with white audiences and white hip-hop artists that many people choose to ignore. Although blacks many not support black artists as much as they could, don’t look for white audiences to reach too deep in their pockets for them either.

    • Kayla on May 23, 2014 at 12:27 am

      Look I’ve followed iggy in the beginning because I thought she was refreshing and new. But I also like azealia banks for similar reasons I just really wanted to here a female rapper RAP with a different flow other than nicki minaj. But in this process yes it’s very obvious iggy is getting more pop acclaim because she’s white at the same time iggys songs have BEEN BETTER & more pop sounding than azealia banks who’s sound doesn’t have the same feel. Those are my observations.

  2. daltonimperial on May 19, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    2013 Rap Artist winner: Nicki Minaj; 2012: Lil Wayne; 2011: Eminem.
    R&B artist/album/song: Usher swept 2011, Rhianna swept 2013. 2012 split among Chris Brown, Kelly Rowland, and Beyonce.

    I guess I’m confused by Iggy’s success keeping black women from hip-hop invisible as the third-to-last paragraph suggests: couldn’t you argue that Nicki Minaj’s dominance of that group contributing to that more, as any potential new black, female hip hop artist could be ignored as “yeah, but she’s not as good as Nicki?”

    Finally, is she a “novelty rap superstar” because she is overhyped given her talent or because she is white?

  3. Elliott Lawrence on May 20, 2014 at 1:58 am

    Not that I disagree with the spirit of the article, but Jason DeRulo says hi.

  4. The Chef on May 23, 2014 at 3:35 am

    She sounds like the Brat, not a new style come original, that’s massive not bitting off some black rapper chick style. That is the real problem, first the lips, than the butt, now the lyrical style. Lol hate me but want to be me