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Hip Hop and the Mainstream

23:06 January 05, 2015
By: Nicholas Mitchell

Does Iggy Azalea keep it real? I have no clue. I don’t know her personally. I do know that she makes popular music in the style of dirty south female hip hop such as Cheeky Blakk and Mia X and that she is originally from Australia, is white, and that her spoken dialect does not match her performance dialect. Azalea Banks has over the last month or so, taken to Twitter to call her out on this, and she is not alone. Artistically and culturally, this conversation had revolved around the very hip hop notion of realness and connected to other topics; namely, hip hop as political speech and cultural appropriation. Rather than talk about the back and forth between Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks' very personal beef, I will discuss the broader issue at hand.

Some people wish to assert that hip hop is always political. I wish this was true. I miss the days when hip hop was as terrifying to mainstream America as Communism was to the boomers; but its isn’t.  Anyone who has ever listened to hip hop knows that the idea that Hip Hop is always political is absurd. The party has always been topic of interest within hip hop. Other subject matter includes owning nice clothes, sex, killing, and selling drugs. Does anyone else remember Bling, Bling? Sure, some of those things have political overtones but a great deal of it is overtly what it is: rich people rapping about being rich. There is nothing wrong with that, of course.  So, this makes the claim that Iggy’s music being devoid of politically relevant subject matter tenuous as that is not a requirement for something to be hip hop. I would have loved to see Iggy come out with something political or social but I want that from every artist. Did every black rapper come out to support “hands up, don’t shoot” or “I can’t breathe?” Nope. Let’s be honest, most rappers of pop culture notoriety don’t have the stomach to speak political truths like Killer Mike or, frankly, Kanye West.

A great deal of this issue lies at the intersection of art and politics. 2014 was a pretty hard year to be black in America, especially with the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice. This legitimate concern has combined with broader concerns about cultural appropriation of black culture by white mainstream culture. Of course, that is a messy topic with no objective definition. What exactly is cultural appropriation? Does the white woman who twerks in the club culturally appropriating black dance moves? This seems to be the major issue with Iggy Azalea in the eyes of some in the hip hop community. But let us not hide behind columbusing and talk about what we are talking about. Is it not true that hip hop culturally appropriated from many places and especially with fashion? RUN DMC rocked ADIDAS, those of us from the 90’s rocked Tommy Hill figure and Nautica which were both geared towards white prep school kids and frat boys. What about Jay Z using Annie for his classic “Hard Knock Life?”  Did we not take those things and give it our own meanings and significances? Yes, hip hop as a culture did that.

Who owns an art form? Can anyone own an art form? Yes, Hip hop started out in the black community. It emerged out of black culture. But, it didn’t stay there for long. White rappers aren’t new. White break dancers aren’t new. White graffiti artists aren’t new. White artists helped shape hip hop into what it is at the current time. How can one culturally appropriate something they had a hand in shaping? Should Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman be tossed out from Jazz because they were white men playing a black music? No. Hip hop belongs to humanity, just like Jazz did.

In the end, Iggy will be judged not so much by this but on the ability of people to buy her art. The bottom line of hip hop has always been if people don’t dig it, you will fail. It seems that the people have spoken. At least for now because hip hop is also littered with the carcasses of rappers who were on top one moment and fell off. 

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