White Faces of Blackness: An Analysis of Past and Present Cultural Appropriation

Azealia v Azalea

Azealia Bank’s Hot 97 interview with Ebro and Rosenberg in late 2014, generated a much-needed conversation of black cultural appropriation in music. While Bank’s commentary was specifically for recent rap superstar Iggy Azalea, her comments unveil a persistent pattern of cultural thievery.  

In her interview, Banks astutely confronts Iggy Azalea as a caricature of culture appropriation. Banks also boldly declares Azalea’s presence as trying to  “smudge out” blackness. Banks tearfully discussed the black woman’s struggle to keep up identity in a world working to erase her.

Unfortunately Azealia’s red flag to the detriment of duplicity, is lost in accusations of Bank’s “immaturity,” “hyper sensitivity” or “hate.” While previously unaware of Azealia Banks, I was personally impressed with her courage, accuracy and compassion.

I also found the unmistakable resemblance in the names of the two women: Azalea Banks and Iggy Azalea (Bank’s birth name to the stage name “Azalea”), particularly unsettling. This instantly reminded me of 90’s black R&B group Blackstreet and 00’s boyband the Backstreet Boys. Only fans of both are aware of Blackstreet as a predecessor of the Backstreet Boys. But this duplication is no coincidence, as it depicts not only theft of sound but of title.

Nevertheless, I agree with Azealia Banks that contemporary society has made large strides to reduce the significance of blackness. Erasure, however, is not beneficial to appropriators. Despite unwavering efforts to belittle blackness, black influence is unquestionable. Thus, erasure dissolves the muted but necessary muse of blackness.

Nicki Minaj: A Gateway to Appropriation?

Perhaps the idea of blackness as an innovative presence is best illustrated in Queens rapper Nicki Minaj’s success. Ironically Minaj’s crossover success hasn’t opened the doors for other young, black rapper/singers like herself. Minaj’s success has cultivated both the image and success of Australian rapper Iggy Azalea.
While Minaj is a rapper, her reputation is a collaboration of Beyonce’s sexiness, Gaga’s eccentricity and rapper Lil’Kim’s edge and delivery. Her sound as eclectic as her appearance, Minaj treads the line of pop and hip hop, with her foot firmly in each genre. Nicki’s superstardom, and ability to attract a range of fans, has opened the door for a rap/pop fusion. Her hit songs “Superbass” and “Starships” feature an upbeat, pop sound capturing the inability to conceptualize Minaj as just one image or sound. 

Azalea emerges in Nicki’s image. From the pop-esque rap, to her style and curvy derriere, Iggy Azalea is almost a clone of Minaj. Azalea emerged last year as an overnight superstar with her single “Fancy.” The video received heightened attention playing homage to popular 90’s sitcom Clueless. However, perhaps the greatest controversy was that the video provided an unexpected image to the voice 2014 fell in love with. Yes, the video provided that without question that the ear catching vocals were from an Australian white woman.

The transition from an Australian accent to a hip hop sound reminiscent of 90’s rapper Da Brat, continues to puzzle many. Perhaps most unsettling is the wide reception Azalea received for questionable talent. By questionable I mean that her rhymes are catchy, not mesmerizing. Her look is perhaps more TRL than 106 and Park, an observation that her management undoubtedly tried to undo with her potentially surgically enhanced physique. Azalea’s curvy booty and black man candy work to align her with the culture she’s appropriating. What Iggy lacks in raw talent, genuine struggle, and star-power, she appropriates in constructed black attributes that duplicate and not appreciate her predecessors.

Eminem: G.O.A.T?

While Iggy’s scrutiny is a well deserved conversation, I cant help but wonder where this scrutiny was a little over a decade ago when Detroit rapper Eminem emerged on the rap scene. The omission may stem from black female appropriation being more obvious, or perhaps society is more comfortable scrutinizing a white woman and not a white man. After all, Hip hop is a dominated by men so female drama is potentially more anticipated and even encouraged, but taken less seriously.  

In the absence of aggressive criticism, Eminem has been the bearer of many high regards. Praised for his lyrics and delivery, Eminem is commonly regarded as one of the greatest MC’s in hip hop. This high honor is often attributed to a natural skill, original delivery and style. An obvious student of black rappers such as Rakim and L. L. Cool. J, Eminem’s uniqueness is less with his crafted skill as it is a result of his whiteness.

Elvis, Eminem, Macklemore and the White Admission of Black Influence

What does stand out about Eminem is his feral anger, homophobia and overt misogyny. These attributes present Eminem as a rock and roll persona over a hip hop beat. While Eminem is not an appropriator in the way that Iggy Azalea is, like Iggy Azalea he makes a living off an anomaly presence in a black genre. If you question my assertion, be mindful that Eminem made this very observation in his song “Without Me.”

Though I’m not the first king of controversy

I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley, 

to do Black music so selfishly,

and use it to get myself wealthy

Over a decade after hearing these lyrics for the first time, Eminem’s words are still difficult to swallow. While the admission is correct, its arrogance and cavalier reception is a performance of Eminem’s white privilege. His white privilege is inadvertently refuted in his widely publicized turbulent upbringing which consisted of limited funds, an absent father and abusive mother. However, white privilege isn’t limited to material. Thus, Eminem’s humble beginnings do not negate that he is still deemed less threatening than a black male,and thus is an improbable  victim of police brutality, or any color based prejudice. Eminem’s admission of his selfishness demonstrates white ability to shine in black genres simply for being white.

Elvis Presley, like Eminem made it no secret that his “skill” was nurtured by black culture. This admission however, is lost in the translation of white possession of a seemingly black trait or skill.

On the topic of white acknowledgement of appropriation, my mind wanders to contemporary rapper Macklemore. Macklemore achieved worldwide praise with the catchy tune “Thrift Shop.” Despite Macklemore’s rapping, the song, like Azalea’s music, is pop-esque. Thus, there was a baffled reaction to Macklemore’s grammy victory over highly regarded contenders like Kendrick Lamar.   

The victory proved yet again that white presence in a black dominated faction is remarkable. However, Macklemore’s acceptance speech issued humility to the white privilege that granted his award. Macklemore would appear grounded and culturally aware in openly speaking about racial profiling and acknowledging that Kendrick Lamar’s album was a better album.

Heckle and Run…
As a black woman, Macklemore is much more redeemable than Eminem, as he lacks the Slim Shady arrogance, woman-bashing, and homophobia. However, his admission to his white privilege depicts him as enlightened, but  s not an excuse.

The comparison between Macklemore to Eminem present another unsettling similarity and performance in white privilege. Both Macklemore and Eminem heckle black pioneers in their rhymes, yet still manage to keep up a black fan base. For example, Eminem insultingly imitates music icon Michael Jackson, in music video “Just Lose it,” and rapper turned actor Will Smith in the “Forgot About Dre” video.  Commonly, Macklemore references his sheets “smelling like R. Kelly,” indiscreetly referring to Kelly’s infamous golden shower. While these men are elements of popular culture, the pattern of poking fun of pioneers in a genre victim to their appropriation, hardens the first blow.

Like Iggy Azalea, Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, and Marshall Mathers, Macklemore joins a long list of white artists that capitalize off possession of a black attribute, or presence in a black genre. Blacks who have similar or often superior abilities or qualities, are often regarded as common. For example, a black woman with a round derriere and wide hips is not celebrated as non black women are. Black women twerking in the early 2000s failed to ignite the traction that Miley Cyrus did in the summer of 2013. It is obvious that twerking and big behinds became relevant when white derriere’s shook a reprimanding world into a new light.

Becoming a rapper is a common ambition for many black men, thus this admission is often underwhelming. A white rapper however, raises as many eyebrows as it does numbers on the billboards. A white man or woman’s presence in black culture, or possession of a black trait, produces an often profitable curiosity.

If we juxtapose blacks deemed “out of their element” in fields like higher education, business, law or the sciences, to their white counterparts it is obvious that the black community is much more accepting. The whispers of doubt that whites face as anomalies, are minuscule when considered along the questioning, condescension, threats and loneliness that blacks experience. Perhaps revolutionary George L. Jackson said it best “ We forgive and forget too easily,” allowing those of the oppressive race to prosper effortlessly in avenues we have fought to tread.

Allies to Appropriation

It is interesting to consider that all/most of these appropriators are overtly supported by black men. Consider the following:

Eminem: Dr. Dre
Justin Timberlake: Timbaland
Robin Thicke: Pharrell
Iggy Azalea: T.I./Nick Young
Kim Kardashian: Kanye West/Ray J/Reggie Bush/Nick Cannon
Jennifer Lopez: P.Diddy
Miley Cyrus: will.i.am.

This observation substantiates blackness as a largely masculine construct, thus, black male camaraderie is seemingly needed as a seal of appropriation.

Considering this observation: where does this leave the black woman?

As the nurturer of culture, women both create and carry life. This fact also supports women as a catalyst for change. Often overlooked as allies to cultural theft, may Azealia Banks be the first of many black female voices to articulate and acknowledge the audacity of cultural appropriation.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Wonderful post! You’re an amazing writer. You should really consider writing a book.

    1. Saaraa Bailey says:

      !! Thank you for your support 🙂 !!

      1. You’re very welcome sis!

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