If you’ve been following the career of alternative rapper Azealia Banks, you probably do not need anyone to tell you that it has been a bumpy ride. On Thursday Banks’ Twitter account was suspended following a very nasty online scrap between herself and Zayn Malik.
It all started when Banks accused Malik of copying her Yung Rapunxel video. When Malik responded in defense of the originality of his video, Banks responded with graphically racist comments including,
“USA is about to teach you who not to fuck with.”
“When your entire extended family has been obliterated by the good ol’ U.S of A will you still try to be acting like a white boy pretending to be black?”
“Do you understand that you are a sand nigger who emulates white boys’ renditions of black male hood?”
By Thursday, Banks found herself in the midst of another twitter war with Disney star Skai Jackson, The twitter-verse was having a field day with fans taking sides on the issue, pop-culture and music journalists were going nuts and Banks’ account had been suspended.
How did an accomplished MC devolve into a twitter troll?
Banks signed to her first label at 17 and ‘212‘, her first major commercial hit has gotten over 100 million views on YouTube. Her first EP, titled ‘1991‘ solidified her rightful place amongst a very small group of very talented female MC’s. In June 2012, Pitchfork referred to Banks as a “hot-shot Harlem-based MC with a slyly aggressive flow who is more than just a rising star, but a boundary-busting symbol of hip-hop’s ever-changing mores.” Her natural talent was strikingly obvious, but so was her dissatisfaction with the racism she witnessed in the music industry.
An artist taking to social media to discuss racism is not anything new. Last year Nicki Minaj took to twitter to talk about the double standard she faced after releasing her single “Anaconda”. In an interview with Huffington Post, Michelle K. expressed her frustrations over the niche marketing of black artists to urban stations vs. white artists to Top 40 radio stations.
Banks’ social media presence on the other hand, often passed the barriers of being thought provoking and ventured into instigative territory where her comments for the most part, were mean, bigoted and racist. By 2014 she had collected long list of fellow musicians, whom she had gotten into very public online feuds with. That list included Iggy Azalea, T.I, Dominique Young Unique, Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, Jim Jones, Kreayshawn, Angel Haze, producer Baauer, Diplo, Rita Ora, A$AP Rocky, Lily Allen, Lady Gaga, and Pharrell.
In that same year, Banks appeared on Hot 97’s ‘Ebro in The Morning’ radio show and was confronted about her social media controversies. Her response represented her opportunity to fully express her frustrations without a 140-character limit and when asked about her initial feud with Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, Banks responded,
“This is the thing. In this country whenever it comes to our things like black issues or black politics or black music or whatever, there’s always this undercurrent of kind of like a ‘fuck you’… The Macklemore album wasn’t better than the Drake record. That Iggy Azalea shit isn’t better than any black girl that’s rapping today…When they give these Grammys out, it says to white kids, ‘you’re great, you can do whatever you put your mind to’ and it says to black kids ‘you don’t have shit, not even what you created for yourself.’ ”
Banks’ interview raised controversial, but important questions about the nature of rap and hip-hop. Her interview ignited discussions and debates about whether rap and hip-hop was an art form that the African American community had a monopoly on that a white artist had no business being in. The term she used was ‘cultural smudging’, and she explained that if the genre represented the collective experiences of urbanized African Americans, than a white musician labeling themselves a rapper was cultural appropriation and it was wrong. The interview lasted almost an hour, with Banks getting really emotionally a few times throughout. With 2 millions hits on YouTube, it is the most viewed interview the radio show has ever done by far.
Still, when you look at the tweets Banks directed to Malik, it’s shocking to realize that her words were equally as racist as the culture that she was trying to expose in that interview. In her exchange with Malik, she brought up the cultural appropriation aspect, but she also used blatantly racist comments about his UK and Muslim background. Upon realizing that her account had been suspended, she turned to other outlets like Instagram to keep going. On Thursday she posted a photo that read, “I’m writing an essay called ‘Whiteness is a Mental Illness'”.
Banks’ intention of tackling racism in the American cultural lexicon is a really noble one, and at one point, she was able to articulate those issues in a really powerful and thought provoking way. But her later comments are nothing if testament of how exactly not to go about it.
Other public figures have tried to come to Banks’ defense to get her message across in a less aggressive way. African American activist Angel Ramirez Jordan took to Instagram Thursday and applauded Banks for her passion, but also reminded her that racism cannot be extinguished with more racism. In 2012, Following her initial exchange with Iggy Azalea, rapper Q-Tip intervened and gave Azalea a 39-tweet long essay about the history of rap and hip hop in America so to try and explain the position that Banks was coming from.
Historically, the genre of rap and hip-hop was an art form born out of oppression, rebellion and defiance and so there is also a deep-rooted political and social power that comes attached to it. While there have been groups of people who have been subjected to more oppression than others at various times throughout history, there is no group of individuals or one race that can own oppression, and therefore the artistic expression of it exclusively. This is the point I think Banks is overlooking in her cultural appropriation argument. When a white artist creates music under the banner of rap and hip-hop, it is not necessarily because they want to appropriate the historical black-ness of it, but because they have identified and can relate to those feelings of oppression, of struggle and of rebellion.
Are there inherently racist aspects to the music industry? Absolutely. At this years’ Grammy Awards, every single nominee for both artist and album of the year was white and the last purely hip-hop album to win best album was Outkast’s ‘Speakboxxx/The Love Below’ back in 2003. The music industry is without a doubt guilty of exploiting the genre, that’s how the modern capitalist system works, but the worldwide popularity of rap and hip-hop is testament to the fact that the genre itself is a force that works from the ground up and therefore has the potential to speak to anyone who can relate to its message.
Banks’ original intentions seem to have lost both direction and purpose due to her uncensored social media voice. It sucks to realize that what could have potentially been a really influential voice for bringing about substantial change and progress in the music industry has devolved into a common Internet troll who tries fruitlessly to prove a point via bigotry, bullying and racism.
In the days since her exchanges with Malik and Jackson, Rinse FM has removed Banks from their Born and Bread music festival line up. In a statement, Rinse FM stressed that, “Rinse Born and Bread is a celebration of rave culture that has been created for everyone. We celebrate inclusivity and equality.”
The fact that Banks was removed from the line up stands as testament to the fact such hateful words, regardless of whether or not they were rooted in good intentions, will not be tolerated, even by her own musical community. Having the privilege to be a public figure with the potential to reach so many people comes with an inherent responsibility to not abuse that privilege with content that is unambiguously inappropriate. Her suspension from Twitter and subsequent drop from a festival line up might be a preview of a larger blowback that could signal a career that sealed its own fate.