This Is Universal

Defending Iggy Azalea’s Right to Rap

Originally published under the “Defending the Indefensible” column of Stranded Magazine, November 2015.

The year is inching towards its conclusion, and no doubt pop critics are already weighing up their song of the year. Allow me, then, to revisit 2014’s contentious — and uncontended — song of the year, “Fancy”, and its controversial creator.

In some corners of the online world, Iggy Azalea’s name is more synonymous with the word “indefensible” than most dictators; few artists have drawn the ire of the internet intelligentsia quite like she. Her persona traces every fault line of sensitivity imaginable: questionable racial politics, a dubious path to fame, an alias that obscures her middle-class roots etc. etc.

Now that the smoke is beginning to clear, however, I think it’s worth re-appraising Azalea. This isn’t an outright defence of her, however; I don’t actually like her music very much. She isn’t particularly good at rapping, for instance, and the success of “Fancy” owes a worrying amount to late-night TV viral videos and payola schemes.

I searched pretty hard for things to like about her, too. Her verse on “Problem” is, to her credit, a solid piece of pop-rap [1]. It’s is concise and sticks unerringly to its premise, and the switch to a more triplet-centric flow is a nice little trick. The phrase “I’m thinking I love the thought of you more than I love your presence” is neatly-turned, with wry insight.

If this sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, I almost certainly am. There are, however, a couple charges levelled against Iggy that I feel need checks and balances. Firstly, the claim that:

“Iggy is inauthentic.”

Authenticity, the argument goes, is foundational to hip-hop. The progenitors of the genre were the oppressed, downtrodden African Americans of the Reagan era, and there’s a traceable line from Grandmaster Flash to Public Enemy to the present day. These firebrand personalities were caustically honest about the real nature of their inner-city existence, and hip-hop is inexorably a mirror that reflects harsh realities. It must always tell the truth; to be what Chuck D called “CNN for black people”. It has something of an antecedent in the punk rock of the 70’s: the disillusionment of the British working class being the analogous catalyst. Think Johnny Rotten’s yellowing teeth; The Clash’s grimy urban photoshoots. These genres have no interest in pretence or artifice — they’re just, in the language of hip-hop, real.

Except, no, they’re not, obviously. The Sex Pistols image was meticulously put together by opportunistic designers Vivenne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren; Joe Strummer was the son of a jet-setting diplomat. None of this matters a jot of course, as what their music means extends far beyond the banalities of their actual lives. Popular music has always been more myth than anything else. Bob Dylan’s real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman etc.

Hip-Hop is no different. It’s a culture soaked in inauthenticity, in a deep-down sort of way that’s far more prevalent than the blatant posturing of Rick Ross. Recent allegations of Drake’s ghost-writing saw this issue resurface, but it’s always been there. Hip-hop father figure Dr. Dre, for instance, has probably never written a verse of his own. The screenwriter of the biopic “Straight Outta Compton” described Dre as obsessed with “his legacy”, expunging and re-arranging facts in order to present himself — and, the cynical say, his billion-dollar brand — in a positive light. This kind of self-mythologizing is ubiquitous in hip-hop; Jay-Z’s entire career is built upon the exaggerated rags-to-riches narrative he has thrillingly spun about himself [2].

The other, related, criticism of Iggy I’d like to address is a little trickier:

“Iggy appropriates black culture.”

This is a multi-faceted, complex issue; I’ll try and unpick it in parts.

The easiest aspect of this argument to repudiate is the claim that Iggy’s accent, or “blaccent” as it’s been called, is a parody of southern African Americans; comedian Aamar Rahman has even compared it to blackface. I think this is dishonest; many white Americans, such as Paul Wall, rap in the southern dialect. And I think it’s fair to see Iggy’s as more stylistic than parody; as linguist David Crystal points out, the cadences of rap are ill-suited to stress-based rhythms of the Australian accent. Iggy frequently morphs and changes her vocals to suit a song’s meaning (the relaxed pre-chorus of “Change Your Life” dips gently back into her native non-rhotic Australian; “Lady Patra” adopts an Afro-Caribbean lilt) — it’s a playful (albeit ineffective) attempt to exploit the myriad timbres of her voice, something akin to Julia Holter’s vocal manipulations.

Other claims of cultural appropriation are more complex. Many commentators argue that her version of hip-hop shows disrespect to black culture, adopting “everything but the burden”. Hip-hop evolved out of a specifically racial milieu, with a specifically racial impetus, and so Iggy’s brand of hip-hop is a kind of erasure. As Q-Tip argues, hip-hop “can never detach itself from being a socio-political movement” , and white artists should respect this in their raps, or — in the argument’s most extreme form — perhaps not even rap at all.

It’s a powerful argument, but one that I believe is ultimately misleading. For a start, it’s flat-out wrong to suggest that all hip-hop is a socio-political discussion of race; think of Lupe Fiasco rapping about anime, or the provocatively-apolitical interpolation of “Strange Fruit” by Kanye West.

Crucially, though, I think these arguments risk denying how fundamental cultural exchange is within music. Whilst Iggy’s crude use of Indian culture as a cute prop in music videos is blatantly lazy and insensitive, I don’t think her use of a “black” art form is the same. Demarcating music into discrete cultural boundaries is something we should be wary of, even hostile to.

There’s something intrinsically universal and corporate about the enterprise of making music: in its purest form, it resists ownership. Poly-rhythms may have emerged in Sub-Saharan communities as an intrinsically religious, ceremonial practice, but such a riveting device could never possibly be contained. Good musical ideas spread like wildfire; these rhythmic patterns now abound in genres as disparate as jazz, post-rock and the works of Beethoven — with no regard for their original role in a specific culture. [3]

It’s somewhat akin to when the first European explorers tasted curry; no amount of reverence for Indian culture would prevent them from wanting to make it for themselves. And so it spread. The cross-pollination flows both ways, too: after the Columbian exchange, South-American chillies reached the Indian Subcontinent and curry evolved. In music, the U.S-made electric guitar found its way to African nations, and genres like highlife, jùjú and soukous were never the same. Most pertinently, hip-hop is rooted in sampling: Afrika Bambaataa’s zeitgeist-forming “Planet Rock” sampled Kraftwerk and Ennio Morricone between its iconic 808’s.

Some of Robert Christgau’s words are helpful here: “Opposed though I am to Universalist humanism,” he wrote on Paul Simon’s Graceland, “this is a pretty damn universal record.” Collapsing cultural boundaries in everyday discourse is crude and problematic, but it’s inevitable within the intangible edifices of music: each note, with its infinite permutations of rhythm and pitch, belongs to no one, and therefore everyone. As Questlove — a man infinitely more qualified to write about these issues than myself — remarked about the success of “Fancy”: “hip-hop is a contagious culture. If you love something, you gotta set it free.”

[1] Many rappers far more talented than Iggy have failed to grasp the exigencies of pop-rap — Lupe Fiasco’s still-traumatic Lasers springs to mind.

[2] Jay Z’s recent decline in acclaim arguably comes from his inability to convincingly construct these narrative — nowadays there’s no rags, just riches.

[3] There’s an important distinction to be made, I should note, between the cultural exchange I’m talking about, and the plagiarism of minority artists. Robert Plant’s lyrics to “Lemon Song” — flagrantly ripping-off off artist Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” — are plagiarism and appropriation (admittedly, there was a culture of borrowing in early blues); but Jimmy Page’s solo, which took the DNA of the blues and combined it with his own diverse sensibilities, is a testament to the beauty and power of borderless music.