There’s a Thin Line Between Love and Theft: Appreciation or Appropriation in Hip Hop’s Colonization and the Struggle to Keep it “REAL.”

“Hip-Hop isn’t just music, it is also a spiritual movement of the blacks! You can’t just call Hip-Hop a trend!” – Lauryn Hill (Rapper/Singer)

“First things first I’m the realest” is the first line of “Fancy,” by Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. The single dominated the music charts over the summer of 2014. Reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100, Billboard’s Song of the Summer for 2014, most streamed song on Spotify, and most watched music video on Vevo. “Fancy” was also recognized at the 57th Grammy Awards, receiving nominations for Record of the Year along with Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. The song had even broken Lil’ Kim’s record for longest running #1 song by a female rapper. At the song’s peak the rapper performed at the 2014 BET Awards, a show that draws the largest black audience, while other possible performers like rapper Nicki Minaj sat in the audience.

With her rising stardom, her popularity would soon see cultural challenges. In May 2014, a Forbes piece by Hugh McIntyre titled, “Hip Hop is Run by a White, Blonde, Australian Woman,” opened up a firestorm on Azalea. So much so that the bottom of the article reads: 

“The title of this article has been changed from its original version — “Hip Hop Is Run By A White, Blonde, Australian Woman” — because it did not accurately reflect the content of the piece. The author offers sincere apologies to anyone who was offended by it.” 

The article was at the front of a burgeoning debate between hip hop aficionados on Azalea’s stake in the genre. 

Some have defended the rapper’s claim, believing that rap is no longer a genre exclusively for marginalized people. They see rap as a forum for storytelling and because of the accessibility of hip hop culture today, more people can feel connected and appreciate the culture. Will.i.am, Azalea’s mentor rapper T.I., Kendrick Lamar, and MC Lyte, who became the first solo female rapper to release a critically acclaimed album in 1988, also defended Iggy. She says

“What I think about her is that she is a fan of hip-hop. I’ve heard her on a few interviews and I know who she is in terms of having traveled abroad since I was 17, 18 years old. And there are people of all colors that love hip-hop,” she said. “When she says that she is a lover of this culture, I believe her. Everyone has something to contribute. You either like it or you don’t but you can’t just say, ‘You can’t be here.’”

With the increase of accessibility to hip hop culture, people outside of hip hop’s original demographics have adopted the culture. Azalea is not the only lover of hip hop culture. TIME Magazine reported that whites consume 70% of the hip-hop music produced today. These artist agree that the gatekeepers of hip hop are long gone and the genre is open and accessible. 

Others argue that Iggy Azalea’s rise to fame came off the backs of black culture and believe this proves culturally damaging to an already strained community. Legendary radio DJ Funkmaster Flex has called her music “trash,” and her singles have received little airplay on black radio stations. Her music infuriated rapper Azealia Banks, saying she will not stand for anyone outside of her culture “trying to trivialize very serious aspects of it. In any capacity.” Pointing out that in one of Azalea’s songs she referred to herself as “a runaway slave-master.” Banks, has had a running public feud with Iggy Azalea, accusing her of “cultural smudging” and appropriation. Azalea has become the poster child of the cultural appropriation controversy. This raises the question as to whether or not one should cross deep cultural borderlines and to what extent does appreciation become appropriation? This debate opens the window into a larger history within American popular culture.

Though the australian rapper has faced a lot of adversity, artist from the black community have shown their support, they do not see a her artistry as appropriation, but rather appreciation. However they stress the importance of authenticity and that one must acknowledge the cultural ties hip hip has to black culture. Q-Tip, a member of the famed hip hop band A Tribe Called Quest, does not she her music has harmful, he just would like the rapper to acknowledge the historical context of the culture in which the rapper makes her millions from. Female rapper Eve and R&B singer Jill Scott also have defended Azalea’s place in rap however, they wished she’d be more herself, drop the “blaccent,” and revert to her native accent. 

This debate came to a head In December of 2014, when Q-Tip, a member of the famed hip-hop band A Tribe Called Quest, tried to educate Azalea on the on the historical and political forces that created and continue to drive hip hop music via Twitter and all sides of the debate weighed in. Saying that hip hop is a artistic form birth from the sociological political oppression or marginalized groups in the “ghettos” of the Bronx the 1970’s. Q-Tip and was then met with indifference by rapper T.I., who is arguably one of the best rappers from the South and who discovered Azalea signing her to his music label came to her defense. T.I. argues that hip hop music has been colonized by “much less qualified white people” that have manipulated our culture for their own gain and that causes the community to have the paranoid “All White People Wanna Steal Our Shit mentality.” He argues that there are some white people who were inspired by our culture and there are some that merely wish to contribute to it.

In response to T.I’s attempt to come to Azalea’s rescue, Azealia Banks replied to T.I’s tweet saying:

“I’m REALLY starting to realize how indoctrinated and conditioned T.I. is. And I don’t think I should tease him about it anymore. He actually has no clue….. Why can’t you just admit that you idolize/fetishize black american women and that is what influences you the most? It’s easy…. (sic)” (Banks)

Despite Azalea’s controversy, she still landed four big Grammy award nominations. Timothy Welbeck, who is a professor of African American studies at Temple University, and also a hip hop artist says that though Azalea is talented, Eminem has become the safe white guy who can rap saying: “The academy got to continue their trend of awarding a white artist in that category while avoiding controversy.” The whitewashing of hip hop music makes the genre seem safer to white consumers. In the same way moving threaten looking people of color out of a neighborhood makes it safer for new residents.The Grammys have always seemed a little uncertain about their stake in hip hop. Last year, the white duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won the three biggest rap awards and this year, the award for best rap album, which went to rapper Eminem, was not even televised.This year Eminem won best rap album for the sixth time in his career, making him the most awarded rap artist in the category’s history. Since 1999 he’s won the award, beating out respected artists throughout the years such as Kanye West, Missy Elliott, Nas, Jay Z, the Roots, Dr. Dre, Common, Mos Def and Q-Tip. Rapper Kanye West spoke out on this issue because he’s frustrated with the Grammy’s voting body that too rarely honors rappers, or other artists of color. 

Last year’s winner, Macklemore, acknowledges that he may be as he says “gentrifying” hip-hop as a white rapper in a black art form. However, he says that rap is who he is and that he won’t pretend to be someone he’s not just to satisfy his white guilt. Macklemore and his musical partner Ryan Lewis have won four Grammys last year, including best rap album, rap song, and rap performance, he’s been compelled to say that, as a white man, he knows he must tread respectfully in a genre created by, and still somewhat dominated, by African Americans. He says “Just because there’s been more successful white rappers …. you cannot disregard where this culture came from and our place in it as white people.” Macklemore even apologized to fellow hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar whose album lost. Telling Lamar: “It’s weird. . . that I robbed you.” The fact Macklemore chose the word “robbed,” acknowledges his privilege as many black hip-hop fans feel rap music is being stolen from their community. However these artists do not seem to pose a threat to derailing the course of the genre. Macklemore and Eminem acknowledge the cultural ties and appreciate them. The artist use the genre to tell their stories, and celebrates hip hop’s artistry. He says: 

“You need to know your place in the culture. Are you contributing or are you taking? Are you using it for your own advantage or are you contributing? I saw a tweet that said, “Hip hop was birthed out of the civil rights movement.” This is a culture that came from pain and oppression. It was the byproduct [of white oppression]. We can say we’ve come a long way since the late Seventies and early Eighties, but we haven’t.”

Macklemore believes that white hip hop artist should have active responsibility in the genre. Arguing that whites are outsiders of the culture and that they should be aware of that. If speaking out about the issues were not enough, Macklemore wrote a song about it. In his song “White Privilege,” he asserts that the idea indeed exists. Saying in the verse: 

“But I’m gonna be me, so please be who you are, This is something that’s effortless and shouldn’t be hard, I said I’m gonna be me, so please be who you are, But we still owe ’em 40 acres now we’ve stolen their 16 bars, Hip-hop started off on a block that I’ve never been to, To counteract a struggle that I’ve never even been through, If I think I understand just because I flow too, That means I’m not keeping it true, I’m not keeping it true.”

He says white privilege is something that Macklemore is aware of, and willing to admit, but he isn’t proud of it. Because he is white he has reaped the benefits, but at the same time he does not want to ignore the genre’s history. that White rappers like Azalea seem not to care to address this issue makes it necessary for him to bring that up. 

This debate reflects the constant struggle between classes. Azalea’s acts are taken from a marginalized group of people and used to fatten her pockets. Hip hop in the 1970s began as a set provocative and evocative beats that were mixed together by a DJ to create a new beat and groove. Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell was highly influential in the pioneering of hip hop music. Herc created the blueprint for hip hop music and culture by building upon funk, jazz, and soul music, along with his African and Jamaican heritage. Herc began making these beats in his home 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, which was a New York State Housing project. He then started to speak over these lyrics blending his verses with the beats’ flow which was called “emceeing”. This became locally popular and the movement managed to spread across the entire borough. But as this genre became more widespread the music moved from solely a DJ’s prowess to the emcees and their commentaries on their own personal experiences and stories. These stories were shaped by the social and political footprint many factors had on black youth at the time. 

Hip hop has long left the streets of the Bronx, and to stages around the world. Since the 1970s hip hop music has become commercially successful, so much so that the genre is slipping away from its black roots. Hip hop culture, which was once so deeply rooted in black life and a revolutionary force, is losing its potency through its commercialization. White rappers, especially who would on face value not relate to hip hop culture and its origins brings into question whether or not their hip hop lifestyle is a representation of cultural appreciation or appropriation. 

Cultural Appropriation is the adoption of the style, intellectual property, aesthetic standards, behaviors, traditions or rituals, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without regard for the culture and usually using them for some gain. Cultural appropriation in music has gone back beyond Elvis and The Beatles when white artist took versions of early rock n’ roll classics that were originally created by African American musicians and made them big hits. “Twist and Shout,” a big Beatles hit was released in 1963, a year after black group, The Isley Brothers released the same song. When this occurs we lose the soul and the spirit of the song, and instead created watered down recreations. 

However, this discussion is more fractious in hip hop music because authenticity is everything and the music is culture and the culture, for many, is life. Chuck D from rap group Public Enemy, whose group used the hip-hop foundation that Herc created in the 70s to make songs with politically charged lyrics the voiced the concerns of the African American community, designates hip-hop as “CNN for black people.” Hip hop artist were and still are ultimately the purveyors of news and knowledge, in an accessible form to anyone willing to listen especially people that were in similar circumstances. There is a sense of legitimacy that comes with getting or discussing information from people you can relate to. Because of this, Iggy Azalea has become the most divisive figure in rap since Vanilla Ice. Azalea having declared herself “the realest” in the song, has now become arguable when according to many she’s the farthest from her claim.

Acts of appropriation span way beyond the world of music. Bell Hooks’ “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” is an essay from her book Black Looks: Race and Representation, she opens by making that explicit comparison into what cultural appropriation is and the problems it causes.

“Within current debates about race and difference, mass culture is the contemporary location that both publicly declares and perpetuates the idea that there is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgment and enjoyment of racial difference. The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” (hooks 21)

She gives numerous examples, from white appropriation of rap music, to the fashion world’s infrequent employment of non white models of color primarily to invoke sex or danger, to a chilling conversation she overhears among a group of Yale men who, were openly discussing their desires to sleep with as many women from different racial backgrounds as possible. These exploitative forms of consumption allow white people to believe they are rebelling against white supremacist culture through their acts. hooks argues that predominantly white culture uses ethnic objects, elements, and principles in an attempt spice up their life. The problem with cultural appropriation and Hooks idea of commodification of otherness is it has exploitative powers. Michael Ray Charles’ “Hello I’m Your Neighbor” displays the dangers of this. 

The artwork is a poster of a blackface male caricature without a body with crossbones behind him, a frightening face and watermelon as a mouth . The top of his head is split open, making it look like a piggy bank opening and above him are two black silhouettes in the shape of houses. Each one has a hand coming out of it one shaking the other in the middle, one is black and one is white. The profitability of black culture in appropriation. Minstrelsy was an act of appropriation that entertained the masses by making caricatures of black people.

The Australian rapper raps in a “blaccent” appropriating elements from the ebonics used in the black community for her rap hits. Ebonics are commonly used by black preachers, comedians, singers, and especially rappers for dramatic or realistic effect. But it reflects a legacy of oppression that dates back to when slaves were given little to no education or sophistication and was, and still is viewed as a hindrance to socioeconomic mobility. She adopts in her speech giving her a southern accent, thousands of miles away from the Australian shores of which she was born. Because of her inauthenticity in the eyes of many, Azalea’s rise to stardom occurred without much support from the hip hop community. 

When appropriation occurs, the actors are unaware of the damage it was doing to society and how disrespectful it is. Hip hop music should not have gatekeepers unless the outsiders pose a threat to its origins. Macklemore warns us of this asking us “are we contributing to it or hurting it?” The use of other cultures images and symbols serves to the dominate culture and allows them to erase or diminish the other cultures. Cultural appropriation can essentially obscure history, struggles, and inequalities of other cultures and by doing so it benefits those in power. Other cultures are simply props that are used for white self fulfillment and power gain.

Today, this debate comes at a time when racial tensions are running high in the country due in part to a string of high-profile incidents of police brutality and a revival of the civil right movements of the 60s. People outside of a culture have the ability to take it off or revert back to their normal lives, change out of that culture, they have the privilege to decide what aspects they like and want to keep or how long they want to contribute in those shoes. However, the cultures that they are taking elements from have to no choice but to stay within that culture. Iggy Azalea is just a window to the bigger picture of a long strained battled between classes and culture.

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