The Conspiracy to Whitewash Hip-Hop

Why Iggy Azalea’s music is so popular and problematic.

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Rapper Iggy Azalea performs at Irving Plaza on May 5, 2014, in New York.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

When asked about Forbes’ claim that hip-hop is run by a white, blond, Australian rapper named Iggy Azalea, incumbent queen bee Nicki Minaj laughed hysterically. The financial magazine may be qualified to calculate the $250 million valuation of Nicki’s Myx Fusions Moscato wine coolers, Nicki reasoned, but only the hip-hop community can bequeath the throne to Iggy.

One week later, Iggy Azalea became the only artist since the 1964 Beatles to have her first two singles occupy the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the fourth female emcee to hit No. 1 on the chart. Nicki has yet to claim the No. 1 spot.

However, the coronation of Iggy as one of the most successful rappers in history has occurred without much support from the imagined hip-hop community or from black people not invested in her brand. Funkmaster Flex has called her music “trash,” and Iggy’s hit singles have received little airplay on Top 40 “urban,” hip-hop radio stations. Reviews of her album The New Classic have been lukewarm at best. Even XXL, which made her the first female inductee of the magazine’s Freshman Class, admits that the music doesn’t live up to the hype.

If Iggy isn’t a great rapper, why is she so popular? Is it her whiteness? And is her reign part of a larger industry plot to whitewash black music with the likes of Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke?

Iggy’s meteoric rise is due, in part, to the music industry’s willingness to promote only a handful of super-sexy female artists. The twerk videos, cake Instagrams and a track literally named “P--$y” is a recipe for profit in a hypersexist marketplace. It has worked so well that men and women are buying tickets to Iggy concerts with the sole purpose of feeling her booty.

But Iggy is also an heiress to white supremacy, the mix of unearned racial privilege and racial fetish that has historically made black music without black people big business. Her aspiration to be like the Rolling Stones, not just tie the Beatles’ record, should give pause: Does Iggy really want to emulate white rockers that plundered the music and swagger of black musicians like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry?

White people do seem a little too excited about discovering twerking and the Harlem Shake. But before we form a black-culture militia to defend hip-hop as the last bastion of race music, it might be worth remembering that anxiety over white appropriation of hip-hop has been around for more than three decades.

In 1981 Debbie Harry’s “Rapture” magically became the first “rap” song to hit No. 1 on Billboard and the first rap song that MTV chose to air. In 1983 the plotline of Charlie Ahern’s classic film Wild Style was driven by white downtown art collectors who threatened to destroy the uptown graffiti scene. White emcees—besides the Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass—were banished to the underground in the early 1990s when Vanilla Ice almost became the “Elvis of rap.”

Everything about Eminem’s success, Harry Allen wrote (pdf), could be attributed to the power of hip-hop fused with the power of white supremacy.

Most post-Eminem talk about the problem of whiteness has been coded in conspiracy theories involving the Illuminati or the gay mafia. Hip-hop’s reigning philosopher Lord Jamar is currently using the metaphor of white artists being guests in the house of hip-hop. If Miley Cyrus and Macklemore keep drinking out of the milk carton and leaving their dirty socks on the floor, black people reserve the right to kick them out. We will see if Lord Jamar has the power to evict Justin Bieber for the n--ger jokes.