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.
Veteran emcee Scarface is using a gentrification analogy to describe a conspiracy to make “Elvis the face of hip-hop” within 20 years. In the musical equivalent of an urban renewal scam, white executives have turned the rap hood into an intellectual ghetto filled with buffoonery, violence and drugs. Once hip-hop is near death, they will bring in white hipster rappers to “revitalize” and “save” the culture. Black rappers, Scarface tweeted, could become the hip-hop generation’s Chuck Berrys.
If there is a conspiracy to whitewash hip-hop, Scarface is right to point the finger at the executives that ultimately profit from Macklemore being marketed as hip-hop’s Great White Hope, or New Zealand artist Lorde being allowed to sing that hip-hop is a bunch of black people ranting about gold teeth, Maybachs and diamonds. It is time to start “CEO beef” with the music executives and “culture vultures” behind the scenes, according to the outspoken Dame Dash.
Viewed within this broader history of whiteness and hip-hop, it should be no surprise that Iggy Azalea is being viewed with some distrust. We will know in 20 years if Scarface and other defenders of hip-hop are correct about the whitening of hip-hop and whether Iggy is really a carpetbagger intent on exploiting the culture.
Until then, the safest bet is that Iggy is the lighter counterpart to Nicki Minaj, an artist with an uncanny gift to make infectious “hip-pop” anthems for the summer and to profit from the racism and sexism of the music industry. Like Nicki, she will be laughing all the way to the bank. Depending on your point of view, that makes Iggy either the essence of real hip-hop hustle or more proof that hip-hop as meaningful black music is almost dead.
Travis L. Gosa, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, where his research focuses on racial inequality and African-American youths. He has written for Ebony, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Fox News and a number of academic journals.