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Iggy Azalea Gets Away With Reverse Minstrelsy Because There's a Market for It

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for The People's Choice Awards

The Grammys have become a cultural marker not just for what they reward, but for whom they exclude. The list of non-winners in the rap and hip-hop categories is basically a Mount Rushmore of the genre: Tupac, Snoop Dogg, the Notorious B.I.G., and Public Enemy, to name a few. It can be an honor to be snubbed. "Think I give a damn about a Grammy?" Eminem sang in 2000, shortly after winning his first of 15.

His latest came Sunday night, when he beat out, among others, fellow blond Iggy Azalea, whose album "The New Classic" was up for Best Rap Album. If you didn't realize a white Australian rapper generated some of the most-played hooks on the radio last year ("Fancy," "Black Widow") that might have something to do with Iggy's sound. Unlike, say, Eminem or any number of white performers, Azalea makes a clear effort to sound distinctly black in her accent and intonation. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think pronouncing fifties as "fitties" or business as "bidness" is common Australian pronunciation. I do know that you don’t have to be a linguist to detect the difference between the accent in this MTV interview, compared to the “blaccent” you hear in any one of her songs.

Which is partly why, after she went 0-for-4 on music's biggest night, hip-hop fans used social media to exclaim their thrill that the industry didn't get it wrong. Their prayers were answered: variations of "thank God Iggy didn't win" blew up on Twitter. Still, Iggy maintains 4.1 million followers there, a slew of accolades for her albums, and very public support from some of the biggest names in hip-hop—including, Lupe Fiasco, and T.I., her mentor/producer. She'll survive.

But the people who don’t like Iggy really don’t like Iggy. At the top of that list is fellow rapper Azealia Banks, whose Twitter beefs with Iggy (and with T.I.) reached such epic proportions that one Banks burn—the moniker Igloo Australia—managed to find its way into a cringe-worthy People’s Choice Awards presentation. When Iggy flunked a mortifying freestyle performance, the Internet pounced again with a meme dedicated to her failure to rhyme on the spot. It all feeds the narrative that she’s a pre-packaged pretender.

So why all the Iggy shade? Many of her supporters will tell you it boils down to two issues: race and credibility. I'm here to tell you that neither argument holds up. The anger towards Iggy comes from a much deeper place of racial tension, one that she contends does not exist, even as she exacerbates it.

The first issue implies that Iggy is a victim of reverse racism; her supporters argue that she is being unfairly denied respect because she is a white person daring to make black music. This notion that black people somehow play gatekeeper (or even possess the power to play gatekeeper) to black music is as ignorant as it is ahistorical.

White artists performing black music long have been accepted and supported by black colleagues and audiences: Dusty Springfield, Teena Marie, Taylor Dayne, and Amy Winehouse all earned reverence as R&B artists. Some of you old heads might remember how George Michael launched his solo career by singing with Smokey Robinson at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater. The Beastie Boys are hip-hop legends that helped build the most influential label in the genre. For those keeping score, a white guy has won the Best Rap Album Grammy six times, with few objections. The difference? Those acts not only had musical chops, they also respected the music and paid homage to its culture and history. With Iggy, there is no feeling of reverence—only an entitlement to consume, a point that legendary hip-hop artist Q-Tip tried to clarify in a series of tweets after the Grammy nominations were announced. 

As for the credibility argument: Even in hip-hop, where authenticity is vital, plenty of acts (regardless of race) have managed not to inflame folks. Vanilla Ice might be the single most contrived marketing gimmick in the history of music, but I challenge you to find any thirty-something who can’t recite at least a couple of bars from “Ice Ice Baby.” Vanilla Ice was the “Great White Hope” in rap 25 years ago. While there was a massive push to make him a star (and for a few years, he legitimately was), there was never any push to take him seriously. Even if he’d found the slightest veneer of credibility, it dissolved the second he took the stage with four giant turtles (thank me for that link later). He was a performance artist who rapped; we were all in on the joke.

Iggy is more talented and more deeply schooled in hip-hop than Vanilla Ice ever was. What she lacks is an awareness of her own gimmicks. You’ll never convince me that a kid from a small town in Australia (shout out to Mullumbimby, New South Wales) rapping about “Murda Bizness” in a thick Brooklyn accent is authentic. I’m not sure what the “hustle game” is like in the coastal resort town where she grew up, but I’m willing to bet it’s not the same hustle game she’s rapping about. Proclaiming “First things first, I’m the realest” at the top of "Fancy," her 2014 No. 1 single, in her blaccent raises real questions. In interviews she talks a good game about respecting the culture, but then she tweets flagrantly homophobic, racist drivel. Racially charged tweets, especially when typing in the text version of a blaccent, bring up some serious questions about respect. Iggy has done little to address them meaningfully, though many have asked her to.

Iggy is a marketing executive's notion of what hip-hop looks like wrapped up in a much safer, much less threatening package. And you know what? That’s business. If you want fame, you get in where you fit in. If Iggy Azalea, born Amethyst Amelia Kelly, would've had a quicker path to success singing country music, we might be discussing her Country Music Award nomination. Hip-hop was her path. Now she's doing the Emperor’s New Clothes in minstrel drag, and being richly rewarded.

While her obliviousness certainly does not help matters, this is deeper than one clueless Australian rapper. Iggy has bumbled into some troubling, distinctly American issues. It’s tough watching someone wear your race like a costume and get rewarded for it, especially when there is so much peril in being the genuine article. Playing black has always been a more lucrative enterprise than actually being black. On Chappelle’s Show, Comedian Paul Mooney said it best: "The black man in America is the most copied man on this planet, bar none. Everybody want to be a nigga but nobody want to be a nigga."

In Iggy, we see the ultimate in co-opting culture and race, at a time where events in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland have made us hyper-aware of the real racial disparities in an America many prefer to believe is post-racial. Iggy was meant for a country trying to convince itself reverse racism is the new racism. The contrast—between the advantages white people get from being white and the disadvantages that come with being black—is as stark as it’s ever been. Yet someone like Iggy, in possession of white privilege, cannot only exploit all those advantages—she cries foul when someone else points it out.

This becomes doubly infuriating, because while hip-hop is most certainly for everybody, the genre exists to voice racial and social disparities. Hell, it exists in large part because of those disparities. It’s given a literal voice to oppressed folks who aren’t heard otherwise, and it remains the rare realm where black people can safely do black things. You have black folks that can't find a job if their names are too black, black kids getting sent home from school if their hair is too black, young men and women quite literally getting gunned down in the streets because, for a terrifying large part of the population, blackness itself is tantamount to carrying a loaded weapon.

Even the most exceptional black people are punished for seeming too black. NFL player Richard Sherman, to pick but one example, is a success by just about every conceivable metric: All-Pro athlete, Stanford graduate, handsome, wealthy, philanthropic, and a devoted father. On paper, he’s a leather onesie away from being Batman. Yet by exhibiting even a fraction of the bravado or swagger that has made Iggy famous, he’s labeled a thug.

Is a Grammy snub going to change how anyone feels about Iggy? Nah. Her fans will pout while her haters celebrate. Ultimately, though, the conversation about Iggy Azalea has little to do with her or even with hip-hop. The anger speaks more to how this country consumes blackness, or rather, how it prefers to consume the “cool” parts of blackness, while still being able to distance themselves from actual black people. This is the reason Richard Sherman is a thug for speaking his mind. This is the reason Paul Mooney’s statement is so profound. This is the reason there will always be a market for the next Iggy Azalea.