An Open Letter To Iggy Azalea Regarding Her Appropriation Of Black Culture While Ignoring The Issues Faced By The Black Community

Tiffanie Drayton | December 4, 2014 - 3:00 pm

Dear Iggy Azalea,

I was a Black child of the ’90s who grew up on hip-hop and R&B. Some of my favorite adolescent memories were set to the soundtrack of the likes of Toni Braxton, Tupac, Sade, Lauryn Hill and Nas. I may have only been seven-years-old when DJ Kool announced, “Let Me Clear My Throat,” but I was always right on time with the chorus as the beat dropped. I Hammer-timed and sang along to “Baby Got Back” while shaking my booty in the mirror. These “Black” music genres gave me an identity to be proud of. It taught me how to display and be proud of my culture and heritage. These “Black” genres were dominated and represented by people who looked like me — and those “Black genres” were at the top of America’s music charts. It was a true phenomenon to behold; a very recent freedom acquired by Black Americans after a long history of musical and cultural theft by Whites. I am the byproduct of that freedom: confident, strong and unapologetically Black. Sadly, today’s Black youth will not have the chance to see themselves in the music created by their people — a cyclical, unbreakable White tradition of theft and appropriation has once again taken that from them. And you are part of the problem.

You see, recorded music became a phenomenon back in the early 20th century and at that time, institutional racism and socioeconomic segregation plagued this country. Whites controlled, dominated and had unparalleled access to music production resources, and so they became the commercial face of Black music. This received little opposition from a generation of freed slaves widely subject to Jim Crow Laws that disallowed them the legal personhood to challenge “historical record” as published authors or copyright holders.

Inequality encouraged the repackaging of Black musical innovation as White commodity — a trend which quickly normalized into a business model. Tin Pan Alley, the Manhattan-based industry epicenter of American music from the 1880s to 1950s, became the gatekeeper of the country’s published works. The conglomeration of music houses that comprised Tin Pan Alley maintained internal stables of White writers/composers who arrogated and produced popular music under their own name. Anyone hoping to have their music marketed with industry resources was subject to having their intellectual property stolen, purchased outright or co-owned.

Such practiced appropriation was characteristic of late 19th century America, where the Black syncopated rhythms of Ragtime were beginning to unnerve White propriety and entice White youth. No sooner had the movement been coined “nigger whorehouse music” by famed composer Edward McDowell, than it became a mainstream sensation. Within a decade of the American Federation of Musicians placing a ban on its reproduction, Ragtime had not only been appropriated by White society but entirely disassociated from Black musicians — and their struggle and history — altogether.

This narrative blueprint survived the late 1800s and shaped the entire popular music landscape of the 20th century. It has accompanied the rise of blues, country, jazz, swing, soul, rock and roll, R & B, and beyond. The plucked banjo twang and foot-stomping rhythm of Black Folk music in the late 1800s was revived nearly a half century later as a staple of White ruralism dubbed “Country.” The Blues sounds pioneered by Black artists like Robert Johnson in the 1920s were rediscovered in the 1980s by White musicians like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Although the disruptive rhythms of Rock & Roll were being popularized by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the 1950s and 60s, black faces were completely erased from the genre a decade later. Record executives sought a white man who could “sound, feel and perform black” and they found him: Elvis. By the 70s, African American bands no longer had marketability as Black rockers, and so fell into obscurity.

Today, the term “rock & roll” evokes images of long, wild-haired white men with painted faces. Books line shelves dedicated to rock & roll without a single colored face to be found on their covers. Within those books, the familiarity of names like John Lennon, AC/DC, or Aerosmith are pervasive. The names of the creators and innovators of the music are elusive.

In the 1990s, R&B music catapulted to the top of the nation’s music charts, with artists like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, TLC, Boys II Men and Montell Jordan dominating the airwaves — all black artists participating in an evolved version of what record companies called Rhythm and Blues to describe recordings marketed predominantly to urban African-Americans in the 1940s. Within the past decade, a new term has been coined to describe the genre in today’s popular music lexicon: Blue-Eyed Soul. “Black music” by White artists, whose marketability has launched a new era of R&B music absent of black participants. An era where Robin Thicke is the highest grossing soul artist and Justin Timberlake pays tribute to Michael Jackson’s legacy as one of the most popular artists in the genre. And the hip-hop industry rode on the heels of that genre’s transition.

Last year, the Hip-hop community was shocked after Macklemore beat out Kendrick Lamar for the Best Rap Album and Song of 2013. The “Thrift Shop” singer himself had to acknowledge the unfairness of his win. This year, you were the recipient of two American Music Awards for Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist and Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album and you are also expected to walk away with the title of Favorite Female Artist and Favorite Hip-Hop Artist next year, at the 41st People’s Choice Awards. In total, you were nominated for 94 awards and won 20. That is the power of “mainstream appeal” or, more simply, Whiteness.

I apologize for the lengthy history lesson, but context always provides better understanding. Provided this context, I hope you can better understand why every time I hear your songs, witness their ascent up the Hip-Hop charts, or watch you blindly appropriate Black culture with your image and sound, I cringe. I change the radio channel at the sound of your voice. I close webpages as soon as I see your face.

That is because your music and brand continues a long legacy of the appropriation and commodification of Black musical and cultural property, and witnessing that literally pains me. Your music and your brand have taken and disconnected a music and culture from its people, its source, and used it and abused it for profit. Your music and your brand have left a generation of Black youth voiceless and without a reflection. Your music and your brand continues White dominance and supremacy.

Yet, I fear that you do not understand such implications, still, somehow, despite many other people’s attempts to show them to you.

I see that when Azalea Banks recently called out your silence about issues that affect the Black community, despite your participation and theft of Black culture, you were not particularly thrilled. I cannot say that I agreed with her delivery, but I do see validity in questioning your allegiance to supporting and fighting for the same people who essentially are the reason for your music career. You responded by saying:

“I see all hell broke loose while I was at rehearsals today.”

And:

“In other news that actually relates to me: my arena tour is looking nice! Can’t wait to release the dates this month <3 ^.^”

You must have written those statements too hastily, because they truly demonstrate the reason why Banks needed to question your allegiance to the Black community in the first place. By your own admission, Black issues do not relate to you. You are White and merely participating in a Black art form. The grievances, pain and hurt that created that form have little impact on your daily existence. Your tour dates are of greatest import while Black lives are stolen and lost. This demonstrates perfectly the definition of “appropriation” — the sheer and utter disregard for the music and culture that you take and the people who you steal it from.

Between that response, and your more recent tweets that stress that “Theres [sic] more to sparking a change than trolling on social media…… and…….Make sure you do something to let YOUR government know how you feel when something is unjust,” you released the name of the special guest for your next tour date: Nick Jonas, who has recently endeavored on a R&B solo singing career, after years of shining in the “All-American” pop-rock band, the Jonas Brothers. You fail to recognize and acknowledge that the two of you will tour the globe as the White faces of R&B and hip-hop, further blemishing and erasing Black faces from that history. And there is no petition to the government that could stop that cycle from continuing.

For that reason, the Black community is not interested in your platitudes or opinions. We simply want to see the end of White thievery. We want the police to stop stealing the lives of our people with impunity. And we want to be free to create and maintain the integrity of our music and culture, without fearing its theft.

Do not pretend to be sympathetic and understanding of that plight when you are a part of the problem.

Tiffanie Drayton