Voguing in the Dark: The Azealia Banks Catch-22

by: Tirhakah Love (@catalytic92)

TW: Sexual Assault/Rape Culture mentioned in the article below

There are some days when the world I reside in pushes me so far to the edge of my patience that hearing “I will ruin you, cunt” blaring through my headphones goes right alongside my daylong side-eye. Some days referring to myself, as Yung Rapunzel is the necessary self-esteem boost I need to be a productive citizen. And although I don’t use the c-word often nor am I an innocuous, castle-bound and lonely longhaired femme fatale, I must say that sometimes feeling like one isn’t all that bad. In fact, sometimes it’s downright addicting. The Ice Princess, Azealia Banks, has a musical energy and presence that sometimes feels so necessary you wonder how all the oppressive work weeks could have gone by without them. Until you realize that you probably actually haven’t been going that long without it; that there were (and still are!) black women, who, prior to the 23 year-old Azealia Banks, gave you a similar “f— it, I’m a black and I’m better than you” vibe.

Before we harken back on the life and times of Harlem’s hardcore hip-hopper and black female chieftain of the visionary vogue, Azealia Banks, we must pay our due respect to her village elders, Missy Elliott and Janet Jackson. Like the plant without a root, Banks couldn’t have lasted this long in the overwhelmingly fleeting and sometimes bone dry music industry without the unapologetic creative contributions of Missy and the presence, stature, and pop icon of Janet. We lift our hands for those women, undoubtedly influenced by the better times of the 80s and 90s, and give thanks for what they have done and what they continue to do.

Missy Elliot (via Bossip)

The music industry treats black women less affectionately than a toddler would a gold coin; if the industry finds someone they like, they try to swallow her whole, and if not they throw them away to find something else to play with. It’s a wonder these three black women have carved out this space and influenced one another aesthetically and musically. Like the DJ’s turntable, black music in the United States is a revolving and continuous revisit to our collective past and a re-articulation of conditions from that past that have carried into our present. Like the master DJ, black musicians are able to live in both the distant past and the new present, adding and subtracting sounds to assert their personal flair within a larger black musical canon. The past is just as important as the present in hip-hop, which explains the blasphemous implication of Banks’ taking to Twitter and going at the Auntie/Mother of all things cool, Erykah Badu.

Yeah, okay, this happened in like February so it’s not really “news” per se. But that “Twitter Fight” coupled along with Banks’ caping for the serial rapist Bill Cosby jives against her proclamation of black female solidarity she pushes over the airwaves, in interviews with radio stations, and in her empowering messages of black female agency in the face of shady record executives. I started thinking about why we love and why some have grown disenchanted with her over the past year and I think it’s tied to this tension. I, myself, loved that she went after Iggy Azealia for her cultural insensitivity and black cultural appropriation; but also could not stand it when she exonerated Cosby—a display, to me, of a kind of rape culture insensitivity—of his multiple crimes. Insensitivity, when it comes to rape culture, has dire effects on black women globally. It’s not my place to say whether or not Banks is really here for black women or not but this tension does shed light on the difficulties of being young, black, and woman in the mainstream—during a time in life when ideas are concretizing and old values are being shed for ones that hopefully will remain strong throughout life.

Transitioning to real adulthood in the public eye while also being black and female makes it triply difficult. Being black and young makes you a target in the music industry and in the American Empire more holistically, and Bank’s has maintained the necessary belief in her skill and work that an artist must have to survive. Displays of self-belief can be read as negative, especially when directed at an undeserving person or object, so we can understand the reactions when Banks spent 24 hours going HAM on Badu for not particularly enjoying her music. By virtue of the way we receive and consume information, for some reason, it’s still hard for us to think about Azealia Banks being only 23. The mainstream media likes to age black folks rather quickly—probably because even at the age of like 75 we look a lot better than your average 40 year old white person—but we internalize that notion as well when we heap undue criticism on Banks’ who is still growing up in the spotlight.

Azealia Banks called Iggy Azealia, Igloo Australia, and her career hasn’t been the same since. (photo via BET.com)

There’s a Catch-22 when thinking about Banks’ persona and her music production. On one hand she’s brash and bombastic and we NEED that unrepentant sound on the airwaves from a young black woman. On the other hand, we have to remember that she is young and some times those confident overtones are misdirected. And that means that she still has some growing pains to get through. When she decided to question the multiple rape allegations against Bill Cosby, at first I was irate but then I had to think about the fact that she grew up with Cosby much like I did—he was the quintessential black father in American television—and her response to those allegations stem from that understanding. This is not to say that she does not deserve critique, because she absolutely does. But it’s my belief that such a critique must be couched in a conversation to raise her awareness of the number of black women who are affected by sexual assault in this country and abroad. And to see her support of Bill Cosby, not as supporting the father figure of The Cosby Show but standing next to other women against rape culture.

Those twins white supremacy and patriarchy work as blockades to stop us from loving the darker parts of ourselves. Being more thoughtful about her response to those allegations, especially in light of the thousands of rape cases that go under-investigated because of victim-blaming, would have been a bit more tactful on her part.  Keeping in mind that we all, every black person, has to deal with some form of internalized oppression, our collective black love for Banks and other black celebrities cannot and should not function only when our faves are saying things that we want to hear.
Banks is coming into her own in a time of increased accessibility to artists. Her new album entitled, Fantasea II: The Second Wave is slated for a mid-2015 release and will most likely feature hip-hop vogue and dance pop bangers on par with 1991 and Broke With Expensive Taste. But with new music also comes the promotional tours for its release, which will give Banks’ audience even more soundbites to chew on for 2016. Though, I have been equal parts delighted and disappointed by the interviews and her twitter beefs with beloved black artists, I’m working to keep in mind that we have to allow for black folks space to really f—k up and grow. The same space that is given to Miley, Justin, the other Justin, Lohan, Kardashian, the other Kardashian, the other other Kardashian, and so many other white stars. Missy and Janet were not free of controversy either, especially Jackson, who also grew up in a media spotlight, and yet here we are 30+ years after the release of her first album and still showing mad love for what she’s done in the game. Azealia Banks, as much as she causes frenzy and sometimes frustration, still has an upside in the music world. Her creative videos and genre-bending frenetic rap style have great potential. As she matures, so will her sound. I don’t wish for her unapologetic tone to ever go away. It what makes her dope and courageous. But I do hope its directed towards more Iggy Azealia’s and less Erykah Badu’s.

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