Yesterday the Academy Awards came under scrutiny for what has been labelled its “whitest year” since 1998, after this year’s nominations revealed no non-white actors had been nominated in any of the four main categories. However, ahead of the upcoming 57th Annual Grammy Awards on 8th February, let’s have a look at what impact race has in other areas of entertainment today.
Last month, US rapper Azealia Banks caused a media frenzy after an interview she gave with New York based radio station Hot 97 in which she talked openly about fellow female rapper Iggy Azalea and the cultural appropriation of black people in America. On the surface it may have appeared as nothing more than a nonsensical celebrity feud – the pair have had an on-going rivalry of sorts for a few years now stemming from a lyric in which Azalea, in her song “D.R.U.G.S.”, referred to herself as a “runaway slave master”.
However, the interview delved much deeper than that. Banks, who broke down in tears at several points, expressed her concerns with what she refers to as “cultural smudging”, her phrase for appropriation. Azalea, a white rapper who originally hails from Australia, was recently nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Rap Album category, although many of her contemporaries, including Banks, feel such a nomination is unwarranted.
“The Grammys are supposed to be accolades for artistic excellence… Iggy Azalea’s not excellent,” Banks said during the interview. “I have a problem when you’re trying to say that it’s hip-hop and you’re to trying to put it up against black culture… It’s like a cultural smudging.”
She continued, “When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids is, ‘you’re great. You’re amazing. You can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to black kids, ‘You don’t have s***. You don’t own s***, not even the s*** you created yourself.’ And it makes me upset.
“Put her in the pop category. Put her with Katy Perry. Put her and Miley Cyrus in the same f****** box together. Don’t put her in hip-hop… just because she’s not singing, does not mean it’s rap music.”
Fellow rapper J. Cole shared similar sentiments in “Fire Squad”, a track taken from his new album, “2014 Forest Hills Drive”, where he says:
“History repeats itself and that’s just how it goes.
Same way that these rappers always bite each others flows.
Same thing that my n***** Elvis did with Rock n Roll,
Justin Timberlake, Eminem, and then Macklemore.
“While silly n***** argue over who gon’ snatch the crown,
look around, my n****, white people have snatched the sound.
This year I’ll prolly go to the awards dappered down,
watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile.”
He later clarified the lyrics in an interview with Power 105.1’s Angie Martinez:
Cole’s frustration came in the wake of Macklemore sweeping the rap categories at last year’s Grammy Awards along with producer Ryan Lewis. The duo took home the prize for Best Rap Album, trouncing stiff competition from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, who’s album “Good Kid M.A.A.D City” received widespread critical acclaim. Many felt this album had been snubbed and, in a surprising turn of events, Macklemore agreed. Shortly after the win, he posted a snap on Instagram depicting a text he had sent to the “Good Kid” rapper to declare he had been “robbed” since, like many were saying, he had released the better album.
My text to Kendrick after the show. He deserved best rap album… I’m honored and completely blown away to win anything much less 4 Grammys. But in that category, he should have won IMO. And that’s taking nothing away from The Heist. Just giving GKMC it’s proper respect.. With that being said, thank you to the fans. You’re the reason we were on that stage tonight. And to play Same Love on that platform was a career highlight. The greatest honor of all. That’s what this is about. Progress and art. Thank you. #grammys
The question is, where do the concerns with Iggy Azalea and Macklemore receiving accolades in the hip-hop genre derive from? Is it because they are white or because their sound is non-traditional hip-hop and influenced by pop music? Let’s not forget Nicki Minaj’s pop-fused debut album, “Pink Friday”, which spawned huge crossover hits like “Superbass”, was also previously nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Rap Album category, as have many other contemporary hip-hop albums without adversity.
An artist’s success, either in the form of sales or industry recognition such as the Grammys, can be attributed to their popularity, which is increased considerably through being embraced on the radio. In the aftermath of the Banks/ Azalea media storm, Macklemore also did an interview with radio DJs Ebro Darden and Peter Rosenberg at Hot 97 to weigh in on the debate.
Darden: “Do you believe that your music got embraced by ‘white radio’ [contemporary hit radio stations] because you’re white and you rap?”
“Yes, I do. Absolutely… Why am I safe? Why can I cuss on a record, have a parental advisory sticker on the cover of my album, yet parents are still like, ‘You’re the only rapper I let my kids listen to?’ Why can I wear a hoodie and not be labelled a thug? Why can I sag my pants and not be a gangbanger? Why am I on Ellen’s couch? Why am I on Good Morning America?
“If I was black, what would my drug addiction look like? It would be twisted into something else versus maybe, ‘Get back on your feet!’ The privilege that exists in the music industry is just a greater symptom of the privilege that exists in America. There’s no difference, this is just a by-product. This is just an off-brand of what’s happening in America. People see me, they resonate with me – America’s predominantly white. There’s relatability.”
Macklemore was well received for acknowledging what many in his position would choose not to, at least not publicly. Music fans listen to what they can relate to. If the majority of American people are white, it would make sense that many would identify with and listen to Macklemore over Kendrick Lemar, for instance. While this allows Macklemore – by his own admission – to be embraced by contemporary hit radio stations more easily, it could be seen as the very reason why he, along with a host of other white artists boxed in the urban genre, find it difficult to secure the same support from urban radio stations, which primarily play black artists.
Eminem has received acclaim and respect from his peers since he made his major label debut in 1997 with “The Slim Shady LP”. Despite this, he has never been embraced entirely by the urban radio format and instead gets a lot of his support from pop radio stations. While a lack of authenticity or an over reliance on pop music may plague Iggy Azalea and Macklemore, Eminem has long proven himself, so why is he still unable to attain the same backing as his black counterparts?
If mainstream radio stations that have much larger audiences embrace certain artists more than others, it is no surprise that these same artists are more popular with the record-buying public. A domino effect is then created, as these popular rappers are front of line when the Grammys and other accolades are being handed out – you have to be seen before you can be heard. Case in point: Azalea, who released one of the most commercially successful singles of last year, “Fancy”, recently picked up two gongs in the rap categories at the American Music Awards, ahead of both Drake and Eminem. Again, likely due to her mainstream popularity given her album was widely panned by music critics.
But, wait; have we not seen this same story played out countless times over the years already? Going as far back as the 1940’s, for example, Elvis Presley was dubbed the “King of Rock and Roll” in favour of the many black artists who wrote, recorded or inspired much of his material. His 1954 debut single “Alright Mama” is often cited as the first rock and roll song, despite being released a few years earlier by African-American singer Arthur Crudup.
Crudup was eventually forced to give up his recording career due to an on-going battle over royalties and the small wages he received as a singer. In contrast, Presley went on to garner millions. This was an era in which a host of black musicians, such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard, were successful in their own right, but often unable to match the mainstream recognition of their white equivalents. One of the more known cases was Richard’s “Tutti Fruitt”, released in 1955. The single, which is considered as one of the founding songs of rock and roll music, reached number 17 on Billboard’s pop chart. The very same day Pat Boone, a white American singer, saw his cover version of the track chart at number 12. On the contrary, over on the R&B chart Richard reached number two, and Boone’s version did not even chart.
Here we had two versions of the same song that were appealing to two separate audiences. One was labelled rock and roll; one R&B. Boone’s version went on to be a huge mainstream hit, while Richard saw success of his own version pale in comparison. R&B had been adopted, given new faces, and rebranded as rock and roll.
However, at what point does merely “covering” a song turn into appropriation?
The question is a tricky and complex one to answer, as there have been many varying definitions as to what constitutes appropriation. Website Afriendlyletter.com offers 10 different explanations, although the general consensus seems to refer to the process whereby a majority group takes elements from a minority culture for personal gain, which can often damage and dishonour the original source.
Nevertheless, it’s a proven model that, rightly or wrongly, appears to work. Last year in an interview with radio station Power 105, Rita Ora explained how many people often confuse her ethnicity. She commented, “A lot of people think that [I’m black], but I like that – it gets me places.” Radio host DJ Envy later agrees that she does indeed look non-white to which she responds with “thank you”.
Joking or not, she wasn’t mistaken. In the entertainment industry there’s certainly, at times, a distorted view of black culture as merely a fashionable trend that, once adopted, reinforces street credibility. Pop star Katy Perry has been accused of this a number of times, most recently for her “This Is How We Do” video.
Moreover, in 2013 a “blackout” was referred to, as it was the first year in Billboard history that no black artist topped the Hot 100 chart as a lead performer. This resulted in a paradox whereby several white artists, such as Macklemore, Emimen and Robin Thicke, were still able to achieve this feat through using urban music. This sparked a satirical open letter by Sebastien Elkouby, a former publicist for rapper KRS-One, which looked at how black artists were being marginalised in popular culture.
It’s evident to see that race still plays a role in today’s music industry, particularly within the urban and pop genres where radio airplay is concerned. However, unlike previously, we’re now seeing artists discuss this more openly and publicly, even outside the US, as most are striving for a fair and level playing field rich in diversity, not one dictated by who appears to be the most relatable.