Verbal Blackface with the “Realest” Girl Around

July 10, 2014 • Music

Iggy Azalea made her case at the BET awards last Sunday. She hopped uncomfortably to the stage, greeted by mentor T.I., and jumped right into her song with perhaps the most ironic line of the year, in her characteristic drawl: “First things first, I’m the realest.”

The line assumed a new meaning in its context that night. Before, she asserted her authenticity as a rapper to a broader public. At the BET Awards, the audience was narrowed: she made the claim to be the “realest” in front of black people. Funnily enough, the performance with which she would substantiate this opening argument ultimately failed. Her stage presence was tepid. More important, her voice, which has always stood out, sounded even more affected than before. There was more to prove, no doubt. No matter how hard she tries, however, she will never be black. The voice she aims for lets her down every time, her Australian roots creeping up with every other syllable. Despite their arsenal of dance moves and costumes, Miley Cyrus, Macklemore and Robin Thicke will also fail in their attempts to “be down.”

Many critiques of these white artists envision them as reckless, mindless appropriators who know not what they do, but I want to challenge this presumed naïveté. To my mind, white artists are indeed conscious of what they lack, and resolving it is key to maintaining the solidity of their brand. Compensating for this lack means venturing into the realm of comedy, irony, camp and race play. It forms a necessary part of their success.

It was none other than Iggy Azalea herself who suggested to me this line of thought, in an interview with the Guardian from June 28th: “I love the fact that I don’t rap the way I talk – I think it’s completely hilarious and ironic and cool. Didn’t I just recreate Clueless in my video [Fancy], the whitest thing of all time?” Azalea directly acknowledges a certain rift between the voice she assumes during performances and her native voice. This rift is only fodder for comedy because the way she talks (i.e., the accent, vocabulary and idiosyncrasies unique to her race and origins) is so dramatically left by the wayside, and she embraces this comedy as part of her artistry. The white girl talks black but, recognizing that she’ll never completely sound black, she turns her affected vocal trick into a source of laughs. Lack is the same impetus behind Miley Cyrus’ use of black twerking women as set decorations and objects of comedy: they make up for what she cannot provide.

Comedy and racial drag have met very often throughout the history of pop culture. At the intersection between the two, you can find three of the biggest white acts of last year. But if you go back, you’ll find that these stars have predecessors and analogues, interlocutors over time. Take for example, Al Jolson, the star of the first “talkie”—the earliest movie to feature the human voice in 1927.

Al Jolson in ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927). Jolson used his blackface to analogize the Jewish struggle to the oppression of American Blacks. The intent barely overcomes the effect of his Jolly Negro caricatures, however.

The first of these was The Jazz Singer, in which Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz, a Jew who dons blackface to sing jazz, thus rebelling against his father, a cantor at the synagogue. Thinking about The Jazz Singer right now, what’s funny about is that “jazz” was once the most visible form of black music in the 1920s, the way hip-hop is today. Watching Jolson’s performances today, I see a frightening image of a white man with a tar-colored face, hopping around the stage, producing laughs left and right. He is funny because of the color painted on his skin, because of the race he can only allude to. Sontag once wrote that camp operates as a series of quotations and references, never the embodiment of the real thing: “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman’…”

Iggy Azalea participates in a similar art of allusion. Not a black, but a “black.”

Iggy Azalea’s appropriation of the “black” voice, I must admit, unsettles me a bit more deeply than her dance moves or gold chains. The sound of her voice cuts deeper. Black vernacular is used to intimate, to share and to connect. It builds bonds and connects black people to a shared past. Black people also recognize that such vocabularies and accents carry a social stigma, one that has consistently been used to portray us as unintelligent. To speak black is a limitation, as well as a site for kinship. For Iggy Azalea, however, it is a money maker, a key element of her brand. This is the most classical form of white power in pop culture. But, as I have hoped to show, artists like Azalea do not stop at merely speaking black. Iggy Azalea makes fun of black culture and the black voice—“it’s completely hilarious and ironic and cool.”

The same way Miley Cyrus twerks for fun, Iggy Azalea expands her syllables and accents her sentences for laughs. Comedy, however, is not without political implications. It has motivations, causes and origins. It also has consequences.

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  • Tijanna Jacklin James

    She’ll probably fill the shoes of the other whites who have made money off black labour for decades- Madonna, Elvis Presley, etc, and are heralded as the pinnacle of musical artistry today. This time though, I hope that our eyes are open and our mouths will speak.

    • lee

      how on earth is she making money off black labour? she is making fun of how stupid certain ways of talking sound. thats not making money off of black labour. thats highlighting something that many peopel just find silly.

  • Jasmine

    I feel like her “quote” was taken out of context. I don’t know why people have to SOLELY associate black with rap and white with ‘other’ when it comes to expression of art. If she would have come over here singing instead of rapping no one would have probably said anything. Coming from a black person myself, I could see how it might be considered “racist” or whatever, but I don’t feel like that’s her main purpose.

    • kasieifesi

      You must not of heard how Iggy talks about black people and Asians. Or how incredibly homophobic she is. Iggy Azalea is trash and the writer of this article has a right to call her out on her bs. You must not know what the term cultural appropriation is. It’s when people who are outside of a culture use another person’s culture, dress it up as a caricature, while simultaneously profiting OFF that culture. Did you read the rest of the article? She’s specifically using black culture to make money while mocking us. And we have every right to be upset about it. Also, I’m beginning to doubt that you’re actually not a black person because you’ve never commented before and it’s clear that you made this profile for the sole purpose of commenting on this article. If you were black, there’d be no reason for you to say you were black to assert your point as to why you don’t believe Iggy, who’s clearly racist, isn’t racist.

      • Jasmine

        You’re right, I did make this account for the “sole” purpose of commenting on this article. However, just because I don’t agree with everything the article is saying doesn’t make me ‘less black’. Just because we share the same race doesn’t mean I have to always agree that something is racist. Why are people soo quick to jump down Iggy’s throat when Eminem raps and so did Paul Wall; who are also white. Is it because she’s from another area and has an accent? Just curious.

        • kasieifesi

          Let me satisfy your curiosity then. Eminem, even though he has his own issues with misogyny and homophobia, also realizes that he’s a white man in a predominately black space. And he respects that and doesn’t use words like the n-word and also doesn’t go around calling himself a “slave master” like Iggy. Have you actually listened to any of Iggy’s songs that aren’t on the radio or are you just defending her because you’re actually ignorant and have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about? Do you not know any of the horrible things she’s said about black people and Asians and then pulling the whole “I have Asian family members” and the classic “I have black friends” excuse white people alway try to use to cover up their racism? I don’t know enough about Paul Wall to make a comment on him. It’s fine to be a white rapper. What’s not fine is to be a white rapper while simultaneously shitting on the people who created what you’re making money off of. Go and educate yourself about the person you’re so vehemently defending before you make yourself look ridiculous on the internet.

        • kasieifesi

          Also, the reason why I doubt your validity as an actual black person is because white people, particularly white men, pretend to be black people in black spaces a lot on the internet. If you’re actually black, then I apologize. If you’re not, then you’re probably a horrible person for pretending to be black just to add more validity to your assertion that Iggy, who like I said, is a known racist, isn’t racist.

  • Great article. Only recommended change?

    “Lack is the same impetus behind Miley Cyrus’ use of black twerking women as set decorations and objects of comedy: they make up for what she cannot provide.

    “They TRY and make up for what she cannot provide.”

    In my eyes, and the eyes of many other critical pop culture consumers, those aforementioned acts will always be stilted and contrived no matter how much “genuine” or “real” backup they try to surround themselves with.

    I’m also fascinated by these conversations in light of the many who try and fail – why does Iggy have a number 1 hit, where Kreayshawn, Brooke Candy and other Americans have failed.

  • Taylor

    Since when does voice determine race though..? This article is backwards.

  • Taylor

    Even with the said slave-master comment, she originates from Australia. Also blacks weren’t the only group of slaves. Why the fuck does everything have to be a race issue? This man has nothing more important to talk about?

  • Taylor

    “Miley Cyrus’ use of black twerking women as set decorations and objects of comedy”. Miley cyrus twerks her damn self. Also, shes not using women as decorations anymore than anyone else in our society does. Why can’t we celebrate our young artists rather than condemning them. People love to hate people.

    • mynsplaining

      And “twerking” or in common speak “ass shaking” is found all over the world. Look at the Polynesian dancers those people, men and women, will out twerk anyone of that stage. Same for Bellydancers.

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