Has Iggy Azalea (aka Amethyst Kelly) really ruined hip hop? The expat Australian – and wannabe Southern femcee – was stopped at the airport by someone she assumed was a fan. Wielding a camera, he says, "I would just like to thank you so much for ruining hip hop" to Kelly's stunned response. The video has gone viral.
Kelly is not the first to be charged with "ruining" hip hop – just ask the Delphic oracle that is Google. Other culprits over time include Vanilla Ice, gangsta rappers, Puff Daddy and Bad Boy, Master P and No Limit, Lil Wayne, the whole of America's South, Eminem, EDM, Kanye West, Drake and… money. But, despite this rampant ruination, hip hop has proven remarkably resilient. Why, only last year Kendrick Lamar unleashed an instant classic in To Pimp A Butterfly – not a self-appointed 'New Classic' but an instant classic, as deemed by true skoolers everywhere.
Still, Kelly is justifiably seen as a controversial figure with her 'Ignorant Art'. In her 2011 song DRUGS, a remix of Lamar's Look Out For Detox, she rapped, "When the relay starts I'm a runaway slave master." Especially contentious is Kelly's mimicking of a Southern black American accent and femininity as a white (Australian) woman. She's been accused of minstrelsy. Jean Grae called her style "verbal blackface". What's more, theFancy rapper has demonstrated an appalling ignorance of black struggle, and the politics of appropriation, while assuming that hip hop exists in a post-racial milieu. For many, Kelly ultimately epitomises white mediocrity. She merely emulates black artists – lacking any originality. Yet she's been rewarded for it. In 2012, with TI her mentor, Kelly became the inaugural female rapper to make XXL's annual "Freshman Class" list. Kelly went on to receive several Grammy nominations – her debut The New Classic up for "Best Rap Album". By comparison, as a white rapper following the Beastie Boys, Eminem developed his own form – rapping about personal experience. Even the divisive Macklemore has acknowledged his white privilege (cue: White Privilege). Kelly dismisses cultural criticism as 'hating' or negativity. She suggested that Q-Tip was "patronizing" when, via Twitter, he sought to enlighten her on hip hop's origins as "a SOCIO-Political movement". Longtime critic Azealia Banks asked why "Igloo Australia" remained "silent" about the Ferguson protest after the police killing of Michael Brown. "Black Culture is cool, but black issues sure aren't huh?," she tweeted.
As a phenom, Kelly continues to spawn incisive US op-eds. Nonetheless, such pieces do, perhaps necessarily, betray a cultural bias, even Americentricism – Kelly only ever analysed within a US context. No one asks why, at 16, this Mullumbimby girl, who "felt like an outsider in my own country", left Australia, with its surging homegrown hip hop scene, to launch her rap career. The fact is that no female MC has yet crossed over here and been afforded sustained mainstream success to rival a 360. As the boss of Elefant Traks, Urthboy expressed dismay over the hate directed at Sky'high, a cred Indigenous rapper, who dropped her debut four years ago only to slip off the radar. Would Americans ever listen to an Australian rapping in her own accent? How many (black) Brit MCs have blown up Stateside? The UK's white Lady Sovereign, signed to Def Jam, certainly failed.
"Longtime critic Azealia Banks asked why "Igloo Australia" remained "silent" about the Ferguson protest after the police killing of Michael Brown. "Black Culture is cool, but black issues sure aren't huh?," she tweeted."
Today hip hop is an international movement. Co-option in its myriad forms has become a troubling inevitability. When Time asked Questlove about Kelly he rued, "You know, we as black people have to come to grips that hip hop is a contagious culture. If you love something, you gotta set it free." Nonetheless, hip hop will always be about authenticity — keeping it real. And herein lies Kelly's undoing.
Ironically, the Kelly controversy has sparked international curiosity about Australian MCs generally – among them female MCs… In 2015 NME ran a piece "The Aussie Emcees Proving There's More To Australian Hip-Hop Than Iggy Azalea", profiling the likes of REMI, Tkay Maidza and Briggs. Post Laneway tour, Killer Mike praised Adelaide's Maidza in the US: "I remember thinking to myself, I'm in Australia, I've been here for two weeks, and not one person talked about Iggy Azalea, and I'm at a music festival! Not one person! The person that all the Australians were talking about was a black girl!" At this year's prestigious BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards, she was the sole female nominee for "Viewers' Choice: Best New International Act". There's growing buzz surrounding the poet/MC/singer Sampa The Great, a Zambian based in Sydney. And L-FRESH The LION is lauding MIRRAH, who guests on his acclaimed album Become and has performed with him on tour. Before that, MIRRAH, an Australian-American, very nearly joined TLC, filling the void left by the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes – she was runner-up on the reality contest show R U The Girl?.
In the end, at 26, Kelly's own career could be ruined. The industry vibe is that she's run out of steam. Maybe after all Kelly was just a fleeting novelty for the US market. Last year Kelly cancelled a North American tour. Her sophomore, Digital Distortion, has been delayed, its lead single, Team, a flop. Now, ignominiously, Kelly is coming back to Australia as a judge on The X Factor Australia – reality TV the place where fading stars go. Alas, it's unlikely that she'll be embraced by the local hip hop scene that she (pre-emptively) rejected. Kelly only toured here once as Beyonce's support in 2013. She didn't return to pick up 2014's ARIA Award for "Breakthrough Artist". However, she did sign on to be a brand ambassador for Bonds.
Ultimately, it is a hard knock life for female rappers in a male-dominated culture. Both Banks and the brilliant Angel Haze – herself negotiating the intersectional politics of race, gender and sexual identity – have signalled their intention to switch to singing and R&B. One has to ask Kelly's male accoster if indeed he ever supported them.