“This is not a culture that black people started. I do believe as much as I have honed my craft and put in years of dedication into the music that I love, I need to know my place.”
It is impossible to fathom any African-American artist, such as opera singer Jessye Norman, punk veterans Bad Brains, or classical clarinetist Anthony McGill, all celebrated in genres not “started” by black people, making a statement of such awkward obsequiousness. Yet replace “black” with “white” in that opening sentence, and that’s exactly what rapper Macklemore said during a recent interview on New York hip-hop station Hot 97. Ever since Macklemore and his musical partner Ryan Lewis won four Grammys last year, including best rap album, rap song, and rap performance, he’s been compelled to say that, as a white man, he knows he must tread respectfully in a genre created by, and still dominated, by African-Americans.
“Just because there’s been more successful white rappers,” Macklemore said, “you cannot disregard where this culture came from and our place in it as white people.” After his Grammy haul, the Seattle rapper, known for the hits “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” even apologized to fellow hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar whose album, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” lost. “It’s weird. . . that I robbed you.”
Macklemore humble-bragged in a text, which he also posted on social media to make sure everyone else could see just how sorry he was to have bested the critically-lauded Lamar, an African-American. It’s even more provocative that Macklemore chose the word “robbed,” since many black hip-hop fans feel rap music is being stolen from their community.
Cultural appropriation is a scurrilous label older than Elvis, and as revolting as Pat Boone’s literally and figuratively pale versions of early rock n’ roll classics by Little Richard and Fats Domino. Such concerns center not only on who makes the music, but who claims its legacy and shapes its future. Nowhere is this discussion more fractious than in hip-hop where the music is culture and the culture, for many, is life. In a genre where its most devoted acolytes still believe authenticity is everything, newcomers are expected to earn the right to stand alongside legends.
Which brings us to Iggy Azalea, the most divisive figure in rap since Vanilla Ice.
On Sunday, she will vie for four Grammys, including best rap album, for her debut, “The New Classic.” Few artists had a bigger year than Azalea, especially with her inescapable single, “Fancy,” with Charli XCX. If, as many observers expect, she claims the award, she’ll be the first woman, as a solo act, to win that category. (Lauryn Hill was a member of the Fugees when their album “The Score” won in 1997.) And that exasperates those who believe Azalea owes her fast success to being an attractive, blonde white woman.
On his latest album, “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” rapper J. Cole airs his discontent in the song “Fire Squad”:
While silly [expletive] argue over who gon’ snatch the crown
Look around, my [expletive], 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.
Despite her nods to rappers like Tupac, Azalea is pure pop — she’s also nominated for a pop-category Grammy, alongside Katy Perry and Coldplay. She’s from rural Australia but raps in a clumsy approximation of a black Southern accent. She professes respect for rap’s history, yet callously called herself “a runaway slave master” in her 2012 song “D.R.U.G.S.” (After an uproar, she later apologized calling the lyric “tacky” and “careless.”)
Rapper Azealia Banks, whose album “Broke with Expensive Taste” is considered one of 2014’s best, often criticizes Iggy on Twitter and in interviews. And, yes, it’s personal since Banks, who hails from Harlem, knows that despite superior skills, she may never be as marketable as Azalea. (To be fair, Banks’s homophobic rants haven’t helped her cause either.) She defines what she believes is happening to hip-hop as “cultural smudging,” the methodical removal of certain elements for something deemed better. Or, as is the case with Azalea, more digestible to the mainstream — like a profane Pat Boone.
Asked by MTV News to envision rap’s future, J. Cole said, “I fast forward 20, 30 years from now, and I see hip-hop being completely white.” For a community robbed, to use Macklemore’s word, of so much for so long, this isn’t just hyperbole. Even if J. Cole’s whitewashed hip-hop dystopia seems unlikely now, it encapsulates the rising anxieties of black hip-hop artists that fear they may someday be smudged out of the cultural phenomenon they created.
Renee Graham is a writer in Boston.