Azealia Banks is My Misunderstood Black Hero
These bitches know that I be on that black girl shit/ That black girl pin-up with that black girl dip/ Put that black girl spin up on ya whack girl tip/ Ain’t official till it been up in that black girl kit/ Pick out ya mans and attack real quick, I’ma hit him with that venom and that rap girl hi/ I slip out the denims, know that black girl fit, get that Remy in a did and hit that black girl switch
– Azealia Banks (Liquorice)
This is a Public Service Announcement: if anyone locates the whereabouts of my edges, soul and wig, please return them to North West London at your earliest convenience.
Excuse me if I sound dramatic but, I genuinely do not think I would be who I am today if it wasn’t for Azealia Banks.
My parents had me in their late teens, fresh out of – and sometimes still in – the rave scene. This meant that growing up, the only sounds resonating through my home were jungle, drum ’n’ bass and house, lots of house. Naturally I started to carve my own niche and taste in music, I’m a huge fan of the psychedelic, experimental sounds of UK producer Lone. When I discovered the layering of Banks’ punchy vocals on tracks such as Aquamarine and Pineapple Crush the collaboration was too good to be true. I can confidently say, nobody can rap, run or riff over a house beat like Azealia can.
The unwavering and incessant nature of Stan culture was something I failed to understand; until I fell in love with Banks. I remember hearing the song Liquorice from her 1991 EP whilst revising for my International Baccalaureate exams during sixth-form. Something inside me just switched on. From a young age, black girls are conditioned to see themselves as less attractive, particularly if you have darker skin and non-eurocentric features. I had always – and still do – struggle with my body image, I was awkward about my blackness and, to be frank, wanted to get rid of it. I stumbled across Azealia during my social justice Tumblr phase, the two hit it off like a house on fire. Like most, when I first joined Tumblr, and had that first taste of internet activism, I was awash with information about social issues and culture. For the first time, I was very aware of my state as a black woman and I was angry. All of a sudden, my experiences made sense: the microaggressions, awkward interactions, sly comments, never quite fitting in with predominantly white groups and subtle racism. Azealia validated my anger by being the only visible black woman tackling the issues that I did not have the range to convey myself at the time. I idolised her because she was the voice I wish I had.
My unyielding love for Azealia Banks comes from her ability to verbalise the plight of black women in such a frank, explicit and fun way. In her interviews, she is fiercely unapologetic when dismissing her critics and drawing attention to the the mistreatment of black women in mainstream media. When I first watched her HOT 97 interview – you know, the one where she bursts into passionate tears about protecting her culture – I burst into tears too. “I don’t need no validation from no white people, y’all do not have to come over here and shake my hand,” she declared. Growing up always feeling secondary to white women was so ingrained in my identity and self-worth. Seeing Banks defiant and unrepentant about her blackness was the breath of fresh air I needed. I went to see her in concert five times and before starting at the University of Bristol, I travelled from London to watch her perform at the Love Saves The Day festival there.
What I admire most about Azealia is her consistency and dedication to her beliefs, even when she conveys them in less socially acceptable ways. On calling Cardi B the “Poor man’s Nicki Minaj”, I can admit initially, I did raise an eyebrow. The comments were labeled as Banks being a ‘hater’ and even jealous of Cardi’s success. However, in her Twitter thread, she detailed her frustration at the way black men in hip-hop treat darker-skinned black women. This wasn’t a personal attack on Cardi, it was an attack on the colourism rife in the industry. From the recent Amara La Negra situation to Kanye’s “multi-racial women only” Yeezy campaign, we know that hip-hop has a huge issue with visibly darker black women.
Banks’ claim that hip-hop as a genre is quick to elevate lighter-skinned, racially ambiguous or non-black women is not dumbfounded. Lest we forget, the entire Iggy Azalea vs Banks debate was just that: black men supporting the vocal blacking-up of a white woman over many talented actual black women. In her in-depth article The Making and Unmaking of Iggy Azalea, Clover Hope acknowledged the way Banks was quick to question “Iggy’s cultural blind spots”, insensitive cultural appropriation and racist past.
The media is foaming at the mouth, hungry to see a woman succumb to pressure and break down. Layer this with blackness and queerness and you have a frenzy on your hands. We cannot discuss Azealia Banks without addressing the insensitivities and double-standards when it comes to black women and mental health. As someone who has dealt with mental health issues, I couldn’t help but sympathise with Azealia. In a lengthy instagram post, Banks detailed her battle with mental health and its relation to hip-hop. From the moment she established herself on the music scene she was told by black men that she was “ugly, skinny, had bad hair [and] weird” she further stated that the “music industry politics completely mimics racial social constructs”. This consistent berating and dragging of Azealia Banks has had damaging effects on her mental health struggles. In her song Soda on the 2014 album Broke with Expensive Taste, she details this battle: “I tried to hide behind tired eyes, I sigh/ I’m trying to hide behind tired eyes, I sigh / I might survive the night time, I might die”.
The disdain for Azealia and the sustained public flogging by the press stripped her of any victimhood. This was most noticeable in the Russell Crowe incident, where Banks maintained she was spat at, choked and verbally assaulted during a dinner in his LA hotel room. Most people laughed her off as crazy, unstable and a liar however, RZA later admitted that he did see Crowe spit at her – but by then it was too late.
Though I adore Banks’ attitude and confidence, what I will not do is sit here and pretend that she is a flawless character. Even I, a diehard fan, have called her out on some of her more problematic sentiments. During the US election she revealed she was considering voting for Trump, stating that he’d be the one to “bust up big businesses”. But of course, Donald Trump’s economic policies seem set to further the wealth divide. The president has approved the most drastic changes to the US tax code in 30 years, introducing a permanent tax break for corporations – and so the largest tax breaks are being offered to the wealthiest Americans. Banks also attracted criticism by stating: “I only trust this country to be what it is: full of shit. takes shit to know shit so we may as well, put a piece of shit in the White House”. Banks is highly aware of the ways in which racism grips America in a stronghold. She’s not easily fooled by well-meaning white politicians, hence why she almost celebrates that a crudely transparent Trump administration exposes the the ugliness of America’s institutional racism: “Politicians have been saying ‘nice’ things about coloured folks and we’ve still been getting fucked.”
Then, how could we forget, the offensive, lewd Zayn Malik tweets that led to Banks’ headline slot at London’s Born & Bred festival being pulled. I mean, there’s a lot I don’t mind defending Azealia Banks for but even she, in all of her pride, has apologised for those comments. While it is unfair to lay this all at the hands of Banks’ mental health, I do think – and she has admitted – that it’s played a significant role. In the aforementioned Instagram post, she referenced the “detrimental effects of whiteness and white supremacy/white cultural pervasiveness” as a triggering factor for black people’s illness. I cannot help but think that with many of Banks’ controversies, if this had been a white man – or even a black man – having a mental break down, the backlash wouldn’t have been so severe unsympathetic.
“Azealia validated my anger by being the only visible black woman tackling the issues that I did not have the range to convey myself at the time.”
Studying at a predominantly white institution has been incredibly hard, in a strange way my experience has made me strongly empathise with Azealia Banks. Being dragged in the press and very publicly making mistakes when learning to deal with the suffocating nature of whiteness has made for hard times. In dealing with the ostracisation from complicit black women and vilification from assimilating black men the only thing I found solace in, was Banks’ personality and music. Her hypervisibility, confidence and strength as a black woman has been the encouragement I’ve needed in the hardest of times.
Despite being told countless times that her career is over, Banks has now secured a $1million record deal, and I hope that in 2018 the public gives her the chance she deserves. Azealia Banks has overcome the hostility and is continuing to do the thing that she loves most, if that doesn’t inspire you to not let your current situation define you I don’t know what will.