The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
Azealia Banks can be right about things. She’s right about the fact that the opinions of men who speak their mind are never canceled out by their “bad behavior” (“[the public] seemingly accept it as just an attribute of their artistry,” she told Complex), while women always feel the repercussions. She’s right about the way people of color are showboated and pandered to by the white political establishment in America. She was right when she spoke about the whitewashing of hip-hop and the cultural appropriation that came with it, especially when Macklemore and Iggy Azalea got Grammy recognition over their black peers back in 2014. And as much as you don’t want to admit it, she’s also correct in thinking that there are few rappers in the game right now who have the ability to match her musical innovation and relentless flow.
But for every positive, you seem to hear about a thousand negatives. The 27-year-old is tactless with her takedowns – many of whom don’t deserve it. She has a habit of throwing vitriolic, often xenophobic, insults that affect more people than the ones she’s directing them at. Like when she called Zayn Malik a “curry scented bitch” (a comment she retracted and apologized for later), or when she retaliated against Perez Hilton’s own gross comments about her by labeling him a “faggot.” There was also the inexcusable act of responding to Iggy Azalea’s comments about online trolling which led her to contemplate suicide by claiming she should “drive that slave truck right off the canyon,” a reference to their long-running ‘runaway slave master’ beef. And, lest we forget, last year's unbelievable saga between Banks, Grimes, and Elon Musk that dominated headlines.
In a time of cancel culture and forced apologies from artists who dare step a toe out of line, Azealia Banks has built her career – going from strength to strength professionally – by positioning herself as the outspoken anomaly of today’s scene. As we collectively learn to shut our mouths for the benefit of others, Banks has done the opposite. Her flagrant critiques of the pop culture elite – some silly, others hideously offensive – are rare insights into the life of a public figure speaking their mind for once. But how has she managed to transcend effective scrutiny and maintain her position as a problematic fave for so long, without being relegated to the gutter?
It’s a question you could ask of Kanye West too, another artist whose comments on slavery and the subjugation of America’s working class people of color are swiftly forgotten about as soon as he plans a new tour or drops a new record. When Azealia Banks announced that she’d be returning to the UK for the first time in four years, and that new music would be on the way, her shows started to sell out. After calling a flight attendant for the Irish airline Aer Lingus “ugly” and then asking an Irish woman in her Instagram comments “Don’t you have a famine to go die in?,” she took to the stage for a sold out show in Dublin to a sea of rapturous applause and support. Nowadays, in a time when separating the art from the artist is pretty much inexcusable, Azealia Banks has become one of the few exceptions to the rule.
That might be her own doing more than anyone else’s, though; the big crowds are just an affirmation that what she’s doing is still landing with an audience. As most artists release their art to the world, looking outwards for validation, Azealia Banks’ practically unwavering belief in her own work and opinions is her most powerful trait. Say what you like about her, but she doesn’t flake. Instead, she’s built her own echo chamber away from the tabloid media backlash (knowing full well they’ll pick up on her comments anyway), choosing to yell into what she treats like a void, ignorant to the way those words might land later.
But she does pose an interesting idea: that her points of view are hers and hers alone. We might find them offensive, but investing in them so heavily is, ultimately, our decision. “I still can’t understand why people get so attached to my shitty opinions,” she concurred, speaking to Charlamagne and DJ Envy during an interview with the Breakfast Club back in May of 2018. “A lot of my opinions are terrible, you know? You should really not subscribe to the shit I’m saying.”
And yet we do anyway, because that’s part of what makes Azealia Banks the fascinating entity she remains to be. To tabloid newspapers, her behavior is narcotizing and addictive. To those who read them, a new Azealia Banks story is a guaranteed opportunity to get incensed by something, and in an age of news media that’s so viscerally painful (Trump trodding on the LGBTQ+ community, or the shit show that is Brexit in the UK), perhaps people find Azealia’s unique commentary less offensive and more entertaining. It’s hard to cancel someone for having shitty opinions when there’s a whole subsection of news that thrives off of the opinions of a woman who doesn’t want to be silenced anyway.
But to think that Banks is some sort of jester that exists to catalyze news stories is just as false. Behind it all, behind the messy social media presence and cutting comments, there’s a woman with an immense amount of talent that earned her her fanbase in the first place. To say that she would be nothing without controversy is untrue; perhaps she would have assimilated into mainstream rap culture a little more by now, or had signed a few more endorsement deals. But we’d be delusional to think that Banks could ever hit the heady heights of those artists who refused to push the culture any further and still played arena shows. For what makes Azealia Banks so singular is her ability to approach hip-hop from an angle that most fear: one that sounds and feels different; that attracts an audience that might have otherwise shied away from rap. She’s an innovator, and that may be hard to swallow, but it’s an important fact that helps us figure out why Banks hasn’t felt the kind of repercussions most feel she deserves.
If you look around yourself at an Azealia Banks show, you’ll find queer people (arguably her strongest, most unfaltering demographic), young black women and the odd straight white woman. To those fans, Azealia is the epitome of the underdog, an example of how a woman can hold her own in a world that doesn’t want anything to do with her. The added baggage she brings with it might be poisonous, but when the dominant image of what people are expected to be is quiet, complacent, and unmessy, perhaps we resonate with a brash personality who refuses to submit to the culture? Similarly, her music holds hands with the same house music that helped shape ballroom culture in the mid-to-late 20th century; it’s flamboyant and fizzing, and fits perfectly to the tastes of the same demographic that will bop to Britney Spears given the chance.
It is perhaps harder to find a straight cisgender man who professes his love for Azealia with the same enthusiasm, and there’s good reason for that. It’s not necessarily her style of music, but straight men see Banks as the kind of woman they can’t control, a woman with agency and opinions that they have little sway over. Interestingly, it also seems like the demographic that are the least affected by what she says are the ones most likely to call her out at any given moment.
Which brings us back to the flagrancy of her comments; claiming Zayn Malik gives her “trans man teas,” calling Irish people “leprechauns” and labelling Perez Hilton a “faggot.” For every demographic Banks indirectly offends, there’s a sizeable number of people in said demographic who are willing to forgive her on behalf of the whole community. The conversation is stunted by the fact that Banks barely budges from her own beliefs, but also by the fact that we see the same people she ridicules buying tickets to her shows. If we were able to take a step back and gain a clearer understanding of where Azealia Banks stands, maybe we could move forward without the need for shitty comments about vulnerable people?
Imagine the power of Azealia Banks’ voice if her logical stance on institutionalized racism being swept under the rug wasn’t clouded by the fact she told cupcakKe she needed breast augmentation? Imagine the benefits we could reap from her political commentary if she’d justified her issues with Cardi B’s jokey spelling having a detrimental effect on the perception of black women without calling her “an illiterate untalented rat”? Azealia Banks’ power is already strong; so strong, in fact, that she’s carved an infallible place for herself in the industry. The talent stands and tabloids feed off her commentary. If the vast majority of people truly wanted her to be canceled, surely it would have happened already?