Reader’s note: I will be discussing offensive words in this article, and using them. I do not condone in any way the use of these words, but do not want to hide behind euphemisms when talking about them.
Ten years ago, when asked by a journalist if he knew of a figure in popular music who aroused interest in poetry and words, as John Lennon and Bob Dylan did for a generation, Nobel Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney had this to say:
“There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.”
Although the legacy of Eminem is now somewhat open to debate, Heaney’s choice of artist is revealing: he was highlighting someone who played with words, whose acuity and dexterity could be an inspiration to people. I bring this up in relation to Azealia Banks, who has landed herself in hot water over homophobic abuse she directed at the celebrity blogger Perez Hilton on Twitter, because Banks is an artist of the word. Her metier is crafting lyrics, manipulating her vocabulary into rhyme, fitting it to meter, using it to spar and delight. This is why her preposterous spats with Angel Haze, and now with Hilton, have any significance: we’re all expecting an album from her, at some point, and hoping it will give us lyrics to admire or chew over. This is one of the most significant reasons why this latest misstep from her is so dispiriting: it doesn’t give great hopes for her forthcoming record.
Here is what happened: Banks got into a beef with fellow rapper Angel Haze over which one of them was the most from New York. Diss tracks swiftly followed, with Angel Haze landing the first blow in the song On The Edge, a messy but on-the-money takedown of her rival: “Bitch, put an album out / I think my album’s more done than yours, I just started a week ago.” Banks responded in kind with a fairly unremarkable track, No Problems, prompting Haze to release the ambiguously-titled “Shut the Fuck Up”. So far, so petty: rap’s new great hopes have hardly covered themselves with glory, even though great rap, as we all know, rests in part on fights and braggadocio.
At this point, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton entered the fray, siding with Angel Haze. Banks turned on him, saying:
@PerezHilton does your butthole whistle? Like is your butthole so stretched and raggedy the air whistles when you move?”
“omg u should just kill yourself… Like for real. lol what a messy f—got you are.”
Now, Banks’s retrograde sexual politics have landed her in trouble with GLAAD and, we would hilariously be led to believe, her record label. The rapper then compounded her offence by demanding to know what was so wrong with her choice of words, tweeting:
A faggot is not a homosexual male. A faggot is any male who acts like a female. There’s a BIG difference.
— YUNG RAPUNXEL (@AZEALIABANKS) January 5, 2013
If u listen to my music and are not offended by the word nigga…. We’re not gonna go here with this faggot shit… We’re just not. Lol
— YUNG RAPUNXEL (@AZEALIABANKS) January 5, 2013
Really not as moved by this f word thing as u all want me to be. As a bisexual person I knew what I meant when I used that word.
— YUNG RAPUNXEL (@AZEALIABANKS) January 5, 2013
A masterclass in sophistry, then, built on an astonishing one-two-three punch of pre-Judith Butler sex politics, questionable racial analogies, and a spurious defence from personal experience. One senses a “some of my best friends are gay” argument just around the corner.
What matters here? Is anything at stake, or is this a Twitter-storm in a teacup? Several things arise from this, if you’re interested in contemporary music, particularly hip-hop. The first thing to note is that both Banks and Angel Haze are ostensibly at the vanguard of a new, sexually liberal rap scene. Banks defines as bisexual, as evidenced above, and is in with Le1f and Mykki Blanco, both prominent artists on the new queer rap scene. Haze talked poignantly about her trysts with women on last year’s remix of Eminem’s Cleaning Out My Closet, and described herself as pansexual in an interview with the Guardian, stating: “Love is boundary-less. If you can make me feel, if you can make me laugh – and that’s hard – then I can be with you. I don’t care if you have a vagina or if you’re a hermaphrodite or whatever.” Since Frank Ocean’s coming out last year, and with rappers like A$AP Rocky recanting their former homophobia, it had felt like a positive movement was occurring on the hip-hop scene, hopefully marking a change from the time when Nas could call Jay-Z “Dick-Suckin’ Lips”, “Gay-Z” and a “dick-ridin’ faggot” in his diss track Ether (2001), or Eminem state, “Hate fags? The answer’s yes” the year before on the ‘Marshall Mathers’ LP.
Nas – Ether
The main problem is that Banks uttered her vile slurs and death wishes not as an artist but in her own life, presumably because this is her opinion. Her absurd defence – that she uses words in a meaning completely divorced from their accepted usage – does not wash. But in a song, as part of her work, these sorts of statements, though reprehensible, would be far more easily palatable to a liberal audience. Artistic excellence excuses quite a lot of faults, which is why some works with terrible politics are acceptable to us. The thing with the Nas lyrics I quoted above, is that the epithet “Gay-Z” makes me laugh; I also find it hilariously puerile and on-the-nose when Nas calls Jay-Z’s record label “Cockafella”: as a homo and moreover a person of sense, I know that homosexuality is not something to be ashamed of and therefore not a classic insult, but there’s still something funny and engaging about Nas’s verve. This is my defence too for a lot of Odd Future (even though a lot of Tyler, the Creator’s work feels undercooked to me): there is an anarchic brio at play on their best work, something of a kids-messing-around-at-home Jackass vibe, plus an appealingly young “fuck you” demeanour, that goes some way to excusing the homophobic cracks and violent sexism.
A modicum of sensitivity and a brief consideration of identity politics would tell her sharpish that you must be a part of the reappropriated slur in order to own it.
This is why I think Banks’s second defence – to ask why no-one is upset with her use of the word “nigga” – is bullshit. For a start, many people might have a bone to pick with that. Secondly, people might be much more prepared to hear her use this language in the context of an artistic statement because people are willing to cast aside a priori opinions to judge music, books, films, heck, even theatre, on their own terms. Banks must know that there is a difference between her saying “nigger” in her own life and “nigga” in her songs; that, for instance, Quentin Tarantino can be defended for having characters say “nigger” in Jackie Brown and now Django Unchained, but would rightly be vilified for using the word in his own life. She must also know that she does not own the word “faggot”: I don’t expect her to have overly thought about cultural appropriation of derogatory terminology, or the ambiguous usage of the word “nigger” in African-American popular culture, but a modicum of sensitivity and a brief consideration of identity politics would tell her sharpish that you must be a part of the reappropriated slur in order to own it. You can’t tell Jewish jokes if you’re not Jewish, and you do not own the word “faggot”; it isn’t yours, and certainly it isn’t yours when used in conjunction with a “kill yourself” message. This isn’t hard.
I think we also learn something about the state of hip-hop today; about its state of flux, and the many ways it is in a period of soul-searching. Where rap goes and how it develops, as one of the dominant genres of music worldwide, is unclear. We’ve seen from this feud – from the music they yielded and the opinions they occasioned – that braggadocio rap is not a viable direction, and that everyone is a little sick of these beefs. By the time Angel Haze had brought out her second response track, Shut The Fuck Up, it expressed the opinion of pretty much everyone who had followed the farrago from the start. It’s a shame because Haze had spoken eloquently, not long before this fracas, of rising above the ways in which female artists are pitted against each other. It made a person long for a rap artist who, like Frank Ocean on ‘channel ORANGE’ and Kendrick Lamar on ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’, could rise above this pettiness to create a personal, visionary, artistically complete work on its own terms. Who wants to go back to the days of The Game and 50 Cent lumbering at each other like two Tyrannosaurus Rexes on album after album?
We learn too about the tricky position of artists today, as they exist in constant danger of revealing too much of themselves. Azealia Banks has spoiled a lot of her own aura with these useless, ploddingly hateful comments, but more than this, with this sort of behaviour she sullies her own art, as a writer, as someone with a pithy voice, because she is not honing it carefully but letting it all fly out of her like sputum. We knew before this episode that Azealia Banks, though thrillingly alive and talented, was hardly one for sitting down for the long slog, but more given to releasing occasional bits and pieces more or less as they happen to her. We’ve been told to expect an album for, what, over a year and a half now. Before that, Banks worked and parted ways with XL, a perfectly useful and exciting place to release an album: none of this bodes especially well for her ability to apply herself and become a long-term concern.