these are some very bare notes. in fact, ‘notes’ is probably the most appropriate term for this because I’m noting something that I don’t have the knowledge to properly analyze.
I’ve been thinking about Azaelia Banks in the wake of her liquorice video, her emigrating from twitter to tumblr and attendant shirking of the label ‘rapper’ in favor of ‘vocalist.’
it very well may be that the term ‘rapper’ (and it’s derivative, ‘female rapper’) is just too diminuitive to describe Banks, and a host of other Black women musicians and artists. consider Azaelia Banks alongside Nicki Minaj, Rye Rye, Janelle Monae, and Santigold (to name only the most prominent examples), all artists for whom rapping is among the styles of performance in their repertoires. also all artists who traverse musical genres and also emphasize dance and visual art, creating truly multimedia pieces of performance art.
in this way, these performers are participating in a tradition of Black women’s vocal performance that precedes and exceeds hip hop.
here are some more thoughts that I can’t quite shape into a coherent argument:
- Banks, Minaj and Monae all have performing arts training (Monae at AMDA and Banks and Minaj are graduates of LaGuardia high school [the Fame school]).
- the central role of visual art in their work has a double-edged effect on their art:
- on one hand, the capital necessary to produce music videos requires that they have the backing of major labels; which allows for really remarkable videos and live performance set-pieces.
- on the other hand, being on major labels (more accurately, boutique labels that are underwritten by major labels) means that at least some of theirmusic will be weakened by the need for it to be marketable (e.g., this might be contentious, but I think ‘tightrope’ was one of the least interesting songs on Janelle Monae’s LP, especially considering the number of amazing songs on that album, like the opening salvo of dance or die, fast, and locked inside).
this is a really interesting moment in music, particularly because of the number of (young)Black women artists who are working across media and genres. we can only dream of what might be created if there existed the means to finance Black music without relying on record labels—can you imagine what Janelle Monae might invent if she had the financial independence of Radiohead?
I have tons of feels/thoughts about this and the positioning and genre-fying of Black women musicians in a post-hip hop* popular imagination. These thoughts will come out disjointed.
I like most of the artists that JB lists in this post but I get personally indignant when they’re brought up as avant-garde women rappers 1) because it’s not even how they want to talk about themselves and 2)it is 8 out of 10 times is brought up as an aesthetic barometer against women rappers who work with sexually explicit or crime related material. Which to me is like the discourse of the 80s and 90s of trying to compare Prince and Michael Jackson when no one was really trying to talk about either’s art but instead where trying to take subliminal shots at Michael’s ‘mainstream’ commercial success (read crossover to white audiences.) Which to me was never fair because it routinely ignored the way that Jackson attempted to position himself musically and rhetorically within Black cultural idioms.
I wouldn’t position Minaj in the same ways that I would Monae or Banks (i’m not sure about Rye Rye) because Minaj concretely works to be legitimized within the Black public sphere *as* a rapper, who does other stuff as well. And while she does receive plenty of flack and have to go to bat for her identification with hip hop culture (see her issues at this years Summer Jam) she still fights that fight intentionally.
I see (not necessarily in this post) this attempt to position the Banks and Monaes and Rye Ryes of the industry as stepping outside of the crass consumer driven world of contemporary mainstream rap to make avant-garde (Black) art music. Which I think of as this move to ‘jazzify’ rap/hip hop. Which is to say to co-opt it’s political and social context as a Black cultural idiom and flatten it into an aesthetic flourish that artists elect in and out of on a whim. And while I’m not about saying that any of these Black women have a responsibility or a requirement to make music and mean music in a particular fashion because of their Blackness—I am highly suspicious of how the ways that they are positioned are used to police and project onto the ways that other Black women artist who are still invested in articulating themselves from a rap perspective: for example Jean Grae, Rah Digga, Trina, Shawnna, etc etc many of whom have connections to artists in other musical genres and could (easily I think) re-articulate themselves as other-than-rappers (who still get high amounts of traffic from a rap fan base) if they wanted but choose not to.
Whatsmore such a move, and why I never liked it in the Michael/Prince thing either, is that it makes invisible how financially lucrative it was/is to position oneself (or to be positioned as) the avante-garde Black artist. (Which is not to say that Michael’s forray into pop was any less financially lucrative—clearly both strategies have the potential for major capitalist gain. Also I think it’s completely arguable that both of these artists embraced, rejected, and negotiated being positioned as either popular/avante-garde at different moments in their careers and that those negotiations where as much a factor in their major career success—Mike got hot off of being avante-garde as much as Prince got hot off of doing pop.) And by that I mean that, in a white-supremacist society/world that builds itself on it’s being an anti-thesis to Blackness, the ability to be seen as cable of ‘doing Black things’ (spitting bars) whilst not ‘being a regular Black person’ has material consequences that (if we’re going to hold Beyonce’s feet to the fire about) that I damn sure want to us to talk about.
And again I’m not trying to make the case that by rejecting or resisting labels of rap or hip hop means that any of these artist (Santigold is another person who has been on this tip) means that these artist are forsaking their Blackness or something (it’s really more complicated than that). I do want to say that being a rapper is entirely a racialized concept and to be able to make work that builds upon hip hop aesthetics but simultaneously be able to reject the racialized term of rapper and be respected and legitimized when you pull on aesthetic practices of whitewashed* genres is a particular kind of positioning for a Black person to have in a white-supremacist world and it begets and is feed into by certain political economies of cultural production.
i could actually talk about this particular topic forever so i’m going to quit for this post.
*i use the term post-hip hop not to fall into the nostalgia politics of ‘hip hop is dead’ but instead to denote that we’re at a time when rap music is saturated the public imagination and popular cultural production aesthetics.
* i use the term whitewash genres in particular to reference ‘dance music genres’ which are i would argue derivative of what we now call house and disco music which are definitely Black (and queer) cultural idioms
—i see minaj as attempting to do pop, hip hop, and avant-garde simultaneously. i wouldnt be surprised if nicki started calling herself a vocalist as well…i find it interesting how folks will say she is ‘too pop’, and not note how little space there is for women in hip hop.
—i think so much of this has to do with the fact that hip hop is ‘global’. and by it going global, lyrics start to matter less and beats start to matter more. im not sure how to articulate this, but i have so many experiences of people saying they dont like an artist, because they dont like the beats the artist uses. like, i have gotten into arguments about how lola monroe is brilliant, and realized that i was talking to someone who could barely follow the lyrics, and they just didnt like the ‘stay schemin’ beat. or gotten into arguments about how part of nicki’s genius is her ability to mold words around her accent in such a distinctive way, and realized i was talking to someone who doesnt know the difference between queens and brooklyn.
and dont get me wrong azaelia is a tight lyricist, so is rye rye. love them. but i cant help but notice that their choice of beats means that someone who doesnt speak english, and definitely doesnt speak aave, can still think the beat is tight according to ‘global’ read: european standards.
and i think this ‘globalization’ speaks to the highly visual style that is happening with their videos and ‘image’/’brand’.
so its funny cause this comment comes across as us-centric, but really it is about how specific and local hip hop is, rooted in aave and certain localities, and what happens when it goes ‘global’. or better said, when certain artists, for whatever reasons, decide to ‘go global’.
—also, side note, ten years ago, i was spending time hanging out with kids who thought that ‘dance music’/house/electronica was the ‘perfect music’ (yes, these were grown folks saying this…it sounded ridick then, and it sounds even more so now..) and i kept saying, but it needs words. it needs a vocal rhythmic sound on top like in hip hop…
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