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Let Azealia Rock

Azealia Banks

Photo by Nikko LaMere

Recently, Azealia Banks got into a stand-off with Mitchell Sunderland, an associate editor at Vice. I watched from the sidelines, with baited breath, as this fight started off mockingly on both sides before getting out of control with some large accusations thrown at the singer.

It started with some off-hand comments Banks made about an anonymous twink on her Twitter feed. Sunderland accused Banks of "appropriating gay language" — which is confusing at best since I don’t remember “twink” being a gay slur or a "defined ethnic group" — and in a mocking tweet, asked the singer/rapper: "Do you even know what a twink is?” Banks responded in kind, denouncing the fact that Sunderland was basically man-splaining and talking down to her.

In my head, I dismissed this for what it was: a whimsical fight between two sarcastic queer youth over Twitter. No big deal. That is until the next day when Vice and The Advocate ran opinion pieces echoing Banks’s “I may be a homophobe but I still own everything" sentiments.

Quoting a statement that was said in jest to a taunting journalist, Azealia's head was immediately put on the chopping block — not the journalist who engaged her to begin with. This read as one thing to me: woefully unjust. 

As a gay black man, I am extremely troubled that her fights are usually set against gay white male journalists who are seemingly always trying to "put her in her place" and that Sundarland’s article started off with: "A wise woman named Lindsay Lohan once said, 'I've pissed off a lot of people in my time. Never gays. I'm smart like that.' "

The logic goes, if you're a ridiculous has-been, the gays will love you and keep your career and finances afloat. (How else do you think it's possible for Britney Spears to make millions lip-synching to Sia at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas?) Today, even straight men know this theory is true: Last fall Nick Jonas used a gay-baiting strategy to launch a very successful comeback. But troubled rapper Azealia Banks apparently hasn't received the memo.

Umm, come again?  Banks’ career was built off her own talent — why would an artist of her caliber have to kiss the ass of an editor at Vice (a publication built on a "give no fucks" policy) in order to stay relevant?

Some time ago, Banks came under fire for calling Perez Hilton a "messy faggot." As a result, she lost her MAC cosmetics campaign and a became the target of a slew of internet cat-calling, often by white gay men openly referring to her as a "black bitch/cunt." Hiding in the subtext of the argument was the fact that Perez had stepped in the middle of a fight between Banks and fellow rapper Angel Haze. Perez defended Haze – who had lovingly referred to Banks as a "charcoaled skinned bitch" — but there wasn't any slap on the wrist provided for Hilton's actions. Hmmmmm...

Too often in these spats with gay white male media journalists, I am baffled by the term "gay appropriation" used to describe Azealia's aesthetic. Here is a girl who grew up in art school in Harlem, in direct vicinity of the drag and ball culture so heavily quoted and co-opted by the mainstream. Think about how many fags from the middle of nowhere (my native Alabaman self included) sit around and quote Paris Is Burning to the gods. Well, Azealia grew up down the street from that fun business. Why is her "pass" constantly in question?

Perhaps it’s that she's bi (although when interviewed for a Playboy cover story, she did seem to duck that question quite aptly), therefore not “gay enough" to call someone a "twink"? I’ve sat in San Francisco most of my adult gay life and have watched fags of all classes, genders and races pantomime black womanhood until the point where the greeting "Hay gurl!" has zero context and meaning to me anymore. Azealia indeed refers (a bit brashly I might add) to herself and her opponents as faggots. I don't really have a problem with a woman who exclusively hangs out with gay men referring to herself as a "faggot.” In fact, I prefer that to the term "fag hag" which I think is light years more demeaning.

Maybe my years spent here in the Bay Area — the ninth circle of Hell when it comes processing identity politics — that render me unable to separate Azealia’s gender, class, race, and occupation as a rapper. Identity doesn't exist in a vacuum. These things are interconnected. At the heart of Azealia’s media woes is the problem of white middle-American gay moderateness trying to align/understand an artist based in black queer urban sub-culture.

Street vernacular is rough and seemingly direct, but what is troubling is that the same people who object to the term “faggot” didn't seem to have a problem twirling in the club to “212” — a song where she liberally uses “cunt” and “nigga,” both words she has used to refer to herself. Banks is constantly being asked to pull out her "gay card" and have it stamped for validity, but who the fuck are these "gay crusaders?"

Too often, I see totalizing headlines like, "Azealia Banks: Bigot and Racist" that set to put Ms. Banks conveniently in the same category as, say, David Duke. We all know that isn't true. Let’s be very clear here: this young woman engaged with two white male journalists using  street slang and had the book thrown at her. The men who engaged her in a similarly mocking and dismissive fashion lost nothing and even had their careers boosted as "crusaders of gay rights." If the media is any indication, racism against black people holds a steeper price — though the price isn’t always paid in full —  but  one cant help but wonder to what extent this plays out in Azealia's media troubles. 

I can’t say that I necessarily back Azealia Banks in everything she has said and done.There are certain points in her politics/rhetoric that need work, but set against the problematic nature of the yellow journalism that called her into question in the first place, I don’t see people like Hilton or Sunderland in any position to be so unforgiving.

I am also tired of seeing these misleading, click-baity articles in gay media about Banks with no one black voice weighing in on it as this girl has to defend herself against what I know for a fact are attempts to distort her character and intentions. 

When I see Azealia Banks what I see is a chance for a deeper conversation about gender, class, identity politics, black identity, and artistry. Sadly, the conversation is stopped just short of that. Why?

Brontez Purnell is a San Francisco-based artist, musician, choreographer, and writer. His Cruising Diaries was published last year.

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