August 2013

Arts & Letters

Iggy Azalea and hip-hop’s bikini wasteland

By Marieke Hardy
Can the Australian-born rapper shake off the stereotypes?

Australian hip-hop is a divided scene. There are the stalwarts, such as Hilltop Hoods or Bliss n Eso, who have made a career of thrilling middle-of-the-road festival-goers and Triple J listeners with emotionally charged anthems, and arrayed against them are posturing suburban gangsters, such as Seth Sentry and the execrable 360, who rhyme sulkily about stuck-up girls failing to pay them attention. Absent from either camp are high-profile female performers. Largely confined to providing backing vocals or the occasional catchy chorus (for instance, Jane Tyrrell on the Herd’s wonderful Howard government eulogy ‘The King Is Dead’), women in Australian hip-hop are usually attractive addenda to preening all-male posses.

There are a few exceptions. UK-born West African–Australian MC Opi blazed a trail in the early 1990s as a producer and guest artist for hire, though these days she’s almost completely disappeared from public view. Since then, other female MCs you’ve also probably never heard of (Class A? Maya Jupiter? Naomi Wenitong? Macromantics?) have been making music, but it’s not played on commercial radio stations.

Why is this? Strong women’s voices in the Australian media are now commonplace; social media is rife with eloquent females leading debate and dissection on any issue you care to name. That this has yet to be seen in local hip-hop partially reflects how awkward Australians still find the genre at large. It’s one thing to listen to Jay-Z and his rhymes about life on the streets of Brooklyn, quite another to accept rhyming couplets about meat pies and Shane Warne. Perhaps it’s the accent that alienates the listenership. As when watching broad Strine vox pops on the news, some will experience a patriaphobia, a feeling of wanting to flee. In Australian hip-hop (“skip-hop”), there’s the question of whether to maintain the local accent or acquiesce to rap audiences who prefer their rhymes delivered in an American twang. 

The roles women are expected to adopt in the local hip-hop community remain restricted. Most female MCs find a pair of low-slung jeans, adopt a series of combative hand-gestures and blend in. There’s not yet been agitation for the broad spectrum of women seen in US hip-hop, who have carved out careers as everything from street-smart hustlers like Roxanne Shanté to formidable Grace Jones types like Adeva to whatever it is Lil’ Kim purports to be these days.

Australian-raised Iggy Azalea – born Amethyst Kelly – clearly understood she had to flee the nation’s cardboard-flavoured, male-dominated scene in order to find her place. Just before turning 16, she bid adieu to her hometown of Mullumbimby on the NSW north coast and flew to Miami. Within seven years, her debut single, ‘PU$$Y’, had become a cult hit, her studio record was scheduled to be released through the prestigious Island Def Jam label, and the woman herself had starred in a series of YouTube videos that have amassed more than ten million views. Since her departure from our shores, 23-year-old Azalea has worked hard to shed her cultural skin. Although she still conducts interviews in an Australian accent, her songs are delivered in a dirty Southern drawl.

Azalea’s bad-ass credibility requires more padding than most, hailing as she does from an artist father and cleaner mother – it’s difficult to take rhymes about bitches and Glocks seriously when delivered by a middle-class girl who grew up in a mudbrick cottage. The first single from the forthcoming album The New Classic, ‘Work’, is her most emotionally honest and it’s here Azalea is at her best (no gratuitous references to Abe Lincoln giving her head, as appear in ‘PU$$Y’), telling the story of her journey from regional Australia to the Land of the Free:

Two feet in the red dirt, school skirt
Sugar cane, back lanes
Three jobs, took years to save
But I got a ticket on that plane
People got a lot to say
But don’t know shit about where I was made
Or how many floors that I had to scrub
Just to make it past where I am from.

Women in US hip-hop have enjoyed playing with the public’s perception of their sexuality. The brilliant Missy Elliot – who is larger in stature than most of her model-thin peers – consistently teases her audience about her weight loss and their expectations of beauty (“See my ass and my lips, don’t ya / Lost a few pounds in my waist for ya,” she purrs in ‘Work It’). Salt–N-Pepa, the 1980s goddesses, wore hotpants in their music videos but rapped about demanding sexual satisfaction and lambasted “slut-shaming” decades before the phrase was coined (‘None of Your Business’). Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah have presented a similarly fierce front. In terms of music styles, these women differ but they offer something that hip-hop worldwide sorely needs – the representation of a woman who is unbreakable, who is confident and who does things on her own terms.

Yet Azalea is so far immersed in the “big booty bitch gets what she wants” camp of US rappers that it is difficult to distinguish exactly where her level of feminist empowerment begins. (“Despite possessing some good lyrical talent, Iggy is also famous for her very curvy derriere,” starts a typical profile.) She panders to commercial expectations that women in the industry should appear sexually available – a leggy platinum blonde, she spends the majority of her time in music videos bending over in tight pants or sucking suggestively on candy – while lyrically asserting that she is not to be trifled with. (“Kill bitches dead, click clack bang bang, it’s a murda bizness,” she rhymes on a 2012 track, lyrics that might lack potency if delivered in the Byron Shire.) 

In a 1999 open letter to Time Out New York, hip-hop pioneers the Beastie Boys – guilty of early career missteps, such as employing bikini-clad cage dancers on their Licensed to Ill tour, during which the girls cavorted with inflatable penises and giggled when the band sprayed beer all over them to simulate ejaculation – apologised for their misogynist lyrics and demanded a general changing of attitudes within the scene. Others followed suit, and despite the countless songs about bitches, sluts and dick-sucking hos, there’s a small but steadily growing acceptance of and respect for female hip-hop performers among the mainstream. 

It’s a pity, then, that in order to enter this world Azalea has consigned herself to playing a character who ostensibly wants to have sex 24 hours a day. This provocative cartoon pornography she’s peddling is perhaps indicative of her steely determination to make it big. Amethyst Kelly could not have pulled off her Iggy Azalea persona – baby gets what baby wants – if she’d stayed in Australia. In part this is because as a nation we don’t much care for show ponies (see Empire of the Sun’s eyeliner-sporting, peacock feather–clad Luke Steele), but also because there is not sufficient support in this country for female MCs. Without further encouragement – and the space to develop their inner selves – women in hip-hop will keep being forced to act out as Barbie-zillas. They too will run away from home, adopting new accents and gun-toting boyfriends. Azalea has an opportunity to shake off the sexpot stereotype that’s brought her attention to do something interesting with her undeniable talent. Let’s hope she twists the genre, turns it on its head and causes a riot. Otherwise we will have lost yet another potentially interesting female voice to a generic wasteland of fluorescent party lights and diamond-studded bikinis. 

© David Fitzgerald

August 2013

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