On Azealia Banks, Americana and Representation
I’m back at it again with the Azealia love, it seems! But how could I not be? When the fun, energetic video for “Liquorice” dropped last Friday, I couldn’t help but pour myself into the countryside “kunty” feel of the video (someone please get into homegirl’s fabulous ombre weave.) Although there’s been a kind of decline in my enthusiasm for whatever Azealia’s serving up next, the interest there has never changed; it is still, above all things, exciting to chart the progress of a new artist of her calibur in the game. With the upcoming release of her mixtape Aquababe and a sharp turn into mermaid-esque aesthetics, Azealia’s already proving that she’s willing to step all the way outside of the box when it comes to representing herself in the rap world and in…well, the world.
Hence the nagging feeling in my head while watching Azealia ride a horse, cradle a hot dog with the tips of her American flag-studded fingers and tote a gun, cowboy style. Something wasn’t right, and it had less to do with Azealia’s aesthetics and more with the way I felt about her aesthetics. Although I had to admit that it was cool to see Azealia flaunt her stuff in the wild, wild west, I also realized that it was strange. There was something unfamiliar to me about merging rap, a black woman and Americana in one video—which really, really perplexed me.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that the Liquorice video is a new one on me, that I have virtually never seen a black female (rap) artist frolic around in an Americana style video. Hell, I haven’t even seen rap in general acknowledge Americana themes or styles, nor have I ever seen rap artists ever featured in a setting that was not completely urbanized.
I don’t mean to create a generalization of rap videos, because that would be in error and also a little offensive. But think back for a second on a recent rap video you’ve seen: how many times was the theme, plotline or aesthetics not related to “urban” (read: black) areas or ideals? I’m talking cities, cars, jewelery, clothes—things that “rap” videos are expected to have? Azealia eschewing certain ideas about rap videos to strut her stuff around the West has me thinking a lot about how rap videos—and by extension, the black community—fit into ideas about Americana and Americanism. Why is the idea of a black woman (who deals primarily in rap music) aligning herself with the American flag so strange, but oh so cool? Why is it exciting to merge the ideas of rap and Americana?
“Americana” has a lot of uses, but in this essay I’m primarily referring to the representation of “traditional” American culture. More often than not, those who use Americana aesthetically tend to use the America flag, cowboy culture, “American” food (hotdogs, apple pie) etc. in some pretty interesting ways. Liquorice is no different as Azealia gets plenty mileage in taking American stereotypes and fucking around with them.
The more blatant of the modernizations is Azealia’s version of the cowboy: considering that Azealia is the direct antithesis of the idealized cowboy (white and male), the revision becomes all the more interesting as she plays around with the “tough” demeanor by incorporating traditional ideas of sexiness. Azealia’s cowgirl is not “rough and tumble” but extremely (and traditionally) feminized and ready to show some skin. Certain components to the cowboy aesthetic are preserved, such as horse riding, guns and a shoot off, but Azealia has obviously taken control of her version, even as she continuously borrows from traditional themes. Right down to the background sets (open deserts, a rundown shack, log cabin and a field), Azealia stays in the habit of building upon or completely redesigning the aesthetics of Americana.
Some of it is a lot more obvious, such as draping herself in the American flag and showing off some wicked Americana-themed nail design. Some of it is even more obvious, such as Azealia alluding to blowjobs with a Popsicle or a hot dog (clever!) and interrupting your fantasy and comfort in good ol’ American themes by squishing the hot dog before it reaches her lips. The entire mood of the video is playful and not really concerned with following all the rules. The traditional American objects (the hot dog, the flag) are all represented on her terms (in a sexual, carefree manner.) Nothing about the Americana here is reverential or even remotely serious.
The entire playful theme only adds to the contrast of rap and Americana in one video, as American reverence/exceptionalism isn’t ever really prevalent in rap. It’s rare that you even find rap artists in a setting so close to nature, much less the desert. Mainstream rap videos, keeping in line with the ideas of wealth/popularity, tend to stick to stereotypical areas like cities or private homes—never really far from the lap of luxury. Without Americana thrown into the mix, Azealia already switches things up by transporting herself to the woods, the desert, a winding trail, and other settings were carcasses and open flames can be found.
Things are little more interesting when you realize that black, female rap artists tend to be pigeonholed further with videos that more often than not relate to their sexuality, which kind of reinforces the urbanized settings even more so, as if the same locations or themes over and over are the only place where such sexuality can shine. When I think of other mainstream female rappers such as Eve or Lil Kim, I rarely see them in luxurious cars, in clubs, lounging in beds, on the “streets.” I don’t see them in wide, open spaces, in nature or in places where—for example—you might find a country video. Because Americana more often than not is linked to country, the distinction is extremely important: rap is almost always linked to urbanized spaces, while country/other genres believed to have “American” roots are allowed to actually exist in America—its deserts, its fields, its long, winding roads. Like every situation on the face of the planet, there are exceptions, but the trend occurs more often than not.
I realize that the trend itself stems from certain ideas about representation in rap and thus in rap videos—the importance of appearing close to the black communities and the streets. Because most, if not all, large/popular black communities are located near or in well-known cities (think Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, etc), ideas about urbanized settings are considered natural, as if it is almost required that your video be shot in such an area. It would have been just as easy for Azealia to shoot this video in her Harlem neighborhood, like she did for “212”—and while it would’ve have been interesting just the same, the aesthetics and entire mood of the video would be completely different, and interesting a way that probably wouldn’t match up to this video.
That Azealia decided to delve into Americana to match the “American” settings is probably another layer of icing on the cake, but the contrast of rap (an “urban” genre) and “traditional,” “rolling-waves-of-grain” America will always keep me coming back for more.
I’m admittedly excited to see what else Azealia can do to confuse the masses; the mermaid aesthetic she’s putting out now is just as complex and interesting as this video (when was the last time you saw a black mermaid?) Contrary to popular belief, the rap game is more diverse—and more creative!—than the industry at large gives it credit for, and where Azealia goes, plenty are sure to follow. I can only hope that others branch out in the way that she has, and that black female rappers especially take on the fun of aesthetics. (If I can just get a black witch or a fairy, I’ll be fucking golden.)
i hope azealia reads this.