Let’s take a step away from fashion for a moment to discuss some issues in the larger sphere of pop culture. With the Grammys still in our recent memory and the Oscars quickly approaching, there’s a lot to talk about.
Looking back even before the Grammys, many can recall rapper Azealia Banks’ explosive interview on New York’s Hot97 radio station a few months ago, where she unabashedly called out the racism in the music industry. And while Azealia’s temperamental social media presence has made her somewhat of a polarizing figure in pop culture, she definitely brought up some good points to consider when watching the awards show earlier this month. In the context of her feud with Grammy-nominated, similarly named Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, Banks discussed the prevalence of cultural appropriation and the vast acceptance of it. While hip hop is a genre created out of black communities by black struggles, the Harlem-raised artist calls practices like Iggy’s a “cultural smudging,” additionally questioning the validity of Macklemore – another white rapper – receiving the best rap album award last year. “When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids is, ‘Oh yeah, you’re great, you’re amazing, you can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to black kids, ‘You don’t have shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself,'” Banks said.
Black musicians have constantly had their work taken and redone by white artists for white audiences throughout history, so that’s nothing new. The disturbing part is how much the world has come to accept this, even more so how the latest Grammys have reinforced this. Aside from that, the backwards patriarchy appears to be going strong, as nominees and recipients this year were predominantly white males. What happened to FKA twigs, whose album, LP1 was probably the most enticing, experimental, and unique display of artistry from any musician in recent years? And what about Banks? Critics raved over her inventive Broke with Expensive Taste, though there was no mention of her work from the larger recording academy. Yes, the timeframe to be considered for a Grammy nomination comes into play, while radio airtime is another determining factor; neither FKA twigs nor Azealia Banks have truly broken through to the American mainstream. But let’s take a look at the whole Beyoncé situation, probably the most telling moment of the award show overall (and no, we’re not talking about how Kanye reacted to it). Yes, Beck released a pretty impressive album, and yes, Beyoncé is kind of verging on overexposure these days. But in the context of the Grammys, when did “pretty impressive” start to trump immense talent, creative risk, and commercial domination? Perhaps just like FKA twigs, Azealia Banks, and countless other black female artists, Beyoncé’s experimentation, statement on sexuality, and presentation of the possibility of black female power posed too much of a threat to the white patriarchy.
Think the film world is any different? Nope. This year could’ve seen two women nominated for best director, and one of them would’ve been the first black woman to be considered. But neither Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” nor Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” made the cut. Speaking of “Selma,” the impressive film is the only best picture nominee to focus on the life of a person of color; all of the rest look at the lives of white males. And while white male domination in the film industry may be more explicit at this year’s Oscars, it’s nothing new. Sure, a few nonwhite actors have been honored for their performances in recent years, but women of color are routinely limited to lower-ranking, supporting roles, many of which perpetuate stereotypes or reinforce positions of servitude and subordination.
Racism and sexism are systematic and institutionalized forms of oppression, proliferating virtually every sector of the entertainment industry and forcing women of color to the bottom of the barrel. It’s a shame that it’s taken so long for these things to be so frequently discussed, but will these insights do much to change the nature of the systems? Just like in fashion, there should definitely be a better understanding and respect of diversity in all areas of the media.
And just like beauty, talent is not a concept only applicable to one group of humanity.