A writer from Gawker just wrote a post calling rapper Iggy Azalea "rap's best drag queen." For those who don't know Iggy Azalea, she's an Australian hip hop musician whose style of rap sounds very, um, American. Even though she grew up thousands of miles away from the United States in a small town, she raps in a manner similar to rappers from the South in the US. Notice in the video, "Fancy," how she pronounces the word "realest" and uses the phrase "who dat?"throughout the song.
The author of the Gawker piece calls Iggy Azalea a "drag queen," but he uses it in a way I'm not convinced actually works. Azalea's music video isn't necessarily a performance of gender and sexuality in the way that the term "drag queen" usually implies (which he tries to demonstrate by emphasizing the use of the word "realness" in her song, "Fancy"). Instead, I think maybe the term Rich Juzwiak (author of the Gawker post) wished to express was "ethnic drag."
Being a Germanist, my exposure to the term "ethnic drag" comes from Katrin Sieg's fascinating book, Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, and Sexuality in West Germany (UMich Press, 2009).
I think plenty of critics think of Iggy Azalea's music videos and performances as a kind of "ethnic drag," in which she transforms from pretty, blonde, Australian white girl to southern African American rapper (like T.I.). But my friend Jessie's defense of Iggy in conversation brings up some other ways to think about this: "As I understand it she has been immersed in the American hip-hop/music scene since she came to the States when she was 16. So, I guess how long must one be immersed in a culture for one to become authentic?"
Jessie asked a really great question. How long must one be immersed in a culture for one to become authentic? At what point are we willing or able to recognize that this particular form of music-making is a person's vernacular, their primary language, their native tongue?
My musical vernacular has always been and will forever remain that very loaded term "classical music." I sang a Brahms piece in a choir concert yesterday ("Ach, arme Welt, du trügest mich) like a boss. Confidently. Proudly. Happily. My brain loved it:
What partly led me to my line of research (black musicians in Germany and Austria) was my annoyance at people's surprise when I told them that:
1. I listened to classical music. Not jazz. Not hip hop.
2. I wasn't a singer (why do people always assume black women are singers?) and instead was a classically-trained pianist who loved playing Haydn sonatas.
The musicians that I study - singers like Marian Anderson and pianists like Hazel Harrison - faced similar responses to their performances all the time: in short, astonishment. In the same way that Iggy Azalea has learned to pronounce "chase that" in an American style, Anderson sang Brahms in flawless German. What's the difference, really, between these two kinds of performances? Are we willing to label both as "ethnic drag?" Can we talk more comfortably about accepting an individual's musical vernacular, even if that might go against the norm? I think a rebuttal for many people here, though, is that it still matters who is "performing" whom. That one is a form of racial uplift (Anderson singing Schubert) while the other is a form of "drag" or descent (a white Australian girl performing hip hop).
As much as we might want squabblings about music and "drag" to go away, I don't think they will. Because these debates about authenticity and musical vernacular demonstrate that we still use music as a cultural barometer to gauge the authenticity of racial, ethnic, and national identities. The Vienna Philharmonic, for example, has been reluctant to hire Asian musicians, claiming that because they haven't been steeped in Viennese culture they therefore lack that special je ne sais quois to perform the works of Bruckner and Mozart. Insulting? Yes. Are they alone in doing this sort of weeding out? No.
In other words, what some might see as highly-theoretical debates/critiques/questions of musical identity still have real-world consequences. The comedian Retta's standup routine, in which she demonstrates how she's treated when people think she's listening to hip hop (when in actuality, she's listening to classical music) is a funny but spot-on example of this: