Monday, April 28, 2014

Ethnic drag, mimicry, and rethinking one's musical vernacular: the case of Iggy Azalea

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).
In it, she describes how West Germans began staging elaborate "Wild West" festivals after 1945 in which citizens dressed up as cowboys and Native Americans. Why, she asks, were they doing this? Her book shows how West Germans were involved in their own culture industry of racial formations, and how they used different emulations/performances of ethnicity to try to transform their own identities after the end of the Nazi racial state. It's a complex, fascinating, and very detailed account of "ethnic drag," and why different people try to perform other ethnicities.

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:
Do people acknowledge that this is my musical vernacular, I wonder? Or do many still assume that my interest in classical music is a "learned" or "cultivated" behavior?

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:

Anyway. I'm going to continue performing Mendelssohn on the piano and singing Rheinberger lieder in my choir. But I'm also now going to consider adding Iggy Azalea to my spotify list.


  1. I wonder if some of the discomfort among her critics might be coming from the different power relations involved, which include race and gender dynamics. I have in mind the shadow cast by (at least here in the U.S.) the history of minstrelsy. I am sure we've all moved on, but I do wonder why Iggy can't craft her art without having to swap her Australian accent (which she still maintains in her speaking voice, even though she's been here since she was 16) for a Southern "black" accent. Your questions definitely push us to think critically about our expectations of hip-hop musicians, but these questions of power and historicity also come to mind in the cognitive dissonance many of us might experience when first confronted with Iggy.

  2. I completely agree, Toja. That's why I think it still matters who is "performing" whom, so to speak. Perhaps a blog post will be spent explaining that point more....

  3. One aspect of this debate that really interests me is that it clearly confuses musical persona with individual persona: while we can certainly identify degrees of performed identity, every performer is performing as something other than or added to their ordinary selves. This can be more or less overt -- we more readily accept a 40-something operatic diva playing a dying ingenue than we do an white Australian rapper performing as if she were a Southern American rapper of color, apparently -- but performance, in general, suggests that the persona who we perceive in and through the performance is something beyond the persona of the human doing the performing. The shortest way to say this would be: all performance is drag.

  4. Tyler: holy crap! You're so right. Everything you said was so spot-on. Thank you for pointing out the fact that there are different kinds of personas, that we're conflating these personas together, and that there are degrees of acceptance/rejection. All performance really is drag!

  5. With the Vienna Phil, though, there are far more disturbing consequences to this policy. Let's not forget that this group was disproportionately Nazi during WW2 and that there was no 'de-Nazification' in Austria. So if they are excluding people due to race (which they are), then we need to acknowledge that this is, unfortunately, an attitude that is a legacy from blatant racial discrimination. This situation needs to be talked about openly, but I see it as somewhat different than the Azalea case.

    Classical music was long hailed as 'universal,' which is why I think it can be performed by anyone (usually) without the same kinds of loaded terms entering into the vocabulary (unless you are in Vienna...). So we can all be part of it, since it was created for us all. This is a myth too, of course, but I suspect that it allows for more freedom in who can 'authentically' perform it over other styles/genres.

    For whatever reason, hip hop is praised for its 'authenticity,' even when that authenticity is a performance. After all, the success of several hip hop stars as actors, such as Ice-T, Ice Cube, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg, should remind us that what they were doing the whole time was a form of performance. However, there is a (disturbing) tendency to understand their music as wholly authentic to their experience--there is a reason that the expression 'keeping it real' is found so often tied to this style. Why this notion of authenticity is particularly persistent with hip hop, I don't know. But I suspect that this is a big part of why Iggy Azalea is being criticized: she is perceived as not 'keeping it real' to her personal experience.

  6. Kira, when you say your vernacular is "classical music," I wonder, what exactly does that mean? Was that the music played in your childhood home? Were you encouraged to pursue piano as a young child? I just wonder if in today's blended society, anyone really has a musical vernacular? Isn't our culture so thoroughly blended that we are exposed to (in bits and pieces in some cases) everything, and thus, we have no truly native musical language? For example, I began singing and playing piano (24 Italian Arias and Schumann character pieces for years) when I was quite young. Meanwhile, my dad listened to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and my mom to Willie Nelson and Jim Reeves. I feel just as much at home listening to (and teaching and performing) art music, rock, or country. What does that say about my musical vernacular? Am I a musical mongrel or simply multicultural (which is weird for a white girl from Wisconsin)? Granted, if I started rapping and assuming aspects of a hip hop lifestyle, that would certainly be the performance of a lifestyle/culture/race (where ever you want to draw that line), but I just wonder if denying Iggy Azalea her (whether perceived or real) attachment to hip hop culture isn't robbing her of something with which she feels a genuine connection - even if it was obtained by media rather than real-life experience. Just thinking...