First things first, I’m not afraid to admit I like Iggy Azalea’s music. I jam to her aggressive lyrics about pageantry (see “Murda Bizness” music video), female empowerment (note the “Kill Bill”allusions in her “Black Widow” video), and her rise against poverty (see “Work”). But when it comes to questions of how her identity affects the entire rap industry as a genre, I am less certain. As a white rapper from Australia, she is frequently accused of appropriating a genre that originates in African-American culture. Contrastingly, because she is a woman, many argue that her success in a traditionally male-dominated sphere challenges hip-hop’s masculine ideal.
While I have not settled my opinion on Iggy, her success has provoked numerous discussions that have undoubtedly given me a race- and gender-tinted lens toward entertainment. I love awards shows, and these questions of race and gender in the entertainment industry were recently rekindled with the 2015 Oscar nominations and Grammy Awards.
The Oscars have raised complaints that the Academy is tone-deaf with regard to issues of race and gender: All five nominees for Best Actor are white. “Selma”, which received full-bodied applause at the Garden Theatre, has only received two nominations in total. No female writers or directors were included in the race. According to a 2012 study by the L. A. Times, of the roughly 6,000 Oscar voters, 94 percent are white, 77 percent are male, and only 14 percent are under the age of 50. Similar criticisms emerged with Sunday’s Grammy Awards, when Beyoncé’s groundbreaking album “Beyoncé”lost out to Beck, who is somewhat a relic of the 90s. In a response that mirrored widespread reactions to the Oscars, critics argued that Grammy voters are just too old, too white and too male to appreciate the cultural context of contemporary music.
This being the case, large award-granting institutions should practice affirmative action and consider race, gender, and sexual orientation when choosing voting members, perhaps even setting numerical targets that reflect the demographic composition of the US population.
The mission of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is to advance filmmaking, while improving the image of the industry. Likewise, theNational Academy of Recording Arts and Sciencesstrives to recognize the “best in music,” while positively impacting the lives of musicians and “society at large.” However, the lack of equal representation in their voting bodies hinders their good intentions.
Obviously, the quality of art is subjective; it can’t be judged with a rubric. So instead, the Academy literally instructs its voters to “follow their hearts” (according to an exposé about the Oscar nomination process). Voters are liable to vote for movies that resonate with them the most, a factor that may be strongly shaped by their respective backgrounds of largely white and largely male heritage. As a result, movies that concern minority values, issues and experiences are often placed at a disadvantage. This is problematic because the winning movies are not necessarily the ones that the much more diverse public roots for. And when movies like 12 Years a Slave do win, their victories are often misattributed to “guilt,” rather than their actual artistic value or their ability to connect with people.
This is problematic when we consider that art is a reflection of the present, a fact particularly true with movies and music as stalwart pillars of popular culture. When these institutions “snub” minority art despite extremely positive reviews and projections to win by the public, they undermine the ideas of minority groups. The ability of voters to see what is the “best” art is inherently limited, and the lack of equality in these institutions only exacerbates this blind spot.
In addition, explicit recognition of minority films and music — of minority musicians, actors, directors and writers — creates role models who bring attention to important issues. In her acceptance speech, Lupita Nyong’o brought light to her struggle with feeling beautiful as a black woman. To have such a prominent figure openly discuss racial- and gender-specific problems is so powerful. It encourages people who might not have otherwise pursued goals in the entertainment industry to do so by teaching them that they can be commercially successful. New shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” —about the experiences of an Asian American family — need recognition to be sustained and to show minorities that we value their presence in pop culture. This makes affirmative action an effective way to create long-term change in the industry, increasing the visibility and power of ideas and messages important to under-represented groups.
A diverse voting body for the Grammys could finally answer the Iggy question. Is she given undue success because she is white, and does her prominence usurp minority rappers? (Something to ponder is that badass M.I.A. of Sri Lankan heritage does not elicit such protests.) Perhaps official recognition by non-white, non-male voters — able to connect with her music in spite of her racial “advantage” — will determine if Iggy is really the “realest” once and for all.
Jessica N. Li is a freshman from Chandler, Ariz. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.