It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Iggy Azalea would have a night to remember after a year full of accolades. On Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015, music’s biggest stars were sliding on their suits and slipping into their best dresses. The Aussie rapper, in an elegant blue gown, was vying for four Grammys, including the coveted Best Rap Album honors.
But by the end of the night, not only had Azalea been shut out of every category, Twitter seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief over it, happy to have a good chuckle about her meme-ready Grammy ‘do instead of a dreaded debate about how Iggy Azalea managed to beat out the likes of Eminem and Wiz Khalifa.
Strangely enough, Iggy was exhaling too.
“I did not want to win the award,” she told Los Angeles’ Power 106, specifically about Best Rap Album. “My speech would’ve been like, ‘F—k this, I don’t want it! Take it! Get away from me!’”
Though she said it with a laugh, the Def Jam MC's outlook says a lot about her place in hip-hop right now. As she rightly pointed out, “Eminem won [Best Rap Album], who’s white, and who’s won it many times, and they didn’t seem to say anything about that.” The truth is, the backlash against the "Fancy" rapper goes beyond the color of her skin and ideas about appropriation.
It's about the changing landscape of hip-hop, one where a white Australian with a questionable ATL twang and a stream of pop hits has struggled to find acceptance. So if it isn't Iggy, is a white female MC with the skills and credentials to be critically acclaimed out there, and if and when she surfaces, will critics be willing to give her her just due, and hip-hop be willing to embrace her? Put simply, where are all the dope white female rappers? MTV News reached out to a few industry experts and asked them to weigh in. But first we had to look back.
Before Iggy, There Was Debbie
While she’s surely the most recognized and successful within the mainstream, Iggy isn't the first white female rapper. That distinction goes to Debbie Harry.
The lead singer of the rock group Blondie, Harry rapped on the group’s 1981 hit “Rapture,” which eventually rocketed its way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning what’s widely recognized as the first chart-topping song with rap in it. (These days, you’re probably most familiar with the verse because of the viral "Cutest Little Gangster" from this Acura commercial.)
A decade later, a handful of white female rappers surfaced, setting a pattern that was, basically -- until Iggy -- followed to a T: Create a little buzz, only to quickly fade away.
At the turn of the 1990s, there was Tairrie B, the Eazy-E-mentored rhymer whose The Power of a Woman was the only album to ever come out on the late rapper’s label. She ended up falling out with Eazy and the rest of the crew, reportedly over the direction of the last track on her album, which was set to feature verses from the N.W.A rappers coming at her, before she would close the song with her own retort. (She says Dr. Dre punched her in the face at the 1990 Grammys.)
There was Icy Blu -- dubbed by some as the female Vanilla Ice -- who dropped a failed self-titled debut album, but did score a hit with the pop/rap track “I Wanna Be Your Girl.”
A third blonde-haired female in the fold during that era was dancer-turned-rapper Misa, who inked a deal with Motown and dropped the moderately successful single “Shake the House,” but before long would disappear musically.
In 1993, with the help of Prince, Carmen Electra’s rap career was launched and ended in one fell swoop, with a self-titled debut album featuring undistinguished tracks like “Everybody Get On Up.”
A decade after that, Sarai was briefly painted as Feminem (translation: “the female Eminem”), but her singles and album -- you guessed it -- flopped. A better comparison for Marshall would have been Invincible, another Michigan-bred MC, whose verbal tenacity and precision, subject-matter and style placed her in a class above, but whose convictions and unwillingness to compromise seemed to have led to her remaining in the underground.
In 2006, as president of Def Jam, Jay Z signed London-born Lady Sovereign, but she couldn’t score a hit; her debut album bricked and her career stalled.
Then, in 2011, right around the time that Iggy was first buzzing online, a slew of others emerged in that same freshmen class. Kreayshawn’s viral “Gucci Gucci” earned her a reported multi-million dollar deal; her friend and frequent collaborator, V-Nasty, released a joint album with Gucci Mane; Kitty Pride and K-Flay turned their peculiar sounds into online buzz; and Karmin catapulted speed-rap YouTube covers into a major label deal.
An Obvious Choice For Today
With so many false starts over the last 25 years -- and particularly within the last few -- Iggy, though her longevity remains to be seen, seems to be the only to have come through the initial storm.
“If you’re 17, hip-hop is not an oppositional choice for you; hip-hop is the obvious, centrist choice for you, in terms of taste,” explained Jon Caramanica of The New York Times. “So when someone like Iggy comes along, who doesn’t have ‘subcultural bona fides’ ... for people who are young, especially white kids, who were raised in an environment where white people were always rapping, where hip-hop is a common language of young people, to see Iggy, a white woman, even a white woman from outside the country, to see her as a rapper is not a stretch of the imagination.”
Indeed, for years, we’ve seen that hip-hop’s album-buying demographic is in the range of around at least 65 to 70% white kids, often from the suburbs. While counterpart Nicki Minaj continues to raise the bar set by lyrical female MCs like Queen Latifah, Lil' Kim, Eve and more, going head to head with rap titans like Kanye and Jay Z, maybe what matters most when it comes to Azalea is that fans can see themselves in her.
“You can almost argue that she had a built-in fanbase before she even existed,” Caramanica said. “Because these fans were in the world and ready for someone like Iggy.”
Azalea also came into the game boasting a number of factors increasingly necessary for an artist -- of any race or gender -- to position themselves for mainstream rap accolades: A superstar co-sign (T.I.); a major label (Def Jam); and the release of free projects to build a buzz before a breakthrough (Glory, Trap Gold).
Yet, despite those credentials, Iggy has rattled a certain generation of rap gatekeepers. Some are still uncomfortable that a white woman from Australia landed on our shores and nearly took home all the spoils (see: Grammys 2015), while others take issue with the quality of her output.
“Remember, this is still considered an ‘our thing’ culture; people don’t appreciate that you piggybacked off our culture and then skyrocketed up there, [and] that’s how they perceive it,” said Riggs Morales, the Vice President of A&R at Atlantic Records. “But what they don’t see is the work that she’s put in before that. When you put in that kind of work and you create opportunities for yourself, you’re gonna attract the right people and the right kind of opportunities.”
As an industry vet -- he worked at Shady Records for over a decade -- who finds, signs and develops talent, he says he’s intrigued by the prospect of signing a white female rapper. But he won’t do it just to do it.
“If I’ve got my eye on something, it has to be completely different from what she did, which is no easy task, but it is possible,” Morales added.
But according to the Times' Caramanica, bringing a more lyrical white female MC to the market is "a much bumpier road.”
“It is a much smoother road to just skip that whole line," Caramanica said of lyrical prospects. "Now, that doesn’t mean that the people who you skipped over don’t feel like you did them a disservice, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel like you used your white privilege to skip over the black experience, it doesn’t mean any of that. But it does mean from a marketing perspective, there are probably entire legions of Iggy Azalea fans, hundreds of thousands, who have no idea that mainstream hip-hop 'doesn’t f—k with her.'”
An Invincible MC On The Horizon?
Like Invincible, Kellee Maize has chosen that less-traveled road. A Pennsylvania native whose music has been downloaded over a million times, she first came up in Pittsburgh’s hip-hop scene as a promoter, and even threw Wiz Khalifa’s first album release party. In 2007, she released her debut album, and started getting calls from majors.
“[The labels] really just wanted to talk to me and understand what I was doing,” she told MTV News of her music, which has sociopolitical and spiritual themes, and her movement, which was both online and in the city.
“It kind of became clear that I was not in any way, shape or form willing to change the music, and the music was really unique," Kellee remembered. "And I think the system that the music industry is very much based on, they need to feed people what they already know how to feed people. So I’m not really a good candidate, I think, in a lot of ways -- or at least back then I wasn’t.”
But does a “good candidate” look the same now as it did eight years ago? Like Morales suggests, maybe Iggy’s omnipresence has created an appetite for an alternative.
“An Invincible of 2015 certainly could come along, who is inspired by Chance the Rapper or any of these guys, of course,” Caramanica said. “The question is, are people gonna give her the oxygen to breathe? I would hope that they would. But it’s tough to say.”
“I don’t doubt that there’s something brewing, that there is another female rapper that is white that they have molding,” said Erika Ramirez, senior editor at Billboard. “But then again, I think that nowadays we are very critical as to what labels feed us; we are all about what the Internet feeds us. And what other people feed us.
“If they do deliver another Iggy Azalea, I think a lot of people would be very skeptical about it," Ramirez continued. "I think that if something is brewing like that, I think they’re going to be a little careful and cautious as to how they deliver an artist like that.”
'It all comes down to authenticity.'
So what might help the aspiring rapper who's seen the search results on YouTube for “white girl rapping” and its related variations? (A collection of videos of novices giving “Rap God” and Busta Rhymes’ “Look At Me Now” verse a spin -- with almost exclusively flat results.)
Well, rhyming at dizzying speeds signals a rare technical fortitude, and it’s been a source of awe for decades. Particularly, it can be a badge for white rappers. Eminem’s “Rap God” is indeed a prime example of his rare verbal prowess, and rappers like Yelawolf and MGK earned early head nods with their speedy flows.
But speed doesn’t necessarily signal skill. And so the same way that many of the brightest talents of this generation -- from Drake and Nicki Minaj to J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar -- have built their lyrical houses less on speed than content, cleverness and tone, aspiring white female MCs could benefit from not viewing it as an essential condition, either.
“It all comes down to authenticity,” explained Billboard's Ramirez, considering the public disapproval of Iggy, but also implying what it may take for a rapper to be accepted. “A lot of rappers go back and tell their story of how they grew up. Again, it goes hand in hand with authenticity, also struggle. People respect struggle.”
While that’s certainly rung true among the greats, it may no longer be required. “We’re not at a place in hip-hop where that is part of the entry card,” Caramanica said of stories of struggle. “We’ve moved past that, and I’m not saying that’s for better or for worse. On a basic level, you can now be a traditional mainstream rapper without rapping about stuff like that.”
What will it take, then, for a white female MC to catapult herself into conversations with the genre’s best?
“I think if Eminem proved anything, it proved that someone with undeniable skill can find a home in that audience,” Caramanica added. “I think an audience that prides itself on 'hip-hop values' will always appreciate someone who is an intense, ferocious lyricist, who is a phenomenal storyteller, someone with a very strongly defined narrative, I think those traits do transcend race. And they transcend gender, to a degree -- although hip-hop has always been very harsh on its women.”