Azealia Banks was on our campus. She stood no more than 20 feet away from me, powerfully performing “Ice Princess” from her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, and I prayed with every atom of my being that she would play “Liquorice” before the end of her set.
That’s fine, too. While wheezing through my asthma and sweating out all of the water that was left in my body, I screamed every word (that I remembered) of “Ice Princess” right back to Yung Rapunxel herself, jumping higher than I ever had before, and hoping that Mz. Bank$ would notice a short black girl exerting all of the energy she could muster to show her appreciation for her music, her presence, and her words.
Although I think it would’ve felt more rewarding had Azealia’s final song been “Liquorice,” I know that any song would’ve sufficed. It was still her.
And to see Azealia in the flesh was the actualization of thoughts and feelings that had been bubbling under my skin for quite some time. Somehow, this rapper from Harlem, who is only five years my senior, captured what it felt like to grow up in a white community—to be told that you are Other, that you can’t have crushes on your white friends, that doing what feels natural to you is unnatural and odd. She not only captured these feelings but also gave me the strength to confront them head on.
My first introduction to white culture was when I was seven and my best friend introduced me to country music for the first time. I’d never heard anything like it before—I was so used to the Whitney Houston, Trina, and Mariah Carey that my parents had conditioned me to love that I thought all music was supposed to sound like that. However, a seven-year-old white girl proved me wrong. There was a whole other kind of music that was completely foreign to me, but popular with everybody else. From there, I started to explore different genres of music. Because I grew up in a middle-class, predominantly white, and fairly suburban part of northern Alabama, I mostly listened to the same music as my peers: pop, country, classic rock, or some God-forsaken mix of all three. I bought directly into their respectability politics—I liked what they liked so they would like me—and this was easiest through music. However, some of my white peers weren’t impressed by my façade, while my black peers either thought that I was weird or that I believed that I was too good for them and their culture. My family constantly taunted me and asked why I listened to “white music.” I lived in flux. I didn’t know who or what to listen to or why it mattered so much, and it took years for me to stop analyzing what I liked and why I liked it. Why exactly was it so odd for me to listen to Slipknot? And why did that mean I couldn’t like Lil’ Flip or Ja Rule? And when I noticed my white friends becoming fans of Rihanna and T-Pain, I knew the issue wasn’t limited to me at all. Why was it that my white friends could listen to music closely tied to black culture, but I was shamed when I listened to “white music”? There seemed to be some sort of societal convention, some rule I had been breaking all along. Both sides—black and white—were trying to box me into one form of music, one culture. What they didn’t understand was that I was a complex human being with a range of emotions and interests. My classmates weren’t prepared for that.
One day, I put my headphones on and listened to NWA because they seemed like something my dad would like. I cried.
They captured my anger. They captured my hopelessness. They captured my hope. They captured exactly what it felt like to live like me. To live my experience. It was then that I understood what black culture was and why it was important. It was then that rap music became a part of me.
To my father, rap is dying. The majority of what he hears on the radio is now seeped in drug references, sexualized content, and assertions of avarice and narcissism that he finds too distracting to sift through. The activist and rebellious energy of NWA and their contemporaries seemed to be lost to glamour and greed. To his eyes, rap was no longer filling its original purpose. For a long while, I couldn’t help but agree.
Fast forward to 2012. I see the video for “212” and I am flabbergasted. A little black girl with a long weave and a Mickey Mouse sweater dancing in front of a brick wall and yelling profanities, confident and unforgiving. I wanted to be her. I needed more. After a few more Google searches, I decided that Azealia and I were the same. Of course, physically we’re not. I’m not a skinny 5-foot-7 girl from Harlem with an excellent voice who spits straight fire and speaks with a light Dominican accent. But I felt that she gave me a voice of my own. “Liquorice” is the ultimate manifestation of this. The paradoxically confident insecurity throughout (“I could be the right girl./ Tell me if you like your lady in my, my color./ Can I be your type, yeah?”) reflects what I feel day after day, throughout a lifetime of living in predominantly white spaces. She hit the nail on the head of being young and weird and black. So, to see her in front of me being that and celebrating that among all my drunk, exhausted classmates—it was everything to me. She is not all of rap. She is just a drop in the ocean. But she is proof that rap is still serving a purpose. It is still connecting with people. It is still mobilizing people who look all sorts of ways and live all sorts of lives. It is still alive.
Kanisha Williams is a first-year in the College majoring in cinema and media studies.