The rapper Azealia Banks has been suspended from Twitter for ‘homophobic’ and ‘racist’ tweets directed against the Muslim former One Direction singer Zayn Malik. The rant, which also trained fire on 14-year-old Disney singer Skai Jackson and caused her to be dropped from Rinse FM’s ” Born & Bred Festival in East London, included taunts calling Mr. Malik a “curry scented b***h” and “Imma start calling you punjab you dirty b**ch” and referred to Miss Jackson as a “little black b*tch.”
I think it’s worth reading the full compliment of Ms. Banks’s tweets to and about Mr. Malik before judging her. It seems to me that the racist language she’s using isn’t a declaration but an observation. Read those tweets. She’s trying to point out, albeit in an extraordinarily clumsy manner, that she and Zayn are both the targets of white supremacist attitudes.
She’s not saying how she views Mr. Malik, but rather how she thinks racist culture views Mr. Malik. In essence, she’s arguing for solidarity among people of color against white supremacy, rather than turning on Mr. Zayn because he’s Pakistani and Muslim. It’s compassionate in its own fucked-up way.
Of course, this is Twitter and she’s Azealia Banks, so the expression of such subtle distinctions is not exactly nuanced.
People were so excited when she appeared, and she’s insanely talented, but her inability to hold herself accountable for anything that comes out of her mouth has lost her legions of fans among the thinking people who should be loving her, and left her stuck with the (unfortunately massive) group of people who think, like a reality TV star, that “keeping it real” (“I am Azealia Banks and I am who I am”) and “owning it” excuses any kind of behavior. More to the point, it’s hurt a lot of people, and it’s prevented her from evolving as a political artist. She could’ve been a new Chuck D, and instead she’s turning into a kind of Bizarro Toby Keith.
I’m not bothered by Ms. Banks’ decision not to break from her tell it like it is character. Think about Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” her story from the point of view of Byron De La Beckwith, Medgar Evers’s murderer. Or Lolita for that matter: sometimes the subject of the story is the oppressor’s mindset, not the victim’s, or the context. As far as calling Zayn “lost and cultureless,” I mean, c’mon. He’s a boy-bander. As far as I can tell, he’s sacrificed pretty much every shred of personal or cultural distinction for the homogeneity of the pop market. I can’t fault her for that one.
As for Miss Jackson, the classy response would’ve been for Skai to ignore Azealia. Trolling Ms. Banks shows that she’s willing to employ the same kind of inflammatory language for the sake of publicity—she just wants someone else to say it first, so she can retweet it and claim the high road.
Freedom and honesty are always better, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fraught, and that people don’t have to think before they speak or write.
Azealia Banks is a hot mess and I don’t think she should be let off the hook for what she says or for how she says it. Her talent as a lyricist only points up her accountability. Celebrity was the worst thing that could’ve happened to her as both an artist and a person. But when a person of color is speaking against racism, however confusedly, I’m inclined to read her as generously as possible. We’re conditioned to talk about discrimination politely, be patient, keep our eyes on the prize, etc., and after well over half a century of this with only marginal or selective improvement, it’s easy to feel like you’re being played. So a little rage is understandable. I just wish she had another register.
In the end, I’d still rather have Azealia Banks call Zayn (or Perez, or me) a faggot than let a corporation like Twitter decide what speech is appropriate for public consumption.