Azealia Banks

Azealia Banks, Yoruba traditions, and #BlackLivesMatter

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

When I found out that Azealia Banks is an avid believer in Yoruba traditions, I was drawn to her music even more. 

Yoruba people were brought as slaves to the Caribbean from what is today Southwest Nigeria and Benin in West Africa. Keeping their religious beliefs was a form of resistance that is still manifested today with religions, like Candomblé and Santería, that are influenced by Yoruba traditions.

Much like hip hop, many elements of Yoruba beliefs can be liberating, particularly the presence of female deities and the acknowledgement and celebration of our ancestors. Banks has said that the female Goddess of the ocean, Yemaya, was an inspiration to her 2012 mixtape Fantasea. The themes of mermaids and witchcraft are visible in different parts of her music and in conversations on social media. In the latest version of her song “Gimme A Chance,” Banks worked with Latino composer Oscar Cartaya to write lyrics in Spanish where she talks about brujeria (witchcraft) and expresses her freedom and independence.

This acknowledgment of an Afro-tradition resonated with me as someone who is learning about these beliefs that exist across the Caribbean. But as a fan of her music, it hasn’t always been easy to admire Banks’ politics.

It is not news that Banks has been very outspoken lately about police brutalityKendrick Lamar‘s comments on race, and appropriation of hip hop by white rappers, most notably Iggy Azealea. It takes a lot of courage to arrive at such conclusions publicly, particularly within the realm of hip hop where women are constantly unacknowledged.

However, Banks hasn’t always demonstrated this level of consciousness when it comes to the oppression of African Americans. She once tweeted that “black American culture is ESSENTIALLY some adapted version of British culture, Because American culture is bastardized English culture.” Those tweets from 2013 have now been deleted, and her recent tweets and commentary show that she perhaps she’s had a change of heart.

However, Banks has also been known for using homophobic language. In 2013, she called Perez Hilton an f-word after he called her the b-word. Was Hilton abusing his status as a white gay cis man? Yes. As writer and scholar Edward Ndopu wrote in Crunk Feminist Collective, “Indeed, the sassy lexicon he, and so many other upper middle class non-disabled white gay cis men like him, employs rests on the commodification and appropriation of black femme identities.” Does this excuse Banks from using homophobic language? It does not. And yet we must not ignore that this is an issue that is prevalent in hip hop culture — rappers have been known to say homophobic things in the past. And although some have suggested that progress has been made, simply omitting homophobic lyrics is not enough. Progress would mean opening doors for LGBTQ rappers to become more visible in the hip hop realm, especially QPOC. (An example of an artist that merits more attention is Siya from Oxygen’s “Sisterhood of Hip Hop.”) Banks has also expressed that she’s bisexual, yet as Ndopu writes, “The Banks/Hilton feud had absolutely nothing to do with sexual identity (read: homophobia), but rather, gender power dynamics (read: femmephobia). Azealia calling Perez a “messy f*****” suggests an attempt to assert her status as a no-nonsense, hard ass femcee in a largely masculine of center dominated hip-hop industry.”

Banks has also recently compared the issue of police brutality to the rape accusations against Bill Cosby by basically siding with him, an opinion that completely disregards and delegitimizes the lives and testimonies of victims of sexual assault. This tweet shows a willingness to place higher importance on Black male lives than Black women’s lives, an issue that many WOC and QPOC have voiced within the #BlackLivesMatter movement and Twitter hashtag.

Banks is one of the few femcees who has made it to the top of the charts in recent years as an independent hip hop artist. And she has come a long way from accusing African Americans of appropriating white culture to becoming outspoken about reparations, police brutality, and systemic racism. We can only hope that she and others who are in the process of learning can acknowledge the LGBTQ and women’s lives that have also been lost at the hands of systemic racism. This is an issue that must not wait, and that requires urgency. Hip hop comes from a history of resistance against structural forms of oppression. Therefore, in the same way that Banks has incorporated liberating Yoruba beliefs into her music, I believe that she can transform her tweets and political beliefs on racial inequality into conscious-driven songs.

New York City

Amanda Alcantara is a writer, a journalist, and a community organizer. Her work has appeared on Guerrilla Feminism, El Diario La Prensa and The Grio. She is a Co-Founder of La Galería Magazine, a magazine for Dominican Diaspora, and author of the blog Radical Latina. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism & Media Studies and Political Science from Rutgers University where she helped relaunch the Latin American Womyn's Organization. Amanda also does community theater and writes poetry. She's a firm believer in healing through art and in fighting for liberation. A map of the world turned upside down hangs on her wall.

Amanda Alcantara is a writer and freelance journalist

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