WORDS BY by Israel Mejia for DESPHOSPHENES STYLED BY Maleeka Moss PHOTOGRAPHY BY Marc Pilaro
Over the years, Azealia Banks has established herself as one of the most promising musicians of our generation. However, her career has become almost synonymous with controversy, as the media has painted a negative picture of the complex character. We sit down with the New York City prodigy to discuss her musical process, the double-standards against black women in the music industry, and why you shouldn’t count her out just yet. Don’t call it a comeback.
Azealia Banks is late. It’s a hot Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, and her manager and I are patiently waiting outside a studio on an abandoned Brooklyn street in the summer heat, both of us listlessly flipping through our phones. As I melt into the asphalt, I quickly scroll through my head what I know about the artist. Of course everyone knows who Azealia Banks is, but what I’m trying to anticipate is which version of her I’m meeting today. Am I meeting the assertive and confident risk-taker who in less than 140 characters announces a new business venture of selling soap? Am I meeting the thoughtful and passionate advocate who sits in front of Hot 97 DJs honestly and emotionally speaking on the injustices black people have faced in America? Or am I meeting the energetic and flamboyant multihyphenate whose wide and bright, self-described “Chiclet smile,” is as infectious as her music?
Eventually her car pulls up. She waits for her manager to open the door. As she starts walking towards us, she’s suddenly distracted by a Mister Softee truck creeping its way up the street. She whispers something to her manager who is soon jogging after the truck, hailing it down. She’s wearing thigh-high, denim platform boots, distressed short shorts and an oversized Kenzo sweater, which she later removes to reveal a neon green cropped t-shirt that reads, “WITCH” in bold black font. A couple minutes later we’re sitting, as she eagerly eats her SpongeBob ice cream.
“Remember the Bugs Bunny one?” she asks as she slurps up the quickly melting treat. “That was the best one, but they didn’t have it.”
Unfortunately for her, she can’t savor the last bite, as SpongeBob’s bottom half slips off the popsicle stick onto the floor. She quickly jumps out of her chair to clean up the mess before yelling out, “Play some fucking music, man!”
The omnipresent hit “212” cemented Azealia’s rise to success. Before “212,” Azealia honed her musical talent uploading tracks on MySpace, notably an acoustic version of Interpol’s “Slow Hands” and beats over Ladytron’s “Seventeen.” She eventually starting writing her own raps, building up to the noteworthy, groundbreaking projects for which she’s known.
Her first mixtape, Fantasea dropped in 2012 after 1991, showcasing her broad knowledge of musical history and range of talent, borrowing, mixing and sampling all genres and references. In the first wave of her come-up, she stunned listeners with tracks like “Jumanji” and “Fuck Up the Fun,” proving her unbeatable flow and clever lyricism. Meanwhile, her affinity for mixing hip hop with 90’s house music and EDM became one of her most noteworthy experimental traits, showcased time and time again through releases like “Fierce,” “Heavy Metal and Reflective,” and “Chasing Time.” The latter was a lead single from Broke With Expensive Taste, her debut album. A breakaway from her constricting record deal, the album was Azealia’s glorious celebration of artistic freedom, further exemplifying her musical expertise. Though it was released with almost no marketing, the album wowed music critics and naysayers alike. Delayed releases and Internet drama had much of the public doubting the young artist. But Broke With Expensive Taste was ultimately a clear reminder of her unparalleled creativity, where Banks showed off some of the most impressive raps of our time alongside powerhouse vocals that spanned a rainbow of genres. At the same time, Azealia became a fashion industry darling and a prodigy for a new generation of music and entertainment.
Despite her impressive feats, it’s hard to deny that Azealia’s career has often been shrouded by controversy; her history of brash opinions and combative statements involving a slew of artists and celebrities is well-publicized, to say the least. From famously bashing Iggy Azalea to publicly fighting with flight attendants, Azealia’s personality was seen as a hazard to her own growth. The media seemed to focus on Azealia’s controversies more than ever before in 2016. Racist and homophobic slurs towards Zayn Malik saw the artist get banned from Twitter, while she also came under fire for bleaching her skin, and bizarrely enough, endorsing Donald Trump for presidency. In December of 2016, she streamed a now infamous video of her cleaning her chicken closet: a space in her home where she sacrificed live chickens for religious purposes. The video was met with shock and bewilderment. She’s apologized for and retracted many of her more offensive actions and statements, by the end of 2016, she had been positioned as an internet pariah. Speaking to Max Weinstein of XXL she admitted, “I’m definitely shut out from where I was, 100 percent. People are very scared to be associated with me because of, you know, the controversy…I’m not sad about it, I’m not disappointed at the situation. I’m disappointed with myself for sure.”
Azealia takes shots at anyone – she’s apologized for mistakes a few times – but she’s often clear and righteous about what she faces as a black woman in her field and as a celebrity. In her opinion, the media seems to look for negative things to publicize.
“Half the time when I’m on Twitter I’m talking to myself,” Azealia says. “People give themselves too much credit when it comes to Azealia Banks. I’m not talking to you or about you.”
Azealia’s honesty and authenticity could often be seen as admirable, though there’s no denying this trait has backfired on multiple occasions; perceived controversy has often been the result of an openness in sharing her opinions with a closely watching Internet audience.
“I didn’t know that stuff was bad until I exposed myself,” she says in regards to the chicken video, her voice raising, not in anger but in genuine disbelief. “I said, goddammit y’all bitches go to Urban Outfitters buying fucking Wicca kits pretending to be witches, and I’m a fucking villain?”
Is Azealia always justified in her statements and actions? Perhaps not. But it’s hard to deny the double-standards she faces as a dark-skinned black woman in a white male-dominated industry, especially as she entered the field as somewhat of an outsider. Even with her more “problematic” moments considered, one could argue that Azealia still faces far harsher criticism than many of her male peers for things she’s said and done that are arguably far less harmful. Several of her male counterparts, including Kanye West, Chris Brown, and R. Kelly are regularly given passes by the media for similar, often more offensive behavior or comments; the same can’t be said for Azealia. Even in regards to newcomer XXXtentacion, who’s faced allegations of violence against women, Billboard recently tweeted a headline that read, “Ahead of XXXTentacion’s Domestic Violence Trial, Can the Industry Focus on the music?” Has the industry done this when it comes to Azealia, though?
“There’s clearly a difference in how society treats me, a black woman, as opposed to how they treat a male, even another black male,” she says. “Just watching male rappers or other males in general go through things in their career and get a pass…it can be really frustrating.”
Azealia brings up the public label which has plagued her from the beginning: “Angry Black Woman.” The stereotype of black women as bitter or angry extends outside of just the music industry, throughout American society as a whole. One could argue that the positioning of Azealia Banks as a sparkplug through the media is a reflection of overarching racism in American society. No matter how often she’s apologized for her missteps, it seems like her past is constantly held against her.
“I think the media has a way of micromanaging opinions in society, and they decided I was going to be this villain,” she says. “I’m not sorry for what I believe, but I’m always sorry for hurting people’s feelings.”
Regardless of one’s personal opinion of her, the media’s characterization and demonization of Azealia Banks has arguably become a major embodiment of misogynoir. Reports of her “antics” rather than her music or any positive achievements or activities is a clear depiction of the perpetuation of the stereotypes that plague black women in America as a whole, presenting a unique set of standards and obstacles that men and white women don’t have to deal with. Azealia sees this as part of the larger issue of American society trying to keep black women down. But Azealia wants her voice in to be heard, and her piece of the “American Dream” just as much as anyone else.
Asked whether she felt destined for this career, she answers with a simple no.
“I wanted people to love me. I didn’t think all these other things would come with it. The only expectations I have are happiness, health, and wealth.”
“Life is about learning, educating, and evolving,” Azealia says regarding the new direction in which she’s headed. She stresses that she’s still young and figuring things out. Sure, she’s made mistakes, but she needs the world to respect and understand that no one is perfect.
This past summer, Azealia formally established Chaos & Glory Recordings, her own independent record label. Through the label, she re-released her 2016 mixtape Slay-Z, which features collaborations with Nina Sky, Rick Ross, and Kaytranada, along with her hip-house masterpiece, “The Big Big Beat.” She started her label out of a need for more independence, decrying men’s proclivity to try to mentor her as if she were a “lost black girl.” She laments the inexperienced male engineers that come with the process, producers and teams who aren’t willing to give her full control or follow her direction. Her solace is knowing she has the skills to manage herself and even do damage control when needed. She refuses to let anyone, especially men, speak for her, saying it only ends in chaos and confusion. She feels she often publicly takes the fall for men’s shortcomings.
“So many places try to charge you surreal prices to record in a room with a computer. Why pay $1,000 for this when I can set it up in my house? They’ll send these young computer guys into some fucking 1979 machine they don’t know how to use. The older engineers know how to use the equipment, but these younger cats, fuck, I might as well record in my bedroom. I know what I’m doing.”
On the new music front, Banks released “Chi Chi” this year, arguably one of the strongest rap songs of 2017 and a stark reminder of her unbeatable lyricism and excellent flow. Meanwhile, her latest single, “Escapades” grooves a new, experimental direction, as she trades fast-paced bars for powerful house vocals. And her live shows prove the authenticity of her skills and passionate delivery of her work; if there’s anything Azealia Banks has been up to lately, it’s reminding the world that it’s her music that truly deserves the attention.
“Everyone can separate the artist from the art when it comes to these men. Just stop taking everything I say on the Internet so seriously and listen to the music,” she says.
After our interview, Azealia headlined her first performance in over a year at the Highline Ballroom to a sold out crowd of loyal fans who’d been waiting impatiently for her return. This fall, she returned with a sold-out international and North American tour. Meanwhile, RZA’s film, Love Beats Rhymes plays in select theaters through December. Azealia stars in her acting debut as Coco, the film’s lead role.
“I gave Coco all I could give – my everything,” she says with feeling.
You could say she’s in the midst of a major comeback, but that denies the Azealia Banks who’s been working nonstop despite the reports of chaos and drama.
“I’ve been here all along. The media is finally realizing that they’ve been way too hard on me and are missing out on some seriously good tunes.”
“I’m a woman now; I’m not a little girl. I’m not ‘212.’ I’m not Mickey Mouse. I’m not playing anymore,” she says in a stern voice.
Fantasea II: The Second Wave, Azealia’s sophomore album was originally due out on Halloween, but in typical Azealia Banks fashion, its release was pushed to early 2018. Still, whether people want to admit it or not, everyone is anxiously anticipating new music. And Azealia knows that no one can deny the quality of her craft.
“I’ve been working on Fantasea II before Fantasea [mixtape] came out. This album is seven years in the making,” she says, confident that the album will be well-worth the wait.
“Everyone will kiss my fucking ass. As much as I’ve been through in this fucking bitch, I’m coming back to kill all you motherfuckers.” She laughs, “I’m playing.”
It’s hard to tell what to expect from Banks musically; through conversations and social media discussions, she’s mentioned everything from trying jazz to rapping less and singing more, even dabbling in punk rock. We can likely expect another multifaceted feat, as Broke With Expensive Taste jumped from disco to surf rock (who could forget “Nude Beach a Go-Go”?) within 15 minutes.
“I never talk about something until it’s out. It’s hard to explain until the last minute, because I don’t know what I’m doing until it’s actually done,” she confides.
Just like her debut, Azealia’s sophomore album could drop unexpectedly at any moment, likely with little to no promotion. It’s also hard to deny a sense that the Azealia Banks narrative can’t just end with Internet spats and blown-up controversies; as her music has proved repeatedly over time, all it takes is one new release to remind the public while we should keep rooting for this one-of-a-kind talent.
“Clearly I’m coming. I always come,” she says, rolling her eyes. “And I always come with the good shit.”
“I want my fucking hot dog and Budweiser, too; stop trying to rob me of my American flag!”
Aside from the preconceived notions about her attitude that have formed over the years, Azealia notes other harmful sterotypes that have plagued her as a black woman from the start; she feels, just as with many other women of color, that society and the media tries to categorize her because of her upbringing, depicting her as uneducated and unstable due to a “rough” upbringing.
“Stop talking about my ‘struggle.’ Talk about my happiness.”