Home Music Music Features

Cancel Culture Is Fake, TikTok Is Lame, and Her New Music Slaps: Azealia Banks Opens Up

It took the world a decade to catch up with her, but she isn’t mad

Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

Somewhere between the election, the pandemic, and the looming environmental catastrophe, a reshuffling of attitudes took hold. In the past year, icons like Britney Spears have been reconsidered in a new, more empathic, context. Similarly, the open secrets of alleged bad actors like Marilyn Manson are finally sticking in the public’s consciousness. It makes sense that 2021 was also the year that the world forgot why it was so mad at Azealia Banks. The musician has never been guilty of much more than speaking her mind, often about the kind of cultural hypocrisy to which we now devote premium cable documentaries. 

Next week marks the 10-year anniversary of Banks’ first single, “212,” a refreshingly buoyant tune that had an instinctive grip on hip-hop’s many contours. The song pushed Banks into the limelight at age 20, and she spent the years that followed releasing a steady stream of equally transcendent hits. All the while, the public often seemed more interested in her magnetism for online controversy — from a weird encounter with Elon Musk and Grimes to Russell Crowe allegedly assaulting her in his hotel room. (Crowe denied the allegations.) She’s also had her Twitter account suspended a number of times, most recently last year after a series of tweets that were seen as transphobic.

To listen to Banks tell it, all the drama is everyone else’s fault. And she has a point. The past decade has seen a contradictory set of standards emerge for celebrities, where words typed into a screen can seem to carry more weight than years-long patterns of harmful action.

It would appear that the tide is finally shifting. In the past year, it’s been hard to deny Banks’ unfiltered honesty — and she’s spent the latter half of 2021 selling out arenas as a result. She isn’t even mad that the mainstream is coming around almost a decade late. She’d rather let the music do the talking.

How are you? They told me you’re in the studio pretty late.
Yeah. I’m always in the studio, always working.

Is there an album on the way?
Of course there’s an album on the way. There’s been actually lots of music that’s been put out. I guess the music journalists were more concerned with being tabloids than they were with paying attention to the music. I’ve released a lot of brilliant music in the last 10 years.

Thinking about the track you put out a few months ago with the Galcher Lustwerk beat, “Fuck Him All Night,” how did you guys connect?
We actually didn’t connect. I just heard that beat, and I was like, “Yo, this is crazy.” It reminded me of “Custom Made” by Lil Kim. I was just like, “Yo, this is hip-hop.” I think that a lot of these so-called “hip-hop journalists” kind of forget how to listen to hip-hop music. It goes back to the cliché argument that everybody’s having right now, but it shows. This is all Black music.

I feel like you’re somebody who has tapped into house and dance music from the start—
Which is Black music.

For a while, you wanted to name that song after Kanye West. What inspired that?
Because Kanye trolled me a lot.

Can you say more about that?
Listen to my music. Listen to the last five years of Kanye West’s music. I’m superior. I don’t have to talk about that which is beneath me. He’s been, I guess, selling sneakers and doing outrageous shit, everything but the music. When Kanye puts some music out that is important, then I guess we can have that conversation. But right now, he’s kind of just like a cultural figure.

What inspired your recent post about Lil Nas X, where you called out Dave Chappelle for transphobia and Boosie Badazz for homophobia?
That’s something that I’ve been saying from Day One. When I came out with “212,” I was actually the first artist to just be like: “Oh, this is gay, this is our hip-hop” — you hear what I’m saying? And it’s a very deep conversation, which I really don’t care to have. It’s just all these unwritten rules of Blackness, and what’s appropriate for Blackness, and the rules change every fucking day. I was like, “Oh, whatever, who gives a fuck. I’ma make this gay-ass music, and y’all are going to jump to it.” Because when the music journalists really do their job and they really pay attention, they realize that I have been smoking a lot of these rap motherfuckers on all types of shit.

You played four nights recently at Webster Hall in New York — almost like a festival dedicated to you. What’s the process behind something like that coming together?
The process was just me having fun, having a good time, being happy to be back outside. It felt like the world was healing. I was having my own party, and all my friends were invited. 

It seems like social media is becoming a bigger force in music than the art itself.
Yeah. But it’s not music. They’re selling ideas, lifestyles, whatever comes out of liberal academia’s ass. And it changes. It’s almost like the unwritten rules of Blackness, it’s like the unwritten rules of just how to conduct yourself. John Lennon wrote a song called “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” and here we are years later calling it one of the best songs of all time.

So, what do you make of cancel culture?
By the way, I think the Beatles suck.

What was that?
I said, “By the way, I think the Beatles suck.”

I’m a Beach Boys girl.

True. But how about so-called cancel culture?
I mean, cancel culture doesn’t really exist. Only God can cancel something. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean that it’s canceled, it just means you don’t fucking like it, and that’s OK.

You don’t feel like you were canceled at any point?
No. There was a lot of jealousy. It just seems like all of these rules for self-expression and identity apply to everybody but Black women. And [the backlash] kind of helped me free myself from the pain of the identity of being a Black woman. Like, “Of course, yes, I look in the mirror every fucking day, I don’t need help knowing that I’m Black. But you’re not going to tell me what kind of music I can and can’t make, and you’re not going to tell me what I can and can’t say because I’m Black.” Russell Crowe choked me, spat on me, and called me a nigger, and now he’s in a Marvel movie.

How do you not feel angry at the world for being late?
Because who’s got time to get mad? There’s only time to get money.

Is there anything that you see coming up now that makes you feel excited or inspired by the next generation?
Not really. No. And I don’t mean that to be a hater. But like I said, the music industry now, it’s not a music industry — it’s the most devalued art form in all the art forms. Because with streaming and everything, people are getting desperate, and they’re doing everything else but making good music. Doing videos and all this other stuff, but it’s like, the music sucks. … Once everyone started doing three hours of makeup to do a 15-second TikTok, I kind of tuned out.

You have a big fan base on TikTok. I’m surprised you’re not posting there yourself.
Because I’m not a fucking con artist.

I’m curious what you think about NFTs.
I’d like to keep that private because I don’t want to … I’m not in the mood to give out free game. I’ve given out a lot of free game.

What was Covid like for you?
I mean, what was Covid for anyone? Everybody was afraid that they would go to the wrong corner and die.

Have you learned anything during the pandemic and this new situation?
No. I think the memes of yesteryear were way more intelligent, way funnier, way brasher — they were less censored. I think there’s a lot of bullshit tied into this whole being all-accepting of things, and diversity and whatever. Even the nature of the word “diversity” that comes out of corporations’ mouths still implies that people are “other.” People of color are other. And who gives a fuck? Again, I don’t need some corporation to tell me that I’m a person of color.

Are you optimistic about the future?
I’m optimistic about Azealia Banks. I love Azealia Banks. I think she’s incredible.

What’s something that you’ve always wanted to say in a publication?
Larry David, call me.

From Rolling Stone US