Azealia Banks Blows Up

Photos by Sharif Hamza

I wrote an article about Azealia Banks for the cover of the September issue of Dazed and Confused mag. The cover image was very #controversial, and was banned in seven countries, due to Azealia smoking a condom like a cigar. That seems a bit strange to me, given that the world seems A-OK with the myriad images of half-naked women that grace 90% of fashion mag covers today. AND the condom is a symbol of safe sex! So what’s all the fuss about? Whatever. Anyway, read my article below!

Azealia Banks stomps onto the stage, flipping her butt-length green hair from side to side like the queen bitch in a teen movie. In her fishnet bodysuit, starfish pasties and knee-high leather platforms, she looks like some sort of deep-sea, S&M superhero. Behind her, dancers in fetish gear vogue for their lives. It’s a Sunday night in New York and Miss. Banks, the rising Harlem rapper, has transformed the legendary Bowery Ballroom into an aquatic carnival for her sold out Mermaid Ball–a vogue ball slash costume contest slash concert.

Banks is the personification of the rags to riches story–the little girl with a fierce, raw talent, elbowing her way to the top. Last September she won the hearts of millions with her viral hit, “212,” an infectious rap track with a house beat and some triple-X raunch. Just 21, Banks sits at the center of a Venn diagram of pop culture: the queen of a new school of budding female rappers, a muse for the high fashion elite, a fixture in New York’s emerging queer hip-hop scene, and a favorite on indie dancefloors the world over. She’s earned a bad girl reputation, known as much for her angry Twitter brawls, in-your-face sexuality and flagrant use of the word “cunt” as for her music. Back in the days before internet transparency, we worshiped celebrities for being better than us. Now we celebrate them for being as bad as us–we love them even more when they’re vulnerable and flawed. Banks doesn’t play by the rules, and that’s precisely why we can’t get enough of her.

Haters have been quick to brand her a one hit wonder, but it’s the forthcoming release of her debut LP, on Polydor/Interscope, that will confirm whether Banks is simply a flash in the pan, or something more: rapper, fashionista, pop star provocateur.

It’s the morning after the Mermaid Ball. Banks is marathon texting from the makeup chair of a Brooklyn photo studio, being groomed for her Dazed cover shoot. Her Rapunzelian hair near reaches the floor. “I played Summer Jam festival yesterday,” she’s saying through clicks of her gum, “and it didn’t go over so well. One of my dancers–who were all dressed sort of androgynous–was wearing these pants with the butt cut out, and as soon as he turned around the crowd started booing. They couldn’t handle the gay thing, which was kinda wack, but whatever. What are you gonna do, not be gay?”

Banks is the latest in a long line of female performers who have borrowed from voguing culture (Madonna and Lady Gaga are obvious examples). Since coming out as bisexual in the New York Times last winter, Banks has been loosely associated with a new crew of gay and trans artists in NYC who are reinventing ideas of hip-hop identity–rappers like Zebra Katz, Mykki Blanco and House of LaDosha (the latter appeared at the Mermaid Ball). Early this year, when Karl Lagerfeld invited Banks to perform at a party at his house, she did a cover of the Zebra Katz’ track, “Ima Read”–the queer rap scene’s break out hit. “I feel very influenced by ball culture,” she says enthusiastically. “A lot of my friends are in and out of that scene, and growing up my sister was really involved in it. She came out of the closet when she was fourteen, and her friends would always be over our house talking shit and dancing, and I would just watch them and pick stuff up.”

Banks grew up in Harlem. Her father died of pancreatic cancer when she was just two years old, after which her mother raised her three daughters alone, working long hours as a clerk at an art supply store to put them through school. “We didn’t grow up poor,” Banks asserts. “Sure, we grew up in the hood, but we had some money. But I moved out when I was fourteen to go live with my older sister, because my mom just had, well… issues.” She rolls her eyes melodramatically. “After my dad died, my mom became really abusive–physically and verbally. Like she would hit me and my sisters with baseball bats, bang our heads up against walls, and she would always tell me I was ugly. I remember once she threw out all the food in the fridge, just so we wouldn’t have anything to eat. It was like growing up a feral child, being raised by this person who was always yelling and screaming, hitting you and dragging you around and shit.” She pauses, sweeping her hair from her face. “Granted, she never had any drug or drinking problems–her house was clean, her hair was always done, and we had stuff–but she still fucked me up real bad.”

To keep herself busy, Banks turned to boys. “I’ve always been very sexual,” she grins. “Growing up I was so curious about boys. I just loved them. Like, loved them. I’d always get my recesses taken away for letting boys touch my butt in the lunch line,” she laughs. “I got in trouble for fooling around in school a lot. I just wanted to be touched, ya know? I just wanted to have sex. And my mom was always working so there was never anyone around to tell me no.”

But she was more than just boy crazy. At a young age, Banks took an interest in the performing arts, partly, she says, as an escape. “When I was in 5th grade I got given a flyer for a program called Tada!, this non-profit organization in downtown in New York. I remember thinking, ‘This is it, this is my way outta this life.’ It was the people at Tada! who later pushed Banks to audition for New York’s famous Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. Often called the “Fame” school, notable alumni include Kelis and Nicki Minaj, as well as Jennifer Aniston, Robert De Niro and many others. However, when her acting career failed to blossom as fast as she’d hoped, Banks dropped out of high school to pursue music.

It wasn’t long before the neophyte rapper’s early Myspace tracks caught the attention of London based label XL Recordings, who signed her to a development deal under the name Miss Bank$. Early disagreements led to Banks leaving the label on bad terms. Discouraged and heartbroken over a recent breakup, she moved to Montreal with $75 in her pocket, looking for a change of scenery. The change did her good; it was there that she recorded the club friendly track “212,” rapping over a sample of Lazy Jay’s “Float My Boat.” Banks was working at Starbucks at the time, and coughed up the $30 it cost to make the music video. The result was a stark black and white video featuring Banks goofily dancing in front of a brick wall in a Mickey Mouse sweat shirt. Her questionable dance moves garnered over 23 million views on YouTube (so far).

And then the whirlwind started. Off the back of “212” Banks topped NME’s 2011 “Cool List” and was featured in countless magazines, and the song made Pitchfork’s list of “Top 10 tracks of 2011.” Gwyneth Paltrow and Kanye West were early fans, and the world of fashion embraced her with open arms. Mugler’s Nicola Formichett–Lady Gaga’s stylist–debuted her track “Bambi” during his menswear show at Paris Fashion Week. She performed for Karl Lagerfeld at his home, was shot by Terry Richardson for the New York Times, and the video for her second single, “Liquorice,” was styled by Formichetti and directed by Rankin. And all of this for this girl in the Disney sweat shirt. “I think the fashion world responds so well to me because I’m not intimidated by them,” she says. “I’m confident and sexually free, and I don’t care about wearing every fucking brand in the world. I still wear shit from Rainbow, ya know? Like I’ll take some Chanel, cut it up and stick it with something really cheap, but I’ll make it look mad official.” She flashes her bright white American smile–a grin that’s at once alluring and mischievous. “That’s just how I make things my own.”

Back at the Brooklyn studio, the photoshoot is moving at a snail’s pace. There are obstacles: Banks doesn’t like the clothes. Next the make-up. Now she wants different food. Unfortunately, she’s also on a strict time schedule, and slowly but surely expressions of panic begin to settle in on the faces throughout the studio. By the crafts service table, a photo assistant whispers something about a recent shoot with Beyonce having been less of a hassle. Banks is acting like a “diva” in the most rudimentary sense–something she is slowly becoming known for. One of her most attractive qualities, no doubt, is her ambition; she had the sort of furious determination representative of someone who has never having been handed anything for free. However that determination has a tendency to manifest as aggression. She’s becoming infamous for her public feuds with other rappers, and her Twitter account is prone to angry, Courtney Love style rants, with the brunt of her wrath being aimed at T.I., Lil’ Kim, and fellow newcomer, Iggy Azalea.

The drama came to a head early this year when Aussie rapper Iggy Azalea was awarded a place on the cover of XXL’s coveted ‘2012’s Freshmen class’ issue, after which Banks Tweeted, “Iggy Azalea on the XXL freshman list is all wrong.  How can you endorse a white woman who called herself a ‘runaway slave master’?  Sorry guys. But I’m pro black girl. I’m not anti white girl, but I’m also not here for any1 outside of my culture trying to trivialize very serious aspects of it.” The song Banks is referring to is “D.R.U.G.S.”, Azalea’s remake of Kendrick Lamar’s “Look Out For Detox”, where she raps a slightly altered version of Lamar’s original lyrics, saying, “When the relay starts I’m a runaway slave… master.” Though Azalea has since publicly clarified her pure intentions, Banks has continued to make it known that she is not a fan. “Iggy Azalea is disrespecting all of us very intentionally,” says Banks, “and if nobody else is gonna say it then I’m gunna fucking say it.” She pauses to take a deep breath, calming herself down. “Look, I realize I can come across threatening, but I’m not trying to be aggressive, I’m just very direct,” she says sincerely. “More often than not I think my good intentions are taken negatively.”

Cat fights, along with the presence of the archetypal “vengeful female”, are nothing new in the world of hip-hop. It’s a bummer, really, when you consider what a little girlpower could do within the heavily male dominated industry, especially in this post-Nicki Minaj era, rich with budding female emcees. But Banks is still very young, and one suspects that her occasional bratty behavior and public name-calling is less a product of a genuine mean streak, but more an emulation of how she thinks a superstar rapper should act. She’s playing up to the hype–this attitude of, “You call me a bitch, OK, I’ll show you a bitch.” As Joan Didion famously wrote of Joan Baez, “she was a personality before she was entirely a person, and like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be.”

“I feel like the hip-hop world hasn’t really supported me,” she frowns. “I think people are upset that I showed up and got big, that I was making all these fashion friends, and that I was so open about my sexuality. People say, ‘Oh, you only have one song’, which is not true, I have a pretty full repertoire.” She stops, searching for the right words. “I just think about African American culture–where we are socially, and where we’ve come from. Everyone says ‘Oh, it’s 2012, times have changed’, but they really haven’t changed that much. I’ve traveled all over the globe, and I know that the world still has a slight animosity towards black people. It’s hard for us to do anything, to even get our picture in a magazine, let alone on the cover! So I’m out here working hard, and y’all are trying to pull me down. It’s sad, because you never want to turn your back on your people, but I gave up on the hip-hop scene, I really did.”

Banks’ debut LP, Broke With Expensive Taste, comes out next month. Her recent releases–the EP 1991 and mixtape Fantasea–saw collaborations with electronic producers like Machinedrum and Hudson Mohawke. Banks has also spent some time in the studio with Grammy-winning producer Paul Epworth, suggesting there might be some pop anthems from her in the foreseeable future. “I know it sounds really self-centered, but I’m sort of obsessed with myself,” she laughs. “I have to be, because it’s the only way I can stay focused. That’s really what the theme of the album is: if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will. It’s about a girl who’s doing everything she can to achieve her goals, who’s gonna make it somehow, some way.”

Despite her talk of being rejected by hip-hop, what’s undeniable about Banks is her mass appeal. Though she raps, she doesn’t just appeal to rap fans. Her music is loved by people of all ages, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. She is the master provocateur, the lovable rogue. Back in ‘94, her troublemaking predecessor Courtney Love told Spin: “Sometimes when people are bearing down on you so hard, and want you to behave in a certain way, you just do it because you know you can.” Banks is taking full advantage.