Published in Daily Life, December 2012
If you’re familiar with Dazed and Confused, you’d know that the indie bible isn’t exactly famous for championing feminist iconography. Last month, the magazine, which regularly publishes provocative editorials shot by the likes of Terry Richardson, ran a cover featuring self-styled Harlem rapper Azealia Banks blowing up a raspberry condom. Despite being banned in seven countries, the image isn’t half as risqué as the subject herself – a woman whose success trajectory throws up a narrative of female ambition that owes more to the ability to hustle than a misguided effort to have it all.
“I know it sounds really self-centred, but I’m sort of obsessed with myself,” Banks says in the interview. “I have to be because this is the only way I can stay focused. That’s the theme of my album – if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will. It’s about a girl doing everything she can to achieve her goals, to make it somehow, someway.”
Whether you put this down to ambition or blind egotism, there’s something undeniably shocking about Banks’ statement, a subversiveness that would barely register if it came from the mouth of Mark Zuckerberg or Jay-Z. It highlights the unspoken rules that dictate the ways we’re allowed to pursue what matters to us, an invisible proviso that polices female ambition even as it celebrates it.
But it seems that Banks isn’t the only one breaking these rules. M.I.A has been a long-time advocate for hustling in the name of art, spinning a career as a musician, designer and artist out of connections, cultural influences and grandiose ambitions. What M.I.A lacks in talent, she makes up for through her ability to weave together politics, word beats and a street art aesthetic – a display of resourcefulness and determination that’s attracted Grammy nominations and off-the-chart album sales.
But if hustling allows you to shape your own career, this control is not without its price. M.I.A was dismissed as a politically naiive opportunist in a feature by New York Times’Lynne Hirshberg and Hazel Dooney’s insurgent tactics have drawn scepticism and accusations from the art world.
For now Banks’ brand of audacity seems to be working. In the year since the release of 212, the addictive single that secured nearly 24 million views on YouTube, Banks signed with Interscope Records and topped NME’s list of the year’s most influential artists. Karl Lagerfield asked her to perform at his house in January and her upcoming album Broke with Expensive Taste, featuring Grammy-winning producer Paul Epworth, is among next year’s most hotly anticipated releases.
It’s easy to dismiss Banks, whose aggressively sexual tracks and proclivity for the c-word have scored fans across the art, music and fashion worlds, as the pin-up for a new, particularly obnoxious brand of girl power and her success as straight out of the annals of internet celebrity – where making it is not about doing whatever it takes but about the well-timed intersection of privilege, technology and luck.
However, if you listen closely, the lyrics of breakaway hit 212 tell a much more interesting story: “I heard you’re riding with the same tall, tall tale / Telling them you made some / Saying you’re grindin’, but you ain’t goin’ nowhere / Why you procrastinate, girl? / You got a lot, but you just waste all yourself / They’ll forget your name soon / And won’t nobody be to blame but yourself, yeah.”
Love it or hate it, the tune highlights an invisible connection between ability and accountability that’s often missing in conversations about female ambition.
“For the most part, Azealia Banks has never been an amateur at much of anything,” writes Zach Baron, in an August profile for Spin magazine. “When she first started rapping, she was immediately better than the boyfriend she was trying to impress. She was better than her boyfriend’s friends. To this day, people who knew her talk about how eerily good she was at all of it, before she’d even practiced, before there was a notion that she might get paid for doing it […]
But talent, the silent protagonist of this type of story, has little to do with the rise and rise of Azealia Banks. Rather, her success is about how the ability to hustle can bridge the divide between raw talent and outsize ambition.
Hustling is an ugly word associated more with con artists than those whose satisfaction in life depends on creative success. It’s even less likely to feature in narratives of female ambition, which are usually couched in cultural permissiveness or pitted against marriage or relationships – that pervasive “all” that’s the focus of so many feminist debates.
Yet strangely, this hustle – the aggressive pursuit of one’s living through whatever means or the relentless search for markets for one’s work at whatever cost – is often the unseen factor when it comes to making it as an artist.
Banks deals in rap music – a genre that’s indebted to the figure of the hustler and where trading bombast for bucks is nothing new. It’s also, as Zadie Smith writes in a recent New York Times feature on Jay-Z, a genre that uses language as a form of asymmetric warfare where hustling is intrinsic to both success and survival.
Although Jay-Z and Banks may both be celebrated for their lyrical mastery, it seems that hustling – a practice that breeds a distinctly unfeminine brand of ambition – is still considered a man’s game.
In a commencement speech to Wellesley University, the late writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron once warned against the forces that quash this ability to hustle. “What Wellesley wanted was for us to avoid the extremes. To be instead, that thing in the middle. A lady. We were to take the fabulous education we had received here and use it to preside at a dinner table or at a committee meeting. We were to spend our lives making nice,” she said.
Banks seems to understand that as a project, making nice is wildly at odds with pulling out all the stops.
“The only thing you could ever accuse Banks of being bad at relates to her inability – so far – to become a star for the world she has always been to herself and to those people who knew her when she first started trying,” writes Baron.
In Banks’ world, hustling is just trying – dressed up in flashier clothing.