During Sunday's Grammy awards show, rapper Kanye West pulled a Kanye and jokingly interrupted Beck, who was at the microphone to accept the award for best album. Beck's win was the upset of the evening: Many, evidently including West, had expected Beyoncé to take the award home.
In a post-show interview with E!, however, West said, "Beck needs to respect artistry. He should have given his award to Beyoncé. At this point, we tired of it."
In his statement, West seemed to oppose the "he" (white pop star Beck) against a "we" (the black artistic community). It's a long-simmering, and recently reinvigorated, debate over "cultural appropriation" in the world of rap and hip-hop.
Anxiety over cultural appropriation got its best expression in J. Cole, who said in an MTV interview, "I fast-forward 20, 30 years from now, and I see hip-hop being completely white."
"You ain't seen white yet," said Philly rapper Dice Raw, who often works with the Roots. "You think you're mad now? Just wait."
The Grammys have seemed a little uncertain about the place - and face - of rap and hip-hop. Last year, the white duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won the three biggest rap awards. This year, for the first time in 25 years, the award for best rap album (which went to white rapper Eminem) was not televised, but the award for best rock album (widely seen as a white suburb) was. The biggest winner was white British singer Sam Smith, earlier declared by GQ magazine as "The New Face of Soul." Aussie rapper Iggy Azalea was nominated for best album for The New Classic - a title that suggests "this is where it's at now."
From one point of view, for the entire history of U.S. pop culture, African Americans have originated and whites have moved in and cleaned up. In music, think of it as the equivalent of gentrification. Instead of Fats Waller, George Gershwin. Instead of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman. Instead of Chuck Berry or Little Richard, Elvis Presley or the Beatles.
And now, there's Iggy Azalea. She's become the poster child of the cultural-appropriation controversy. In spring 2014, a Forbes piece was titled, "Hip Hop is Run by a White, Blonde, Australian Woman," a headline that met so much backlash it was retracted. She raps in an American accent. At the Grammys, she sported a thick, winding braid some saw as a copy of black hairstyles - and that became its own meme on social media.
What's more, in her smash hit "Fancy," Azalea declared herself "the realest," when, according to many hip-hop aficionados, she's the farthest from it. She was up for four Grammys, including best rap album, but won none. "There was a collective sigh of relief, at least amongst Black Twitter," said Pennsylvania State University student Tariq Rashid, 22.
Rapper Azealia Banks has had a running public feud with Azalea, accusing her of "cultural smudging" and reminding everyone that Azalea referred to herself as a "runaway slave . . . master" in her song "D.R.U.G.S." - whipping motion included. Q-Tip, a member of the famed hip-hop band A Tribe Called Quest, tried to educate Azalea on the history of hip-hop via Twitter and was met with indifference.
Philadelphia artists such as rapper Eve and singer Jill Scott defended Azalea's place in rap - but added they wished she'd be more herself, drop the "blaccent," and rap about Australia. Jacob Peck of iSocialite Media says she should have won best new artist and "people have misplaced a lot of pent-up animosity on her."
Timothy Welbeck, professor of African American studies at Temple University, and also a hip-hop artist, sees the ironies. Eminem, for example, won his sixth Grammy on Sunday. Welbeck suggests that though talented, Eminem has become the safe white guy who can rap: "The academy got to continue their trend of awarding a white artist in that category while avoiding controversy."
Peck, on the other hand, says Eminem has "contributed back to the community from which hip-hop is birthed." And that may be the difference: Eminem shows respect for the tradition, while Azalea seems not to care. Many see her entire professional persona as a caricature.
"The way she presents her music is disingenuous," said Welbeck. "She divorces hip-hop of its context and how she speaks in a way that comes across as patronizing. It comes across as jive. She's celebrated for many of the things black women have been derided for for centuries, her physique and her style of speech when she raps."
When white artists adopt black practices, they tend to domesticate and render as safe things that, when black people do them, are seen as threatening. In an interview on hip-hop station Hot 97 in New York, white rapper Macklemore spoke of how he's seen as "safe" in comparison with other rappers although his content may be just as profane.
Rashid remembers Beyoncé's "Drunk in Love" performance with Jay Z at the 2014 Grammys and how many parents said the performance was too raunchy. He sees a double standard: "Iggy does it. And [this year] she's nominated for rap album of the year."
"It's not threatening anymore when a white woman does it," Welbeck said.
"If you can find a person who is of European descent who causes less controversy as far as attacking the oppression that black people deal with, that's the easier way to go," said Philly rapper Khemist. "It's marketable and it's profitable."
For Khemist, hip-hop is built on honesty. His slogan is, "I did it without a gimmick."
Raw says hip-hop is full of gimmicks and died well before Nas' 2006 album, Hip Hop is Dead, supposedly served as its obituary.
So, for Raw, Azalea is not the issue; the issue is preserving and diversifying black expression. "Artists who were at the top of the game used it and sold it out so much and abuse it to the point that they look phony," Raw said. "So when they look phony and the message is watered down, it makes it easier for other people to do the same thing." He says artists such as J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake are "still fighting the good fight."
Welbeck is unsure, but he hopes "as hip-hop grows and evolves that people respects its origins and dynamics and culture," and he urges people to buy and support what they like.
After Macklemore and Lewis were awarded best rap album last year, Philly rapper Joie Kathos didn't watch the Grammys this year. But she says she sees a renaissance occurring.
"There's a need for black people to spit raps that motivate us and represent our culture," Kathos said. "I have hope."
In fairness to Kanye West, he has since professed regret, praised Beck, and announced he'll be recording with Taylor Swift, another white artist he once Kanyed at an awards ceremony. But the point has been, once again, made loud and clear. However the pendulum swings, the culture that birthed Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," Queen Latifah's "Ladies First," and Tupac Shakur's "Changes" is unlikely to go down without a fight.