What to make of Azealia Banks

Azealia Banks – the 21-year-old rapper who rocketed from obscurity to cusp-of-superstardom when her raunchy romp “212” debuted on YouTube (September 2011) and promptly went viral (10-million-plus hits) – continues to amp her status as an industry darling.

Banks rang in the new year with a third-place win in BBC’s Sound of 2012 and a Universal record deal and has since worked with Scissor Sisters, Lana Del Rey, MIA and Diplo. She has recently been turning heads with her 19-track mixtape, Fantasea (self-released July 11).

It is a follow-up to her acclaimed EP 1991 (Interscope, May 28), and Fantasea delivers even more wild skill. And like her Mermaid Ball – an aqua-themed queer-ball-inspired extravaganza – two Fantasea tracks pay explicit queer homage: “Ima Read” (Zebra Katz’s 2005 tribute to 1980s ball culture and Paris Is Burning), and “Fierce” (which samples Paris Is Burning dialogue).

For Banks, the mashup is a no-brainer, as she declared via Twitter on July 29:

“The gay boys of NYC created this ALL . . . ALL of ur fav pop stars are HEAVILY influenced by the gay boys in NYC . . . NONE of this is original.

“Behind every bad bitch, there is a gay man or two.

“Unless your a dyke like me and you can hold it down on your own [sic].”

It was in February that Banks breezily came out during an interview with John Ortved, of The New York Times. Ortved positioned the queer reveal in relation to “212” – in which Banks taunts a male rival with the fact that his girlfriend would rather be fucking Banks: “Kick it with ya bitch who come from Parisian / She know where I get mine from, and the season / Now she wanna lick my plum in the evening / And fit that ton-tongue d-deep in / I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.”

Wrote Ortved, “Ms. Banks considers herself bisexual, but, she said: ‘I’m not trying to be, like, the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don’t live on other people’s terms.’”

Critics and fans were left goggle-eyed by her revelation. Suddenly, Banks’s name came with a built-in hashtag (#bisexual), “is-she-or-isn’t-she” inquiry (Banks was dating a boy), and the notion of “conundrum” (her sexuality as both riddle and dilemma).

Even now, there’s a gap in how Banks’s sexuality is understood. Her queer sensibility has been called “innovative” – but it’s also been misread as “hag mode.”

This inability to understand bisexuality is, as Huffington Post’s Amy Andre points out, in part due to the “monosexual” eye with which we’re “train[ed]” to understand sexuality.

“Monosexuality,” says Andre, “conflates the idea of being and doing” – who someone does becomes who someone is (same-sex couplings = homo; opposite-sex couplings = straight). Within this paradigm, bisexuality is rendered invisible and, therefore, invalid.

 

Witness the oddity, notes Andre, in “describ[ing Banks] as someone who ‘considers herself’ bisexual, rather than just as someone who is bisexual.” Indeed, this phrasing suggests Banks’s claim to bisexuality is speculative, inconclusive and to that end, debatable.

It’s phrasing that’s frequently used to solicit cross-examination of bisexual female bodies (see Drew Barrymore, Anna Paquin, Lindsay Lohan). Within these “investigations,” the “evidence” is always the same: She’s just trying to get attention! She’s confused! She’s dating a boy ergo she’s straight! And so is the verdict: bisexuality, though titillating, is ultimately a sham.

This invasive “prove-it” probe may be what prompted Banks’s attempt to desexualize her body/bawdy, in a Complex interview:

“You know how Perez Hilton is just mad gay? His theme is, ‘I’m gay’ even though he has his gossip thing. I didn’t want my theme to be ‘I’m gay’ like I’m some fucking raging dyke. I don’t want to push it out there and have it about me being some huge fucking muff diver.”

Indeed, when women – already hyper-sexualized within our culture – talk sex/sexuality, it’s often seen as carte blanche to leer and fetishize. As Banks told the BBC, male journalists have been particularly licentious, tweaked by the “cunnilanguage” (as NME coined it) of “212.”

Said Banks: “[They] hear the music and think it’s a green light to ask you all of these questions about your sexuality. The actual details. Weirdoes. It’s like, get the hell out of my face. You just want to punch someone.”

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