Not Immigrants, Just People: On Azealia Banks and the Importance of Solidarity

On Monday, September 7, rapper/singer Azealia Banks took to Instagram to express some controversial thoughts about immigration. In a series of posts, she explained she “sort of” agrees with Donald Trump, writing that African-Americans have yet to receive reparations for slavery, while immigrants are “sucking up state aid, government money, space in schools, quality of life, etc.” It wasn’t long before she backtracked, claiming that she is not supporting Trump and that her post was just a “social experiment.” But in the same series of posts, she also suggested that solidarity among minority communities may, in fact, be to blame for the struggles of blacks in America. “Self-preservation is key,” she insisted.

At this point, Banks is probably better-known for her Twitter rants and beef than she is for her music – so it’s no big surprise to hear her air controversial, divisive opinions. Still, these declarations go beyond name-calling. She presents a troubling scenario.

Driving a rift between Latino immigrants and African-Americans is illogical to say the least – for a whole host of reasons. The first, is that dismantling white supremacy is not going to happen if oppressed, minority communities don’t work together and support each other. History is rife with examples of how the “self-preservation, me first” ideology was wielded by those in power to break up alliances that could have overturned the ruling class. One need only to look to the post-Reconstruction era as an example, when the Populist Party began to grow a large following in the Southern U.S. by creating an alliance of poor black and white farmers, both of whom stood to benefit from political reforms. The party’s leader, Thomas E. Watson, was known to address mixed race crowds, telling them “you are separated [by race] so that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings.” In response to the party’s sweeping success, the Southern ruling class drove a wedge in this alliance, stoking racial fears with racist propaganda and helping convince poor white farmers that they’d be better off advancing their agenda without blacks.

To this day, working class whites in the U.S. are most likely to hold racist views – often believing that minorities are cheating them of economic opportunities, rather than blaming the (white) power structure that truly profits from this system. It’s hard not to see parallels between this scenario and Banks’ point of view. Suggesting that supporting the cause and rights of immigrants detracts from or dilutes the social justice fight for blacks is just flawed logic.

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Beyond the shared socio-economic struggles, our communities also share a cultural legacy that Banks holds close to her heart: the music. After all, Latinos have been involved in the inception and evolution of hip-hop (the same genre of music Banks came up in and fiercely defends) since the beginning; we have continued to contribute to the culture at every level, both at the underground and in the mainstream, at home and abroad. As music writer Gary Suarez pointed out on Twitter, Latinos are an important target market for the music and culture.

Like most of the biggest movements in history, hip-hop is not an isolated phenomenon, and the fact that it remains a vital part of contemporary life is due, in part, to the diverse personalities that are involved in it, as both creators and audience. Dear Azealia, without immigrants (not just Mexicans) you probably wouldn’t have a chance to make a living as an artist. (Banks is slated to play House Of Vans in Mexico City on September 18, interestingly enough).

Lastly, you just need to open a newspaper to see how dangerous anti-immigrant, “me first” mentalities and rhetoric can be – from the refugee crisis unfolding in Europe to the expulsion of Colombians in Venezuela to the threats of mass deportation of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the D.R., to the Central American immigrants dying in greater numbers in Mexican territory. When people like Banks and Trump refuse to draw on their human empathy to understand why people migrate in the first place, when they refuse to understand the conditions of those who are displaced involuntarily or in search of a better life, it can only lead to ignorance that, in turn, can become intolerance and hatred. What we need is solidarity, not finger pointing, blame, and violence. Though she seems to have forgotten, Banks herself has spoken about how she benefitted from immigration with comments in past interviews about being “raised by Dominican babysitters” because her mother worked late when she was a child.

Culturally, African-Americans, Latinos, and other minorities in the U.S. have come together time and time again to make amazing things in arts, sports, fashion, culture, and many more fields. Together they have made a country founded by migrants and refugees bigger and better. Perhaps author Teju Cole said it best when he urged us to remember our humanity: “More than ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ I say ‘people,’ and say it with compassion,” he wrote. “Because everyone I love, and everyone they love has at some point said tearful goodbyes and moved from place to place to seek new opportunities, and almost all of them have by their movement improved those new places.”

Azealia would do well to remember that.