It feels like a lifetime ago now. When a 20-year-old Azealia Banks ranked third in the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll, the national broadcaster featured her in a breezy snippet of an interview. She sat down in a fluffy red coat, giving a smiley and confident account of her story so far, from performing arts school to the runaway success of 2011’s “212.” In the video, shot in a sort of soulless studio space, she already displays signs of the ambition that would keep her releasing music even after seemingly burning so many bridges along the way.
At one point, she talks briefly about what role her music serves in her life—keep in mind that, by this stage in her career, she’d just released a bunch of singles online and hadn’t yet put out her debut EP 1991. “Rap is my way of just… just expressing my fears, my desire—everything, you know?" she says. “It’s all that stuff… just saying all the things I wanna say to people,” and she laughs, “without actually offending them.” Later, after referencing moving to London to work on an album with Paul Epworth, she adds: “I’m just enjoying it, and making sure I keep enjoying what I do, enjoying life and everything.”
To imagine an Azealia who says what she likes ‘without offending people’ is to imagine a completely different artist from the one who works today. Fast-forward almost exactly seven years since that BBC video upload, and the Harlem rapper is back in London, to play two live shows over one weekend. True to form, a flurry of controversy has flapped behind Azealia on her journey to the capital, via Dublin and Manchester. After being confronted by staff on an Aer Lingus flight–she says an attendant asked her for something that was in her luggage and not to hand, then became aggressive—she had to disembark. She then shared a series of teary Instagram stories where she called the flight attendants—specifically—“ugly Irish women here,” after one had allegedly stared at her and told the captain Azealia had threatened the staff. The story grew from there. Her short tour turned into front-page news in Ireland (which…???), the crowd at her Dublin gig chanted “Fuck Aer Lingus,” and there was a suggestion Azealia could be sued for typing “Don't you have a famine to go die in?" in response to a woman on Instagram whose bio describes her as “Irish born and bred.”
But this is post-2013 Azealia Banks, and so controversy is part and parcel of her public persona. She veers between offensive statements and apologies, putting out songs throughout. I’m sure I join the ranks of most other people who’ve written about her live shows over the past week in thinking ‘she’s messy but… the live show absolutely goes.’ Because it does. She marries her propulsive flow with throaty warbling with a crowd-pleasing set and an energy that still—even after GLAAD put out a statement about her using an anti-gay slur against blogger Perez Hilton—helps the LGBT+ fans in the room feel seen. Look, things don’t make sense in a clear-cut way during an Azealia Banks gig. But when you’re dealing with an artist whose career trajectory has stopped and started, pushed along by delectable bangers, that’s par for the course.
I’m at the first of the two weekend shows, shoving my way through an early Friday night crowd at KOKO in a bid to find a good vantage point for the stage. Azealia is running about 45 minutes late. The punters around me, on one of the high balcony levels, are a mixture of what you’d expect from her English audience: beautiful septum-pierced, ‘leather and harness’ black and brown queer people, queer white fans, the black straight girls here in their groups of friends and miscellaneous straight women who appear to only have come to hear “212” and “Anna Wintour.”
It’s testament to Azealia’s skill as a performer that she can still attract such a diverse crowd (though, notably, not really in age). Her music, from its pulsing club-ready beats to rap-head flows to bellowing choruses, creates a haven for people who can feel easily misunderstood or undersold by mainstream culture. And that accounts for the queer, gay, black and brown people whose bodies heave as she teases us with an a cappella start to opener “Luxury” before launching into its Machinedrum-produced pounding 90s-house club beat.
“They tried to ban the girls?” she yells into the mic when the song finishes, no doubt referencing the Irish debacle. “The bitches is back! The girl is back.” She proves as much, across a set that spans her first EPs, mixtapes and only album so far. Her lyrical dexterity and wink-wink charm create an atmosphere so electric that you’re almost cocooned for a while. It’s as though, for that hour and a bit, you get to enjoy the clanging synths on “Heavy Metal & Reflective” and the belly-jiggling bass on deliciously verbose and filthy lip-smacker “L8R” without having to process her gross past comments on Zayn Malik, Remy Ma, Angel Haze or, at her lowest point, Trump (she’s since withdrawn her support for him).
Because, frankly, none of the above seems to matter when watching her whip her wig while flanked by two backing dancers voguing to 2018’s “Anna Wintour.” She is an incredibly talented rapper, and a very capable singer once she’s let her voice warm up and is treating the crowd to a lounge jazz-style number. In that way, it’s a shame that all of her views—dark jokes, direct insults designed to hurt, knee-jerk reactions to perceived slights, valid comments on cultural appropriation in rap—have all been given equal status in people’s lists of reasons as to why she’s apparently racist or homophobic.
It’s important to remember, though, that words exist in context. When a black New Yorker insults a few select Irish women, then resorts to horrendous stereotypes and ugly words about the Potato Famine, she’s drawing from a well of anti-Irish discrimination that ran deep in American society. Before Irish immigrants were allowed into the Anglo-Saxon fold of ‘good’ whiteness, they were cast out and struggled on the US’s east coast. This doesn’t excuse what she said, but contextualizes it on one level. Grim as her words are, they also aren’t backed by the heft of structural power. Black women have not, for hundreds of years, succeeded in demonzsing or oppressing the Irish in any sort of state-backed regime that pitted the two groups against each other. What Azealia wrote in some of her Instagram comments was hideous, disrespectful and in bad taste, but doesn’t have the power to endanger people’s lives today. The Irish have suffered greatly, but not at the hands of people who shared Azealia's broad social groupings. At a time where we’re quick to declare someone cancelled or bigoted, we have to know how their behavior fits into the cycles of power that have run societies for millennia. Otherwise, we risk distorting reality or creating false equivalences.
But let’s be honest, I don’t want to turn this into a uni essay on Gramsci’s idea of hegemony. Whether you choose to defend Azealia in the pub with your friends is up to you. Separating the art from the artist runs along a spectrum and everyone gets to choose the place where they draw their line in the sand and say, ‘nah, I can’t support this.’ Judging by the absolute hysteria that kicks off when she finally plays “212” in KOKO, where the multi-floor venue shakes as though it might tumble down, the people here know where they stand. And as for Azealia and Ireland? Well, she had a final parting message on Instagram on Sunday: “UK, it’s been real real fucking cute. Dublin… I’m gonna miss you guys but I ain’t coming back up in that bitch now, after this,” and she laughs. “I ain’t coming back to Dublin. Shit, I’m not even going to the Irish pub no more; y’all niggas is crazy. I ain’t drinkin' no Guinness. Hell naw.” It’s a long way from the woman in 2012.
You can find Tshepo on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.