How to hustle your way to success

On the 'banned' cover of <i>Dazed and Confused</i>.

On the 'banned' cover of Dazed and Confused.

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.

Azeelia Banks for <i>W Magazine</i>.

Azeelia Banks for W Magazine.

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.

And closer to home, visual artist Hazel Dooney is a study in the power of bypassing traditional systems to disseminate your work – her refusal to pander to galleries and use her own tools to seek out audiences has seen her achieve global success on her own terms.

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.

5 comments

  • Being completely unfamiliar with the celebrities involved here, I'm struggling to get a handle on exactly what is being said about Azeelia Banks. From what I gather, it appears that:
    1. Banks is successful on her own terms, rather than complying with any pre-established pathway to success.
    2. Banks' success is thanks to a shameless degree of self-promotion and carefully riding the waves of popularity to take every advantage possible
    3. This is a generally accepted way to the top for male rappers, but not in keeping with the image of the self-made woman
    4. Hustling is being described as using whatever influence and power that is available to further one's own goals, even if common social constructs suggest it would be poor form to do so.

    Is hustling merely embracing the act of selling out? Or is it more than this?

    Commenter
    Lucid Fugue
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    December 10, 2012, 9:58AM
    • Lucid Fugue, hustling is a common term in the hip hop world.
      It stems from the street, hustling is essentially making money any way you can, whether legal or illegal. A hustler is someone who is ruthless and street smart and knows how to make dollars. Someone who doesn't care if they break the law, and has to scrap and fight to succeed.
      Often it just means a drug dealer, but not always.

      In this context, hip hop artists, of both genders, often refer to themselves as hustlers. It means they are tough and resourceful, and able to succeed through sheer bloody-mindedness.

      I don't agree with the premise of the article that hustling is an intrinsically male activity though. There have been many successful female hip hop artists, hundreds of them, for decades now. I would wager that most of them have referred to themselves as hustlers at some point. It's a very, very common term in hip hop, and in the United States. It's basically gender neutral. There are tracks in one of the most seminal hip hop albums of all time, Dre's 2001, in which female rappers refer to themselves as hustlers.

      I think the article draws a fairly long bow on that.

      This however I liked - "Love it or hate it, the tune highlights an invisible connection between ability and accountability that’s often missing in conversations about female ambition."

      Commenter
      Jon
      Date and time
      December 10, 2012, 1:55PM
  • Azealia is the real deal. She's the female equivalent of, say, Snoop Dog. She just oozes charisma, which is exactly why she can get away with her shocking language.
    Having said that, I really feel it's not entirely congruent for feminists to embrace her, when she's basically doing all of the things feminists have been criticising male rappers of doing all these years. It's just that she's a woman.

    Commenter
    c1ee
    Date and time
    December 10, 2012, 1:12PM
    • Just another person who was able to capitalise on the new media & garner themselves attention in my opinion.

      Commenter
      HighlyDubious
      Date and time
      December 10, 2012, 2:23PM
      • Isn't it Wellesley College?

        Commenter
        Bla
        Date and time
        December 10, 2012, 2:43PM
        Comments are now closed