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Azealia Banks
Azealia BanksPhotography George Brown

Going to see Azealia Banks live is a guilty pleasure

We discussed cancel culture with fans at the rapper’s London comeback show

Until this weekend, I’d never had to justify attending a live show before. Yet the discussions I had before Azealia Banks’s second London show made it seem as though I’d decided to don a MAGA hat, or buy a bunch of R Kelly vinyl. She’s said a lot of things that I couldn’t even begin to defend – homophobic things, misogynistic insults, racially insensitive comments. She’s also not heterosexual, and happens to be a black woman living with bipolar, which makes her harder to place on that ever-widening spectrum of ‘cancelled’ stars. She’s at least at a lower tier, given that she’s not a politician, or a sexual predator, or someone with much power to wield against, well, anyone.

The reason that people are still paying attention to Banks is that she’s still easily one of the most talented rappers around. On Sunday evening, at Electric Brixton, Banks stood for a moment in knee-high leather boots, a smart black pencil skirt, and her trademark long, straight hair. Before a beat had dropped, before she’d even opened her mouth, there was a moment of elation in the room. For once, the attention would be on Banks’s talents, not her controversies. The crowd manoeuvred their phones to get the best shot of Banks as she asked: “London, round two. Are you ready?” For the next hour-and-a-half, her undeniable charisma, raspy vocals, and quickfire raps were the focus. Nothing else.

Banks has an impressive repertoire of crowd pleasers, considering she’s only released one studio album. Digging into her witch hop and seapunk archive, the 27-year-old reeled off the lines of “Esta Noche”, from her 2012 debut mixtape Fantasea. Although she’s left that Tumblr aesthetic behind, it felt like no time had passed for her 20-something fans, who excitedly rapped the line about her “tight grip twat”. She breezed through “Miss Camaraderie”, a fan favourite from her first album Broke with Expensive Taste – a track now immortalised as the name of one of her soaps for acne and scarring. Then came “1991” from her first EP, the same release that featured “212”, the track that shot her to fame.

The set was a return to form artistically, but she had very few words to say to the crowd – perhaps because the show had been preceded by the sort of press frenzy we’ve become accustomed to. On January 21, she ended up on the front page of Irish newspapers because she called the emerald isle a nation of “inbred leprechauns” after an argument with an Aer Lingus flight attendant. Despite this, there were many just like me who came out to watch the cancelled Queen. Even if it wasn’t without that familiar pang of moral dilemma.

After stumbling out towards Brixton McDonald’s, fans were discussing the show and singing her tracks between mouthfuls of chips. I needed to know: was I the only one who had inherent guilt around my continued support of the woman who has insulted everyone from Rihanna to Sarah Palin? In reality, her fans are all as quick to protect her as they are to criticise her sharp tongue.

“I stand by my decision,” says Michael, 25. “People never question me on it because I recognise that some things that she’s said aren’t right, but we still really enjoy her music. You can separate the artist from their music.” In one breath he praises her for being “unapologetic” and in the next, he sighs. “But, she is problematic.”

There’s an inherent contrast between the beliefs of her fans and the life Azealia leads. Sometimes her fearlessness in speaking her mind is refreshing, as fewer musicians are speaking with honesty anymore, fearful of the social media backlash they might provoke if their comments are misinterpreted. At other times, her multicultural fanbase has been disappointed by Banks, not for her lack of ‘decorum’, but for her choices of targets and use of racial and homophobic slurs, like when she called Zayn Malik a “curry-scented bitch”.

“It went from her just being messy and fighting with people, to her actually being a problem, and hurting a wider community of people,” says Olivia, who also attended the show. “One of my closest friends is a South Asian gay guy, and we've shared a queer appreciation of Azealia, so to hear her whip out some deep anti-South Asian chat was just too awkward.” Discomfort intensifies with insults that are considered to be “downward-punching”, like her comments about jailing women who have too many abortions. The contradiction of her being a queer performer with a strong LGBTQ+ fanbase that has found herself apologising for using homophobic slurs as insults. Or how, as a beautiful dark-skinned woman who has been applauded by her black fans for speaking out against industry colourism, she then used her fame to sell bleaching soaps. Because of that, Olivia says, going to her gigs will always be a “political” quandary.

Interestingly, what a lot of her fans have in common is that they don’t just judge her comments against her music, they take her trauma into account. Olivia feels like a lot of publications have more appetite for Banks’s rants than her music, or her difficult life story. “It becomes a race-baiting exercise”, they add. “You gotta take (her bipolar disorder) into account, the abuse she had from her mum, whether she has anyone who properly looks after her. That doesn’t erase it, she still said that shit.”

Twenty-five-year-old Zabian agrees. “She’s had a series of unfortunate events with managers and record labels. People tend to gloss over all the things she’s had to overcome just so they can push the agenda that she’s the angry black woman.” The press had more of an appetite for chronicling Banks’s outbursts than to looking into the accusation that Russell Crowe spat at her and called her the N-word, an altercation RZA later admitted he saw. “You have to recognise both sides of the person,” Zabian adds. “She’s a multi-faceted person and she has her good days, her bad days, but it wouldn’t be Azealia Banks without that.”

Each pulsing beat, slick verse, or crooned note of Azealia’s could have soundtracked your freshers, your sloppy drunk club nights, or house parties in the early 2010s. Zabian is ecstatic he got to see “1991” live. “Do you know how many times I’ve played that in my life? It takes me to another level,” he says. Olivia says that when Banks played “212”, she felt like she was “19 again”. It’s not so easy to separate the art from the artist when the art is intertwined with your own euphoric moments. That’s why an Azealia Banks show feels like a rich mix of contradictions. Everyone is young, there’s an array of races, sexualities, and gender identities. If you only look online, you get a distorted impression of how people feel about an artist, but in real life, the room is full.