INTERVIEW: Azealia Banks On… the Self-Made World That Saved Her From a Life of Depression and Abuse

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  • The following story is taken from the archives of our free iPad magazine. It first ran at the tail end of 2011, when we declared Azelia Banks our leading Artist to Watch for the following year. Last week, she finally released the record she promised us back then: the bold declaration of independence ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’…

    Words ARYE DWORKEN Photography MICHAEL FLORES

    In the breakout video for her single “212,” Azealia Banks beams an eager, ever-present smile and dances playfully in front of a blank-canvas brick wall. Her pigtails draped over a Mickey Mouse-adorned sweater, she spits blush-inducing verses like an R-rated Pippi Longstocking. Banks is confident, carefree and, most of all, undeniably intriguing–a girl you feel like you want (need?) to know.

    This isn’t, however, the Banks we meet near Central Park. The Azealia Banks we’re chatting with is genial but quite reserved–a slight 20-year-old in pink patent-leather platforms who isn’t afraid to remind us we’ve “already asked that question.” And has no qualms about telling our photographer where she wants to do our photo shoot: near her high school, Fame’s LaGuardia Arts–not at the Harlem neighborhood where she grew up, as we’d previously planned.

    But none of this should be surprising. After all, Banks has flourished on her own terms for more than a decade. “By the time I was 8, I was really mature and got a key [to my mom's house],” says Banks. “Catholic school was around the corner, so I would go home with some soda and some chips and use that time to sing out loud.”

    Since then, she spent years as a vocalist and developing actress, at one point getting props from Diplo and earning an ill-fated development deal with XL owner/M.I.A. impresario Richard Russell in 2009. Now, thanks in part to “212,” Banks is enjoying somewhat of an early-career do-over, turning heads as an MC with a machine gun for a mouth and even topping (yes, topping) NME‘s annual Cool List for 2011. She’s planned to spend time in London to work on music with producer Paul Epworth (of Florence + the Machine and Adele fame), and anyone paying attention to Banks’ Twitter can only assume that she’s days away from announcing some sort of big label news (“I’m about to be rich,” she Tweeted on Nov. 11, followed by, “I love having secrets,” and “The music industry is a battlefield, and I’m ready for fucking war”).

    Clearly, 2012 belongs to Banks. Or as she tell us, as stone-faced serious as one can be, “I really feel like I’m going to change the scope of pop music.”


    “I was like, ‘I didn’t come here for a date. I came here to cut some fucking records.’”


    Where did you go to school as a kid?
    I went to Catholic school around the corner from my house; predominately Dominican kids and Irish kids. I left there in the fourth grade, and I went to this school called the Mott Hall school… I was such a nerd in the fifth grade. I got this flyer for a company called the TADA! Theater for Kids. It’s a non-profit organization where talented kids can come and you’re eligible for free lessons and stuff like that.

    Do you have siblings?
    Two older sisters.

    Are you close with them? And are they into the arts?
    Yeah, I’m close with them, but they’re just two regular hard-working women.

    Are you still in touch with your family? Because I was told you were in-between places, and being that you’re close with your family, I would assume you would stay with them.
    I have an apartment, but I recently had my lease up, and went to Montreal for a couple of months. Then I came back to New York and stayed with my ex-boyfriend and that didn’t work out. Then I stayed with my mom and then “212” blew up. And people started saying, ‘Azealia, we need you here, here, here, here and here.’ So it’s been easier to get a piece of mind in my own place here in the hotel.

    You’ve been recording on your own for years now. And on your MySpace page, at some point, it said you were signed to XL. What happened there?
    As soon as I started putting out tracks I was already getting attention. Like Diplo kept talking about me, and that’s when XL hit me up. They flew me out to London, and the original idea was to have me work with Richard Russell and I got signed to this development deal. Richard was real cool but as soon as I didn’t want to use his beats, it got real sour. He wound up calling me “amateur” and shit, and the XL interns started talking shit about me. It just got real fucking funny. I was like, ‘I didn’t come here for a date. I came here to cut some fucking records.’ I got real turned off on the music industry and disappeared for a bit. I went into a bit of a depression and shit.

    What happened during your depression?
    The reason I started rapping was that I was acting before and I had an acting manager and an acting agent, and I felt like, ‘Damn, I was working hard since I was 9 years old. When does this happen?’ I got really depressed about that, and rapping was my own way of reassuring myself that I was still talented.

    I also had a really fucked up manager. I kept trying different things and it wasn’t working. I was thinking maybe I should just go back to school and I was working as a barista…basically, I was quitting. At one point, I was pretending like I never even had a deal. And I broke up with my boyfriend. I felt like I hit rock bottom. And I’ve never really don’t any drugs—I mean, I smoke weed—but I ran away to Montreal and recorded some stuff up there and shit started happening.

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    What did you think you were going to find in Montreal that you couldn’t find in New York?
    Peace of mind. I didn’t have a boyfriend. I didn’t have a place to stay. My manager had dropped me. I needed something different.

    What was it about acting that initially connected with you?
    I spent a lot of time alone when I was kid. My sisters were both much older than me. We’re 8 and 13 years apart. So they were out of the house, and I would barely see them.

    Did your sisters go to art school?
    No.

    Was that your choice? When you were ready for high school you were like, it’s time for me to get into the arts?
    No, I’ve been doing this since I was 10. I got that flyer [for the TADA! Theater], saw that it was free, and was like, ‘Mom, I need to do this.’ When my mom went back to work at a retail store, I would have a babysitter, but by the time I was 8, I was really mature and I got a key. And Catholic school was like around the corner. So I would go home with some soda and some chips, be bored out of my fucking mind, and I would use that time to sing out loud.

    Do you feel comfortable as a rapper or as a singer?
    I feel more comfortable singing because it just feels more natural. The rapping… sometimes I, like, cringe at myself rapping old stuff like “Give Me a Chance.” You get this sense that I’m trying too hard. Now I’m feeling more mature.

    It’s so jarring hearing a young girl say “cunt” so often.
    It’s so funny because I didn’t know it was that offensive.

    Really?
    I feel like “cunt” means so feminine. Like a gay guy says, that’s so cunt. That’s so feminine. That’s so good. It’s in the vein of like, voguing.

    From a lyrical standpoint, there’s a heavy thematic presence of sexuality in all the songs. Where is that coming from?
    From having sex?

    There’s nothing veiled about it. It’s not something we hear often from female musicians.
    Not to get all deep and shit, but my dad died when I was 2. And there’s always been this part of me that’s super curious about men. Even when I was little, I was always getting in trouble for like, kissing boys. I’ve always been a very sexual person. When I started having sex, there was this piece of me there that I needed to unlock.

    It is weird for you to play these songs for your mother?
    No. Sex is fucking sex. We wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for sex.

    Do you find that people presume to know you based on your lyrics?
    For sure. I just think of my rap songs as my own monologues. For the same reason, I can pick up fucking Titus Andronicus and read Tamora, and the same reason, I could pick up fucking Raisin in the Sun and read Beneatha, and I could pick up Girl Interrupted and read Lisa. You know what I mean? Like, who fucking cares?

    I feel like you have these different characters in your songs; like you’re channeling different sides of you.
    They’re not people. I haven’t named them. I really just honestly get a beat, and whichever the beat makes me feel is what the song will be.

    Tell me about the characters in “212.”
    It’s really more that she’s this coked-out, overly ambitious bitch. That bitch is struggling and she wants whatever she can get. That’s the bridge—where she knows that she’s better than what’s happening and she needs to refocus and re-center.

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    Paul Auster wrote a piece about you in the Guardian in 2009. I think you were even going by Miss Bank$ then. Did you graduate high school?
    I left senior year. I went to school for my drama block and that was it. I was living with my sister at the time, so I would leave really early in the morning and I would go hook up with some dude, and we’d fucking fuck all day, smoke, and I’d go to school, be an actress and then go like on two auditions a day.

    Did you have friends in school?
    Yeah, but I always in my own world. Not to toot my own horn, but I was the most talented kid in my class. The entire school knew who I was, and sometimes girls would really want to be friends with me. And just because I wasn’t expressing the same enthusiasm as them, they’d be like, ‘Azealia is such a fucking bitch.’ But when I came around they’d be like, ‘Hey Azealia, let’s hang out. It was so mad fucking fake.’

    I know who I am. [Most] people don’t find out who they are until they’re 50, or 60. Most young girls my age don’t know who they are, either.

    How did you make friends then?
    On the street. I like to think that I have a lot of spiritual assistance from the outside. I worked at Starbucks for a long time and some girls would come in there. I’d meet some people at Harlem.

    Now that your career is taking off, who can you trust? Who’s like a stable source?
    Myself. I spend a lot of time alone. I really live in my own world. And I enjoy being in my own world.

    What brought you out of your depression?
    I was on the brink of fucking losing it… I thought if I don’t figure this shit out, I will be dead by the time I’m 20.

    What was that day like?
    I broke up with this guy who I was dating for a long time; this guy who was married. When I got with him, he told me he was divorced. Then he told me he was working on the paperwork. Then I find out that they’re not even fucking separated and when he goes back to L.A., he goes back to his wife. And at that point, I’m really in love with this guy.

    I was basically his punching bag for a while. I was 18 and he was 43. And I was like his emotional sponge; he would use me to soak up all his misery and shit. It didn’t make sense to me until after we had broken up that that he was making me depressed. You know, when you’re having sex with someone, whatever is in that person’s subconscious mingles with your subconscious.

    He had substance abuse problems. I mean, I don’t do drugs—I smoke weed every once in awhile—but I’ve seen what that shit does to people and what it does to your creativity. I get depressed but life isn’t that bad. He convinced me that I had all these problems I didn’t have. He convinced me I was a drug addict because I liked to smoke pot. He convinced me that I was a sex addict because I was begging him to come into town. It’s like, ‘No, I haven’t seen you in a month and a half.’ It was a really, really an abusive relationship.


    “It actually scared me into the arts, you know?


    You don’t seem like the type of girl who’d be victimized…
    But when you have daddy issues like I do, it’s inevitable.

    Strange that you’re so aware and willing to diagnose yourself like that.
    Whenever you’re trying to lie to yourself and deny something, you’re creating more bullshit. Look, we’re human beings. We get sad, we get happy, we do bad shit. I haven’t harmed any children or any animals. My conscious is pretty clear.

    I imagine life is hectic now.
    Yeah, but I could be doing worse things.

    Where does your drive come from? Someone your age is rarely this driven.
    I grew up by myself a lot. If I wanted to eat, I had to get up and go make myself breakfast. If I wanted to go get my hair done, I would have to save my $5 allowance a day and go to the hair salon on the weekend. And the thing is, on top of that, my mom was really abusive; like, really abusive. If you go into the system and type my name up, there are mad [child services] cases.

    We’re talking both verbal and physical abuse?
    Verbally, physically, mentally.

    And you’re still in touch with her?
    Yeah, of course. She’s my mother. You only have one mom.

    Is this like, I would see a kid get slapped on the street by her mom for crying?
    No, my mom would like brawl with us. She would like throw shit at me. You ever see that movie Precious?

    Yeah.
    My mom was like that. She was always stressed out; always overworked. The only man she ever loved… she got with my dad when she was 14 and he was 47. She had three kids by the time she was 32. And he just died.

    Natural?
    He had pancreatic cancer, but he liked to drink a lot. That really killed her. And my dad was a fucking pig. He had kids with other women, and she was fighting for his attention for so long. By the time I was born, she was finally starting to get some back from him and he just died. And that crushed her. A lot of that anger came out throughout my childhood. Every little thing that was wrong was ass-whoppin.’ Like, ‘You little bitch!’

    I would assume that being raised like that would scare someone straight. It actually scared me into the arts, you know?

    Did you audition for LaGuardia?
    Yeah. I started as a vocal major and transferred into the drama department.

    What were the kids in LaGuardia like?
    Privileged Upper West Side kids. There were like some kids from neighborhood that were broke. We didn’t give a fuck. We all shared everything. When kids had parties… there was no one who was like, ‘My family has more than your family.’ Who’s got the best jokes and the best clothes? That’s what it was all about.

    What’s informing your lyrics the most right now? Where’s your head at?
    A little less in the gutter. When you hear my mixtape, you’ll hear more pensiveness. You’ll hear a girl who wants to stay focused and be happy and doesn’t have to answer to anyone. Maybe she’s over her daddy issues a bit. She’s secure about her life and she’s done asking, ‘Why me?’ Now it’s all about me.

    In the video for “212” I see a happy girl with no worries.
    Yeah, because I was chilling with my friends. We were eating chicken sandwiches on the streets of Montreal.

    What’s the story behind the legal complications behind the song?
    Lazy Jay is a producer from Norway. And he has a string of songs from a few years ago, like “Float My Boat,” “Honk My Horn” and “Bing My Rell.” I thought those songs were brilliant. But I really wanted to rap on “Float My Boat.”

    We never meant for “212” to be as big as it got. I’m a rapper and I rap over beats. And he’s all paranoid that I’m making money off of it. His name is Lazy Jay for a reason. He obviously hasn’t been doing much work and now he’s trying to sit on my lap. And it’s like, ‘No, you cannot sit on my lap, sir.’ Me and my team are making the rounds off of “212.” What the fuck are you doing? This is in the spirit of the mixtape and hip hop.

    We hit Lazy Jay’s label up seven months ago and they didn’t say shit. They were like, ‘You can license it,’ and they didn’t even listen to the song. People who have legitimate fucking careers are not after me. That’s Broke Nigga Syndrome. And the only way to get rid of that is you work.

    I’m already ready for “213.” We can make “212” disappear; we can make Lazy Jay disappear; we can make all this shit disappear. It’s real sad because his manager tried to be all funny; CCing all these Sony execs, saying we were damaging his client’s name. I just did more for your client than you have ever done. Ever. Lazy Jay needs to shut the fuck up and send me some more beats. On top of that, “Float My Boat” is old. “212” is on rotation on BBC1. Like, what the fuck are you doing?

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    Europe responded to you before America did, right?
    Yeah, it’s way more progressive there.

    How are the behind the scenes working out? Like, the label stuff.
    It’s going good.

    Are you close to something final?
    [Whistles]

    Soon?
    Soon.

    How far are you into the mixtape?
    Probably a third of the way done.

    You’ve covered Interpol, and you’ve rapped over a Peter, Bjorn & John song.
    I don’t come from the hip-hop world. I come from, like, Broadway. Of course I listened to Hot 97 but my little CD collection was like, the Annie soundtrack, the Aladdin soundtrack, Barney’s Favorites, Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child…

    How did you get introduced to alternative music then?
    I would watch MTV. Like I loved No Doubt because Gwen Stefani was so weird. I watched Clueless and I would wait for the end to see the credits. I was always into my own thing. We got AOL when I was 10 and I would go online and download songs. I was always curious. I would read the names on the CBGBs posters, or in the Village Voice. And I would Google them. If they looked cute, I would download some of their songs.

    Where do you see your career going in the near future? Because we talked about your singing…
    Who knows? I don’t like to anticipate stuff like that. I try to keep everything positive. It’s like I said before, I feel like I have a lot of spiritual assistance. Not for nothing; when I deny my own ideas, a lot of bad things happen in my life. Like I lose my boyfriend, and I can’t afford my rent. When I deny myself artistically, I lose out.

    What would be an example of denying yourself artistically?
    When Richard Russell told me I’m an amateur, I denied myself artistically and was like, ‘Okay, I’m an amateur.’

    That hurt your feelings?
    Oh yeah. It really hurt my feelings. Especially coming from a dry English guy. When XL found me, I did like three or four tracks. I was an amateur. A part of me feels that Richard Russell was enchanted by me, like, ‘Who’s this girl? I want to sign her.’ But I’m not sure what else there was.

    What’s more interesting to you; pop and the mainstream, or the blog love from the underground scene?
    I want to make money. [Laughs] I definitely want to fucking make money.

    How personal are your songs?
    Very personal.

    Is there room for making them more personal?
    For sure.

    Do you draw the line somewhere?
    When I’m writing, I don’t like to think about shit as much as I just want it to come out.

    Where do you see yourself a year from now?
    I see myself being a very, very key player in the music industry. I really feel like I’m going to change the scope of pop music. Pop music only means ‘popular,’ ya know? I feel like the age of the manufactured pop artist is done. Like, I feel like Rihanna is the Last of the Mohicans—I love Rihanna—but she’s the last one to get signed and is given songs. People are figuring out what’s real and what’s not real, and they’re becoming more interested in the process, the ability.

    What if Dr. Luke calls you up with a song…?
    Of course I would work with Dr. Luke. But we’d work on something new. Why would I make something that already exists? There’s already enough of that. Why would I open a McDonald’s next to a McDonald’s?

    What is the one thing you’re determined to accomplish?
    I want to get this fucking mixtape finished. because then people will finally fucking know what I’m saying. I’ll be validated to everyone. To everyone.