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What Iggy Azalea learned from Francis Fukuyama

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"Iggy Azalea Loves Francis Fukuyama. No Really."

It's a funny headline, and it's no surprise Foreign Policy writer Elias Groll plays the whole thing for laughs, treating the Fukuyama fandom she expressed in a 2013 Paper interview as grounds for quips about whether or not her boast that she's the "realest" is a covert signal of her affinity for the realist school of foreign policy thought. But Azalea was saying something serious about reading Fukuyama that genuinely helps explain her career.

"I’m currently reading The Origins of Political Order," she said, arguing that "it’s really informed how I look at the music industry."

The sequel to Origins was my favorite book of 2014, so you'll find it no surprise that I share Azalea's admiration for the book. What it's about is the idea that patrimonialism — the handing out of power and rewards to one's retinue of followers — is the default condition of human government (see this great visualization for more). The great struggle of human history is to try to establish a political system that isn't governed by this principle, one where policy decisions are made through a mixture of neutral expertise and responsiveness to public will, rather than one in which officials appropriate public resources to back the private interests of their supporters.

Now consider Azalea.

One view of how a white girl from Australia can break into her preferred musical genre of Southern-style hip-hop is that she just needs to practice her rapping really really hard and get really really good at it. The other, more accurate, view is that she needs a patron. In Azalea's case, that patron was the well-established T.I. — look at how she talks about him in the interview:

Azalea's Bowery showcase also featured a cameo from her mentor, hip-hop juggernaut T.I., who popped up onstage to drop a verse on Azalea's hit, "Murda Bizness." Despite leaving T.I.'s imprint label Grand Hustle to go to a major for her debut LP, Azalea says, "T.I.'s family. I'll always be loyal to him."

It's far too simplistic to say that Azalea is successful because of the patronage of T.I. But the Fukuyamian point is that in the deeply patrimonial world of the music industry, she needed the patronage of somebody — and she self-consciously tries to enact that relationship as something deeper than a business transaction. To her, T.I. is family. She will always be loyal.

Which is important, because given the fraught racial politics around her act she needs continuing support despite commercial success. Support from black artists such as will.i.am and Lupe Fiasco helps her maintain her standing. And despite her brash persona, she is eager to repay favors to those who've assisted her.

You probably don't need to read Fukuyama to learn the point that connections and who you know matters in life. But his last two books brilliantly contextualize patrimonialism in terms of the big sweep of human politics and history. They're great to read if you want to understand the evolution of these complicated systems — including the ones that govern the music industry. It's funny, I guess, to think of musicians with hit singles wonking out to boring policy books. But it's actually extremely relevant to their professional lives.