Azealia Banks Channels Gay “Ball Culture” at the Mermaid Ball in L.A.


First sights upon walking into Azealia Banks’ Mermaid Ball: Gigantic seahorse balloons, choreographed dancers “reading” and “voguing” and gyrating go-go girls wearing nothing but flesh-colored spandex and shimmering pasties. Theatrical fog and flashing blue lights created flickering illusions of movement, and excited concert-goers in bikini tops, seashells and glitter further enhanced the underwater ambiance. Just when I was sure I’d hit visual overload, the DJ suddenly dropped the beat to Zebra Katz’s “I’ma Read” and out rushed Azealia Banks in a see-through jumpsuit with glow-in-the-dark patches covering her female anatomy. As Banks launched into her remixed version, the crowd grew more and more hyped with every flip of her long, magenta hair. However, what really sold me on the experience was when Banks’ “gave” the stage to one of her female dancers for a solo routine. As the nimble young dancer started to incorporate all of the popular “ball culture” dance moves such as the “catwalk”, the “dip” and “hands, I began to feel as if I’d fallen into a time warp and magically transported to one of the East Coast drag balls made popular during the 1960’s.

In a time where Hip-Hop is going through a radical period of cultural change – including widening acceptance of homosexuality – I think that Azealia Banks’ incorporation of drag culture is not only innovative, but fascinating as well. For many gay and transgendered men in the ‘60’s, participating in underground drag balls wasn’t just a creative mode of expression, it was a captivating blend of glitz, glamour, fashion, dance and camaraderie. The balls, which were primarily hosted in New York by popular “drag houses” such as “LaBeija” and “Xtravaganza”, were popularized by songs such as Madonna’s “Vogue” and the documentary film, “Paris is Burning.”

As Azealia continued to impress the crowd with fan favorites such as “Bambi” and “Runnin” – and amazingly never running out of breath even though spitting lightning-fast rhymes – it seemed like the spirit of the old drag balls had descended into modern times. Men danced and grinded on other men and so did the women. When Azealia started to rap “212”, the crowd erupted into chaos and started chanting “I guess that cunt’s gettin’ eatin” (one of Azealia’s popular yet raunchy lines). Towards the end of the song, Azealia’s colorful “Fantasea” balloon banner – along with hundreds of smaller balloons – dropped into the crowd and the sound of balloons bursting filled the theater. Then, with a pop of wild confetti, Azealia Banks ended her set and thanked her fans for coming out. As all the revelers streamed outside, I overheard someone say they couldn’t wait for next year’s Mermaid Ball. While I’m not sure if Azealia has any intentions of hosting another “Ball”, I, like the thrilled fan I overheard, am kind of hoping she does.

Check out Azealia’s “1991” EP: