I’m okay with Macklemore. Okay, that’s not true, I really couldn’t give two craps about Macklemore. When people repeat over and over that he’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet (by the way, they refer to him as “Ben” when they say this), and how progressive he is as the straight male face of gay rights, I shrug my shoulders and go, “All right, cool.” I sing the hooks to two of his singles when they’re on the radio. And I believe that if he and Kendrick Lamar are friends, then the text he sent after the Grammy’s is honest, and he’s feeling in a weird and awkward place right now.
But I’m altogether very ho-hum about him, personally, and so it’s a treat for me that I’m not going to be spending a lot of time on him and whether he’s worth attacking. I’m going to be spending a lot of time on you, the fandom and the industry. The Heist, while a celebrated album, had no business winning a Grammy over good kid, m.A.A.d city. I know it. K Dot knows it. Mack knows it. And if you don’t know it, then it’s time you start thinking about it, and what this win means.
A lot of white people who like Macklemore don’t listen to a lot of rap. I’ve had multiple people tell me that Macklemore was the one guy in hip-hop they could relate to, or didn’t feel alienated by. Macklemore is the exception, Macklemore is different…except that Macklemore LOVES rap. He seems to have a lot of respect to people in the industry, and his influences are all Black artists who helped shape him into what he is now. This year, rap was the only Grammy album genre in which every album went Platinum. It is a major musical genre. It’s incredibly accessible and relatable. If you like Macklemore, there’s a pretty big chance you will like other hip-hop artists, if you actually bother with them.
The stuff that he raps about is really not that different from the stuff Black artists rap about. It’s just packaged differently from other rap. And when I say “different,” I actually mean “white as the freshly driven snow.” He’s a soundboard for those who inspired him. So the fact that a big part of Macklemore’s fandom sees him as the exception to a bunch of Black music they’re otherwise disinterested in, and the fact that they will never go on discovering hip-hop beyond certain widely-celebrated white artists, is messed up.
White guys in suits are the ones who decide the awards, and it’s the white guys in suits who say that rap music is OK and good when a white person does it, but doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged when a Black person does it. Hip-hop is generalized as misogynistic, homophobic, filled with drugs, and big booties, and gangbangers. Conservative parents who sweat when their suburban children start Instagramming gang signs have objections to it. Liberal, morally “upstanding” people have objections to it. The truth is, there’s a lot of diversity within the genre, but no one ever sees it because of the view that hip-hop is so homogenous. That’s why, when someone like Macklemore, comes along and doesn’t fit the racial profile of hip-hop, hip-hop suddenly becomes fresh, and new, and friendly, and inoffensive. A terrific article in The Guardian explains the Macklemore vs. hip-hop dichotomy:
“This is a broad-brush reaction to Macklemore and his success. One that threatens to erase the progressive music that has always inundated rap music. Macklemore is the first non-homophobic, non-violent rapper in the same way that Elvis was a ground-breaking initiator of the Blues.”
It’s worth remembering that these same objections to hip-hop were also once pitted against blues, rock and roll, and jazz—all seen as dangerous influences, until white people started doing it too. Black people basically “got robbed” of rock and roll. White musicians got more mainstream credibility by performing music born out of Black struggle and amassing wild success from it. Hip-hop is just one thing in a long line of minority cultural and artistic contributions soon to be appropriated by the more privileged among us. And while Macklemore’s just some white dude who loves hip-hop (and nobody can fault that), it is a classic case of the colonizer and colonized relationship—the people on top know how to stay on top, and those without power remain without power.
The Grammy results of this past Sunday were not any artist’s fault, but the win is indicative of the fact that artistic endeavors that minorities create out of not being able to be a part of white society often become rejected, feared, and seen as unsophisticated…until they are adopted by white people. Blues, rock and roll, jazz, and hip-hop are all reactions to white society. Once white people begin appropriating these genres, groups of even more important white people rush to congratulate the white artists and shower them with money and awards. These genres are no longer reactions to mainstream society, they become a part of it. And at whose expense? In the case of hip-hop, Black artists go unrecognized.
“’Unrecognized!’” you say. “What about Kanye? What about Drake? In hip-hop, white people are the minority!” Yeah, white people are the minority, and they still come out on top. Macklemore isn’t the problem. The problem is how we uphold people like Macklemore. If he opens up the world of hip-hop for you, you who normally do not relate to hip-hop, it’s your responsibility to listen to artists that inspire him, artists who vary on the political spectrum but whose voices get ignored, artists who have had to go through way harder shit, where the only way out is through sports or show business. Best case scenario, we begin to see what recognition for minority music looks like without important people making googly eyes at white artists and only white artists. Second best case scenario, Macklemore is consumed by white guilt as he waits for Kendrick’s reply.