Okay, so in all likelihood you’ve already heard about why people are speaking Macklemore’s name again, but I just want to take a crack at describing it. Despite his liberal social justice branding, Macklemore, the white infant rapper, was the subject earlier this year of a huge race-centered controversy over his numerous Grammy wins at the expense of more qualified black artists. And over the weekend came another nova of Macklemore drama after he performed at a surprise show dressed up like, honestly, the most hateful depiction of a Jew I’ve ever seen outside of an A. Wyatt Mann comic.
But, like, accidentally. Macklemore initially responded to the controversy by tweeting that he’d just thrown all the stuff together from the costume department, no harm meant, and on Monday issued a more complete apology saying he made a horrible mistake and Jewish stereotypes “never crossed [his] mind.” For a moment, let’s give Macklemore the benefit of the doubt and just assume he didn’t go onstage looking like Nazi propaganda for a laugh, because, really, it’s more interesting if he just didn’t get it. Macklemore has built a brand he can’t deliver on.
Macklemore’s brand is probably the reason I so dislike him, and why he’s so well-liked by many others. He’s the current socially-conscious rapper of note. His image as it’s built in the media is that of a thoughtful, sensitive guy who cares about problems and tries to solve them. His character is based around “getting it,” understanding the way of things and how they’re wrong. He wrote a song called “White Privilege,” for God’s sake, and has made speeches on the same sort of topics.
Even so, he’s haunted by mini-scandals demonstrating his lack of sensitivity and awareness for his “pet issues.” “Same Love,” Macklemore’s big hit that became a gay anthem, is really a song for straight people who care about gay rights. It’s nothing about struggle or persecution, but a feel-good-for-caring song for allies. And I’ve said it before, it’s not really Macklemore’s fault that the song blew up the way it has, but he sure doesn’t seem to mind the attention, and hasn’t tried very hard to shift the focus from himself. At the VMAs, his speech snubbed Mary Lambert, the lesbian vocalist who was the best part of the song. Le1F, a gay rapper, accused Macklemore and Ryan Lewis of stealing his song’s beat for “Thrift Shop.”
And of course, the Grammy sweep which prompted Macklemore to text Kendrick Lamar a supremely awkward apology for “stealing” the throne of awards he was sitting on. “White Privilege” having slipped his mind during his acceptance speech and the months after, he’s still made no public statement about the issue as it relates to his own life. In a similar oeuvre-based boner, his song “Wing$,” about the dangerous economics of exclusive sneakers, lost a bit of its effectiveness when Macklemore teamed up with Air Jordan to produce his own signature run.
And then THIS happened.
This tweet honestly leaves me in doubt as to whether the costume was a mistake or not, even after his pretty good late apology. But, again, for the sake of this argument, take him at his word. It doesn’t help things much, does it? One thing I’ll say for Macklemore is that I highly doubt he went on stage with the intent to offend people. Maybe it was a joke, maybe it was a complete mistake, but either way, he’s just totally clueless. I was pretty pissed about this story when it came out, not because the Jewface is so vile (it is), but because it was obvious Macklemore doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing.
Macklemore the brand knows that costume is wrong. Macklemore the brand is aware of the issues and how to navigate them. Macklemore the brand knows it’s a shame that his doofy song about straights accepting gay people is so beloved by straights who accept gay people. Macklemore the brand would have put Mary Lambert front and center in his VMAs speech. Macklemore the brand would have handed the Grammy to Kendrick.
Macklemore the performer, the actual person, is in constant conflict with his own brand. He knows what white privilege is, but thinks just knowing, just saying “It’s weird and sucks” is enough to make him a good guy. He cares about gay rights, but doesn’t understand or acknowledge his advantages that don’t have to do with out-and-out naked bigotry. He doesn’t know what a Jewish stereotype looks like, and he doesn’t know that when you dress up as one accidentally, you don’t just blow it off.
“I want to be someone who is respected and not just in terms of my music. I want to be respected in terms of the way that I treat people… Music is my creative outlet in terms of expressing what is important to me; what has importance, what has a value. And I wanna be respected for that.”
Macklemore is basically a Macklemore fan, someone who knows what good people believe in, and follows. Nominal assent is not the same as activism, and it isn’t something to celebrate on an individual level. As nice as people try to be about privilege, the fact is that having it makes you part of the problem, and you have to try to solve your part in it. Macklemore knows the positions on gay rights and everything, knows kind of what he should say, even knows some theory jargon, but that really helps nobody but himself. It’s all in service of his brand.
Just believing in something isn’t enough. Macklemore can write all the songs he wants, but the way he lives his life, the way he treats people, is no different from anyone else who doesn’t see that they’re part of a larger issue. Macklemore the brand would understand that.