Macklemore, Conscious Rapper?



(Yasmina Martin)-This past Tuesday, Program Board announced that we will be welcoming rising stars Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) and Ryan Lewis to our hallowed Alumni Gym later this April. Judging from the reactions I’ve come across so far, most people know Macklemore for his huge hit “Thrift Shop” and its wild music video that involves fur hats and footie pajamas, but aside from that, they don’t know much else. When I first saw the video, I couldn’t get past the ridiculousness of the entire thing-the goofy beat, the strange attire, and the semi-inappropriate lyrics-but these were the qualities that made the song so addictive. Its nonsensical quality made it appeal to a young, internet-savvy, meme-based population and allowed it to get over 150 million views (still lagging behind Psy’s “Gangnam Style”.)

Mackelmore: Making Footie Pajamas Cool Again?
Macklemore: Making Footie Pajamas Cool Again?

A few weeks ago, a New York Times article spoke to the interesting shifts in the hip hop sector that allow artists such as Macklemore to find a distinct space within it. It looked closely at New York electronic artist Baauer’s now over-memed hit “Harlem Shake” and Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” to see how the hip hop genre has become incredibly widespread and lost its original form. Most interestingly, the article mentions the fact that these new artists attract an audience that would not usually be part of the now-transformed hip-hop genre.  Macklemore’s work allows for some serious distance between Top 40 radio and the origins of rap and hip hop à  la Public Enemy:

“Macklemore’s success is a reminder that in 2013 it is possible to consume hip-hop while remaining at a far remove from the center of the genre or, in some cases, from black culture altogether. That’s not only because Macklemore is white — he sets off triggers that are different from those of Eminem, Yelawolf, Machine Gun Kelly, Action Bronson and any number of white rappers — or because his audience is mainstream. It’s because on “Thrift Shop” the rapping is merely a tool to advance ideas that are not connected to hip-hop to an audience that doesn’t mind receiving them under a veneer of hip-hop cool.” (NY Times)

But Macklemore is also a pretty political rap artist who is all about presenting controversial ideas through his Northwest Pacific Coast hip-hop groove. His song “Same Love” , which was written in support of Washington Referendum 74, critiques religious and political stances against gay marriage in particular and homosexuality in general. It broke with what the mainstream believes rap and hip hop to represent, namely masculinity, power, and misogyny. Instead, he spoke against homophobia, calling out internet bullies and homophobic rappers, and preaching a simplistic but still goodhearted message: “Human rights for everyone/there is no difference.”

Without a doubt, TV host Ellen DeGeneres adores “Same Love”, calling Macklemore and Ryan Lewis her “new heroes” for defending same-sex marriage. 103012-10026-macklemore-612x339But Hel Gebremlak on Racialicious argues that Macklemore has no right to be speaking up for the gay population, and that he fails to understand “identities he does not possess and oppressions he does not experience” when likening the fight for racial equality in the 1960s with the fight for marriage equality today. Gebreamlak posits that claims of homophobia in the hip-hop industry blame blacks alone, implying that they shouldn’t oppress members of the LGBT community because they themselves were once oppressed. More than anything, Gebreamlak calls on us to hold higher standards for allies, and to seriously question claims that he’s a “pioneer” for presenting these radical ideas about the LGBT community in the hip-hop genre when underground queer artists have been doing it too, and for much longer.

While Gebreamlak makes some excellent points, I wonder if her article goes too far in attacking Macklemore and asking what he has done to change something that’s systemic and embedded. But then one might start to wonder, how does privilege and power come into play in this situation? Haggerty has already considered questions of privilege and how they apply to his role in the hip hop industry.  I played “White Privilege” for friends in my common room, asking them what they thought. Macklemore’s apologetic rhymes elicited different reactions from the group; one friend pointed out the danger of stereotyping all rappers as coming from low-income backgrounds, arguing that it’s reductionist to believe that only rappers who “rap about guns”, who live in the projects, can produce “authentic” rap music. Have we forgotten about Kanye West (oh dear), the son of a professor and former photojournalist, who grew up in middle-class suburbia? But another friend said that if she considers who his work is marketed to (a mostly young, white, liberal audience) and contextualizes it, she finds it easier to appreciate his music despite the flaws.

So maybe “White Privilege” tries too hard to be apologetic and harmfully stereotypes black artists. And maybe Macklemore’s “Same Love” washes over difference and encourages us to see each other as “human”, which in turn makes it impossible to address real and present issues of racism, sexism, class-based discrimination and their intersections.  His alignment of the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement in “Same Love” when he says “Gender to skin color/complexion of your pigment/The same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins” could lead down the dangerous path of believing that we live in a post-racial society. But if we acknowledge this about his work, we can then appreciate his underlying messages in spite of their issues. I commend Haggerty for his effort, because sometimes you just have to take what you can get-and as far as “political rap artists” go, Amherst probably won’t get any more political than this.


An incredible resource on unpacking privilege, colorblind racism, ally-ship and more (Links on links on links):