It was pretty clear leading into the Grammys that there would be controversy if Macklemore’s The Heist beat out Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City for Best Rap Album. And, sure enough, he did in fact beat him, leading to a firestorm on the Internet bemoaning white power, cultural re-appropriation, racism, and a collective failure of the Academy to understand the genre. I should, right here and right now, get a few things out of the way. There are racists who use Macklemore, as a white man, to criticize rap as a genre. Undeniably, many people listen to Macklemore because he is white and thus safe. Many people, however, also listen to him because they find him funny, his music catchy, and his lyrics positive and relatable. Now, GKMC should have won the category. It was a phenomenal album, one that subtly and artfully conveyed Kendrick Lamar’s experience growing up in an environment of gun violence, gangs, family, and rap reverence. He conveys, but does not condemn. He celebrates, but does not venerate, all while achieving a sound and presentation that was innovative, varied, and gripping. The Heist, meanwhile, was far poppier, and more accessible. While I didn’t care for it, it’s the sort of thing that wide audiences, and the Academy, eat up. Now, I really don’t like Macklemore’s music very much. I must say, however, that I don’t dislike him. He does what makes him happy, makes the kind of music he likes, and reaps the resultant rewards. I have nothing against a rapper who works hard and stays true to himself.
As much of a travesty as it is, however, we all know that his win was not surprising in the slightest—not solely because of the racial politics involved, but because of the music itself. Macklemore makes pop music. His songs are great for ads, sporting events, retail stores, radio, and parties. Good Kid M.A.A.D. City is a concept album that, at least in my opinion, needs to be listened to in its entirety to gain any kind of understanding of the album’s accomplishment. How many voters do you think did that? How many voters do you think heard Thrift Shop while at the gym? How many do you think saw the music video in an email chain at work and found it hilarious (which it was)?
You can tie all of this to his race and socio-economic status, but at the end of the day, Macklemore makes accessible rap music that talks about things that a far wider swath of the population finds relatable than does Kendrick Lamar. People see more of themselves in songs about saving money, and having a good time at a party, than they do in songs about things as vapid as Bentleys or as serious as the horrors of gang violence. Even as a pretty big rap fan, I always wish that more of my favorite rappers would use their pulpits to tackle big issues (in the way that both of these artists did), that they would find something other than guns, drugs, sex, and lonerism to discuss. Macklemore, for better or worse, does that. He is, at least nominally, anti-materialist. His music implies a sense of positive unity between him and his audience, between his audience members themselves. There is an appealing compromise between lyrical seriousness and irreverence.
Now, obviously he receives a lot of criticism for this. He condemns elements of rap culture, but he is not a part of it. He advocates for gay marriage, but he is not gay. People hold up his image, that of a cisgendered white male, and claim that he is somehow wrong for speaking out, or, more particularly, that he has no right to do so. This is, on its face, anti-democratic. Beyond that, it segments culture and society in a way that neither can nor should be divided. Materialism in rap is not an issue that stays confined to the rap community. Rap is a mainstream art form. Young kids of all backgrounds wear snapbacks and Jordans. Everyone knows who Rick Ross is. Everyone knows that he named his label after a luxury car brand. While the history that informs the materialism of rap is profound and easily understandable, even to someone unfamiliar with rap itself, this doesn’t change the impact or the benefit of those values. The rapper has become what was once the rock star. We revile him for his sins and mistakes, and worship him by the same token. He is an emblem, in many ways, of democracy. Who doesn’t dream of goofing around with their friends on Garage Band and stumbling onto a hit, free from a label? Who doesn’t want money and power and the general ego-trip of the rap lifestyle?
Macklemore isn’t wrong for criticizing rap culture, because rap culture is in many ways American culture. It affects everybody, and if something affects us, we have a right to say something about it. No, he is not the most effective spokesperson to reduce materialism in rap. He does, however, speak well to those outside of the rap community who take cues from the genre. Beyond that, simply because he isn’t a great spokesperson does not mean he shouldn’t speak. At the end of the day, he isn’t wrong. Critics will say that he is a white man trying to cast himself as the civil gentleman opposing barbaric, savage, black rappers. But that’s just blatantly untrue. Are there people who use him for such purposes? Absolutely, and there’s no reason to spend anymore time criticizing those people. Macklemore, however, is clearly just saying what he thinks, and in his lyrics, he does not speak as though he thinks himself apart from the rest of the genre, even if he and we know that he is.
The same, meanwhile, is true of his discussions of gay marriage. As we all know, he isn’t gay. It doesn’t take as much courage for him to make that song as it might take Lil Wayne, if he felt that way, or an LGBTQ artist. But, again, he’s not wrong. Rap culture is, for the most part, homophobic. White artists like Yelawolf and black artists like A$AP Rocky alike have highlighted and criticized rap’s homophobia. Macklemore may not be able to speak to those perpetrating the worst cases of homophobia in rap, but he can speak to the public at large, which is an important point. Music, even if made for an intended audience, is not targeted. Macklemore makes music for anyone to listen to, and anyone can buy it, in the same way that YG probably made his song “My N***a” for a black audience, only to see it bought up by people of all races and ethnicities.
If anything, wouldn’t it be a greater crime for him not to speak up? If the white, straight male occupies the uppermost rung of the societal ladder, shouldn’t we be happy when one uses that position for good? Obviously I do not support that idea that anyone should occupy a hierarchical position above anyone else, but it’s silly to deny someone a voice just because they don’t struggle from the problems that they seek to address. Imagine if, in the Civil Rights Movement, President Kennedy had not spoken up for Civil Rights legislation, if President Johnson had not signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, simply because it wasn’t a problem that they had to deal with personally, and thus didn’t understand properly. Beyond that, imagine how much faster the process would have been had a sitting American president stood up earlier in support of civil rights. Obviously that’s a flawed analogy– Macklemore is not the President of the United States and does not have the power of said office, and even I admit that making the parallel is silly. What I simply mean to say is that unequal distribution of power is unfair and undemocratic, but can also be useful for eliminating that very distribution of power. Limiting voice to those whose issue it is makes little sense, when others can help achieve change more quickly, and, more importantly, do in fact have a vested interest in the solving of problems as an American citizen.
Herein lies, arguably, the most significant point. As American citizens we have an obligation to participate in public discourse and democracy as a whole. There are few problems that affect some without affecting others, in a practical sense. As I’ve highlighted, materialism in rap affects more than just the rap community. Really, however, there is no such thing as a problem that affects some without affecting others. As American citizens we are supposed to care about the problems of all people, whether we suffer from those same problems or not. Democracy is based in common sympathy, in an emotional intelligence that allows us to transcend boundaries, and in turn apply our scientific and rational intelligences to finding solutions to our greatest challenges. We all have to speak up. We cannot withhold our voices because something is not our fight, or because our skin color or gender or class or education prevents us. We must, undoubtedly, take these things into the utmost consideration when articulating our opinions—in speaking on gay marriage, one must acknowledge that one speaks as a straight white male, or an Indian bisexual female, etc. We must be aware, too, of the history that accompanies our respective positions, and the way in which others will perceive us when we speak (there is a reason, after all, that Macklemore included Mary Lambert, an openly gay singer on his track “Same Love;” he knew his place). With all of this, though, we still must say something. Regardless of who we are, we cannot be denied a voice or an opinion.
After all, how can progress ever happen if, whenever there is a challenge to existing structures of operating, we reject whatever the challenge posits, and in turn reaffirm the status quo? The history of art is expansion. Every artist of the past we appreciate expanded the boundaries of his or her genre. Why should rap be any different? How can we expect the marginalized to come to equal footing if we are always to claim that rap can only be an art form to express feelings of oppression and strife? How do those who make rap stop being oppressed if those who make rap are by definition oppressed? Accepting Macklemore as a rapper does not mean that Kendrick Lamar no longer has a place. Macklemore does not do what Kendrick does. He does not make music of or for the marginalized– or, at least, not specifically. Rap can continue to be an art form that captures and reflects certain emotions, and a certain collective consciousness. It can also, however, be a genre that discusses more than that. We are increasing, really, the boundaries of expression. We can paint anything. We can take a photograph of anything. We can write anything. We can make a rock song about anything. Why would we want to stop ourselves from making a rap song about anything? Why would we want to prevent the introduction of new perspectives and sounds into the genre? To protect something that will not die upon the introduction of these new elements anyway? The beauty of rap is its ability to split into myriad subcultures. There is and has been trill rap, trap rap, fast rap, backpack rap, swag rap, snap rap, stoner rap, frat rap. There are different circles of rappers that work together; there are different sounds they utilize. Macklemore will not ever enter the same circle of rap that the genre’s other dominant figures occupy. He may, however, start a brand new circle connected to, but not at the center of, the genre at large. And for art itself, that is not such a bad thing.
I’ll end this article with a few words from the rapper Yelawolf, a white MC from rural Alabama. When asked if he was a guest in the house of Hip Hop, here is what he had to say:
Yeah, we’re guests, if you look at the roots of everything, but that’s like saying here’s a house that we built as a people. We built this house, Black people. And then a few generations ago, it’s been rented out. It’s been renovated. It’s been changed. Black people, White people, Asian people, people all over the world has been to this house, lived in it, used it, abused it, fixed it up. It is now a different home. It doesn’t matter who laid the first brick. Now you have to just embrace the fact that this house is better now that different ideas have come in to put a different window in there, a different roof on it to change this, to change that, to make it more livable. It’s all about perspective. That’s my perspective.
It’s an interesting view, and one I absolutely agree with. No one can deny the history of rap and Hip Hop, nor the role it has played in Black culture or American culture. It is ok, however, for a genre to move past its roots, to expand, and become more inclusive. Isn’t our goal, after all, to create common culture? Can we not have culture that speaks to our individual selves, whether we are Jews, Blacks, Koreans, or anything else, along side culture that speaks to the common American populace of which we are all a part, regardless of race, religion, gender, or ethnicity? At the end of the day, don’t we want to see what America can do, what it can make? Artistic expansion and innovation is at the heart of cultural vitality. The creation of hierarchal rights to the production of culture challenges any possible innovation within that production. Must we have an understanding of our own actions in making culture? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean we never have a right to borrow, or experiment, or try something. Once we decide that there must be gatekeepers of culture, we lose any hope of being a vibrant democracy. Rap is obviously unique in the way that it, as a genre, is racialized. Its roots are undeniably Black, and we must never forget that. There must, and most likely will, always be a part of the genre that remembers its original purpose, its foundation. Its goal has not yet been achieved, and its focus not yet run dry. There is no reason to abandon rap as a distinctly Black art form necessarily. Still, we must recognize that rap is, at least right now, the most American genre, the most democratic, the one that best captures our love of rhythm and ego and fluidity. We owe it to ourselves, if we want an active, prosperous culture and democracy, to let our arts grow and change, to let all participate. Macklemore, is, as a result, important of the future of American art and music, as much as I can’t believe I’m saying that. He expands the audience, he expands the sonic palette, and he broadens the potential subject matter of lyrics. He is showing that rap need not be what it has always been.
So, in short, we can be mad that he won the Grammy. He didn’t deserve it, and he acknowledged that. We shouldn’t, however, condemn him for winning. His music was accessible; there were voters who used him as a weapon for their veiled racism. At the end of the day, though, his music more popular and more widely heard than Kendrick Lamar’s, and that’s really what wins you the Grammy. Certainly there were voters who saw him as the “civilized man” of rap. There are even more people outside of the Academy who feel the same way about him, and use him publicly to criticize a genre that they don’t understand. We should rightfully condemn them for their racism, and I do not mean, at any point, to diminish the extent to which they play a factor in our public understanding of Macklemore as a rapper. We should not, however, think that Macklemore is a bad guy for doing what he does. He is not nearly as problematic as we claim– the people who use him to veil they’re racism are, the fans who do not understand the history of the genre, nor Macklemore’s place in it, are. As much as I don’t really like his music, though, I have to respect what he’s doing for the genre, which is, at the end of the day, expanding our ideas of what it can do and be, not replacing what it is, has been, and will undoubtedly continue to be. There’s something to be said for the new, even if now all we can see is the ways in which it reeks of the old.