Macklemore is, by all accounts, a perfectly nice human being.
He supports marriage equality. He laments drug addiction. He buys hand-me-downs, for tag-popping’s sakes.
Good guy. Pretty good rapper, too.
He’s also the biggest megastar rapper since Eminem to benefit from an extreme case of white privilege.
Oh, no, white privilege, you say, do we have to talk about that? Can’t a fun-loving guy from Seattle just make silly records about shopping at Goodwill and go about his day?
No. No, he can’t.
Macklemore’s star power is so big that he’s one of the few rappers who can tour arenas — including Target Center on Wednesday.
The problem with Macklemore isn’t necessarily the man himself but how the industry and fans have contributed to his rise as the next Great White Hope. The blueprint for this type of pop success is simple and familiar: Handsome white guy co-opts black culture, waters down the sound with pop arrangements, sells millions of albums. (Hello, rock ’n’ roll. Hello, jazz. Hello, hip-hop.)
A bleached blond wise man once rapped: “I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/to do black music so selfishly/and use it to get myself wealthy.”
At the turn of this century, Eminem seemed to have gotten a pass because 1) he was absurdly talented and 2) he was so in-your-face funny about white privilege.
Macklemore has attempted at various moments in his career to bring attention to his own privilege. (Of course, there are other times when he has completely put his foot in his mouth — more on that later.) But his earnestness feels clumsy at times, almost as if he’s placating his critics.
Earlier this year, he dedicated an entire nine-minute song to the topic. Yes, nine really long minutes. Talk about white guilt.
The genesis of “White Privilege II” was a Black Lives Matter protest that Macklemore attended in 2014. The rapper told Rolling Stone that a hip-hop legend (whom he wouldn’t publicly name) saw photos of him at the march and reached out: “He was very complimentary about our music, then he led into, ‘You have a platform, but silence is an action, and right now, you’re being silent. You have an insight into these issues that you need to be speaking about, and, as a white rapper, it’s important that you engage your audience.’ ”
To his own detriment, the song basically lays out the case against Macklemore. “White Privilege II” even has a website that acknowledges the activists of color whom Macklemore consulted during its making. It’s all so very, um, calculated.
But, hey, heavy-handed is Mack’s middle name.
On the track, he wonders aloud about his rightful place as a white person in the Black Lives Matter movement, and then in hip-hop culture as a whole.
He critiques his fan base, mimicking the voice of a suburban soccer mom: “Look what you’re accomplishing/Even an old mom like me likes it, ’cause it’s positive/You’re the only hip-hop that I let my kids listen to/’Cause you get it, all that negative stuff, it isn’t cool.”
It’s a somewhat daring (or maybe hypocritical) move, since Macklemore himself has been guilty of finger-wagging at mainstream rap’s bling obsession and homophobia.
Later in the song, he throws down the gauntlet, linking his success to a greater evil: “White supremacy isn’t just a white dude in Idaho/White supremacy protects the privilege I hold.” You can almost imagine said soccer mom’s head exploding after hearing that line.
The Kendrick incident
Let’s rewind. For a lot of Macklemore detractors (guilty as charged!), the white privilege alarm never sounded louder than it did on Grammy night 2014 when he beat out Kendrick Lamar for best rap album.
But wait, the Grammys don’t matter, you say. That’s like saying the Oscars don’t matter. OK, the Oscars don’t matter, either, but they do say something about our society — and in both cases, it’s not good. (So there, they do matter.) The social media movement #OscarsSoWhite shined a light on Hollywood’s unending idolatry of white faces.
Macklemore’s win told us something similar.
It told us that there are people walking the Earth who think Macklemore’s “The Heist” is a better hip-hop album then Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” — you know, the best hip-hop album of the past decade. Lamar’s opus about growing up poor in Compton was the mainstream’s introduction to an artist who would come to embody the complexity, confusion and power of the Black Lives Matter movement (and someone who can sell 1 million records doing it). That’s an artist who can’t beat Macklemore? Geez.
It got worse. After the Grammys, Macklemore sent an apology text to Lamar, then posted the message for his massive Instagram following to see: “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.”
Isn’t that sort of like eating someone’s sandwich out of the fridge, then leaving a sticky note saying “oops”? It felt inauthentic, even pandering.
Hip-hop has grown into a global culture, and sometimes an artist like Macklemore seems to exist outside hip-hop’s core (while still using the culture’s tools). Which is fine. Let him rap, let him sell records. That said, Lamar was the wrong artist to beat out. As he did with a fiery performance at this year’s Grammys, Lamar is reminding listeners that this is black music and that it is inherently political.
Lamar’s album is a landmark. Macklemore’s is the soundtrack at Forever 21.
Cleaning up his ‘mess’
So how does a white rapper combat his own white privilege? According to Macklemore, the answer came from that unnamed hip-hop legend: Use your power. But how?
First, speak to your white fans about what it means to have privilege. He’s done that, if haphazardly.
Second, pay your respects to the culture’s creators. Two songs on Macklemore’s new album, “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made,” feature hip-hop royalty (one with Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee, another with KRS-One and DJ Premier). Long ago, Jay Z famously rapped that he’s overcharging record companies for what they did to the Cold Crush Brothers. But seldom has Jay Z featured a rap pioneer on his songs.
These guest appearances steer Macklemore’s album away from the overt radio-friendly sound of “The Heist,” which might be intentional.
At the end of the day, can you successfully critique the system that allows you to make millions? Such a critique can feel hollow when you have little to lose.
But has Macklemore shown good faith in owning up to white privilege? Yes. Is he still making mistakes along the way? Sure. Should we continue to hold his feet to the fire? Absolutely.
He won’t mind. He’s a nice guy.