The white rapper with the crazy red fringe game and un-Googleable hairstyle danced across Saturday Night Live’s venerable stage two weekends ago like it was his last performance on earth. At first glance, the “blandly handsome” Macklemore (as Grantland’s Steven Hyden put it) didn’t look much like a rap music harbinger of doom, but for a concerned segment of hip-hop’s literati that’s what he closely resembles.
If you were a viewer watching at home, or maybe even in the studio audience, your reaction was likely one of either intense bewilderment, extreme delight, or furrowed disdain. Macklemore’s number one hit single “Thrift Shop” has very humble origins and the story of its rise to fame contains the standard tropes now associated with meme-powered feats of acclivity. But while sectarianism as it concerns bubblegum acts like Carly Rae Jepsen and petri dish experiments like Lana Del Rey can be reduced essentially to matters of taste, Macklemore’s ascent is complicated by the genre he practices in and the resultant untidiness endured by racial semantics.
Enjoyed the piece man, and I always appreciate when you put down some serious thoughts like this. A couple of my own (was gonna hit on twitter, but couldn’t be concise, so let’s play the comments game):
– Fear of the great white rap hope and the resultant undoing of all hiphop stands for – that’s nothing new. Macklemore is the successor to Vanilla Ice and Eminem as the only white rappers to truly blow up on a mainstream scale, to become household names, and as the perceived harbinger of doom for the guardians of the genre’s center. It just seems like the same rants get ranted every decade or so when a new white rapper takes over the mainstream.
– Going off Charnas’ argument that white culture isn’t built to support a white rapper, I think there’s tons of evidence for that on the rap underground. To me, the “white-washing of the rap roster” happened decades ago; look at who the stars of the underground are for the kids today (Mac Miller, Watsky, G-Eazy) and still are for the 80s babies who grew up (Aesop Rock, El-P, Jedi Mind Tricks, The Grouch, 7L & Esoteric, on and on…). But the latter group never blew up, and never truly got the support of “white culture.” They’re stuck in the underground, albeit making a good living – I would guess, for sticking too close to the center.
– That’s partly where Mack’s supposed danger comes from: he’s not sticking to the center script. Unlike Ice and Em, he’s not trying to be typically, classically hiphop. He’s got his own thing, from flow to fashion to production choices. There’s lots of artists with their own thing going on right now, and each have gotten their fare share of cries of “heresay” from the center faithful: Lil B, ratchet/jerk music, Trinidad James. That talk followed (and still follows, not as loudly) current stars like Waka and A$AP. Shit, you even hear that about Kanye – autotune first, now skirts/kilts? Mack’s just rings louder, and becomes a matter of hiphop’s health and future (apocalypse talk?), because of his success and his pigment.
– I like Yelawolf. Trunk Muzik was great, and he killed it at Neumos a year ago
Macklemore is milquetoast compared to the white dudes you mention who have had success operating in the underground, and to the white MCs who have managed to blow up (Em, Beasties) for that matter. Maybe that is what separates him?
Listen to his track White Privilege (Language of My World) and then think about this. Has he changed since then? Its tough, he acknowledges a lot of the stuff in this post in that song, but ends up doing it anyway with The Heist.
The way I view Macklemore is this… when looking at the intersection of ethnicity and class in America the plurality is and will continue to be for a good long while, lower and middle class whites (don’t know precisely because the stats are rarely looked at this way, but we’re talking probably 30-40% of the country falling into this category). Richness and “whiteness” are not synonymous, and in many ways they never were, never in American history. It only appears that way now.
Whether Italian, Irish, Jewish, Ukrainian or Polish, etc. there have always been groups of “whites” who were discriminated against, and only recently with the rise of a mass consumer culture did this group become the monolithic White that we now recognize as such. What was this demographic’s main style of music before “Pop Music” – probably folk and bluegrass music to begin with, turned blues, turned rock, turned jazz, turned synth and electro. Like Elvis was to Little Richard’s rock, we should recognize that the Macklemore persona (the affable middle class white rapper) has been a long time in the making and is actually a perfect class/ethnic embodiment of the times. He raps about his struggles with drugs and a demoralizing American consumerism, things that are easy to relate to for his white, mostly rural, increasingly rap-familiar audience, if not anyone of the multi-ethnic 99% who feels they have been marginalized by a greedy corporate elite. Add to this powerful mix, an ever-evolving economic recession, and we have a white rapper who not only looks the part, but one who has gone the extra distance gaining widespread attention by adding a lyrical, content-rich, almost folk-like quality to his music. No doubt this is because he emerged from and continues to call home to one of the most diverse and folkloric hiphop scenes in the country.
All of this is of course an oversimplification for the sake of keeping this comment short, but I think you get the picture. If rap music had been around in the times of Grapes of Wrath, I’m sure we would have seen a Macklemore even sooner. Fortunately for us now, we get to watch who Macklemore is evolve in real time under the pop spotlight, and unlike the 8-Mile amplified myth of Eminem, Macklemore is in control of his own image, not a bunch of Interscope stooges trying to dress him in a white undershirt. One thing is for sure, It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. All I hope is that Macklemore maintains his artistic integrity, uses this time to keep pushing the envelope musically and lyrically, and it would also be nice if he eventually reinvested some of that 5 million in “Thrift Shop” download sales to the Seattle Scene which raised him and graciously passed him the torch.
Go Mack! Keep puttin on for the town and do well to represent the little guy whether s/he be black, white, or brown, gay or straight, during these trying times of global class struggle.
White privilege becomes apparent when the thrift shopping becomes “cool” because it gives the rapper street cred. Maybe he refutes this in other songs, maybe he justifies himself somewhere else, but that doesn’t really matter as the key message everybody hears is that of white privilege and irony being the only point of reference. And in his other video “And We Danced” he rips off the Old Spice Guy. Just like Em though, he has brought Hip-Hop to people who have no clue about the culture. Who knows, maybe this will be an introduction to more meaningful music.