After we posted no fewer than three entries about Macklemore and Lewis’ The Heist in a week (one review, one reaction and one fine guest-post traversing between the personal and the artistic), I swore that I was never going to write about Macklemore again (or at least not for a few weeks!). I still couldn’t quite figure out how to evaluate Macklemore fairly.
Vanilla Ice wasn’t ‘real’. And MC Hammer was?
Since the birth of hip-hop and its spread to the suburbs on the airwaves and through MTV thanks to unthreatening dance artists and, then, even later after gangtsa rap dominated the landscape, a rapper’s persona was in part defined by his color. The early pioneers, the Beastie Boys, were really just shouting. Vanilla Ice was a wannabe’s wannabe. Eminem was an exception because of his experience and his unique ability to rap at a machine gun pace and twist surprising rhymes.
Then I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that lumped Macklemore in with a series of artists about whom I was ignorant and a genre dubbed with the unfortunate title of “Frat Rap”. The article’s author, David J. Leonard, writes with authority and precision and describes in a disarming way the co-option, deracination, and simplification of culture that he sees occurring in the adoption of African-American forms by white artists.
Asher Roth’s “I Love College” is less than exciting but still entertaining. The point is that it lacks the menace and energy of other artists’ version of hip-hop
One of the things I struggled with in my post about The Heist is whether or not his form of hip-hop is successful only on aesthetic grounds or because of the difference in character–Macklemore, as I suggested, presents almost a textbook case (subject and language-wise) of what hip-hopcould be if it were not violent, materialistic and misogynistic. This subtraction of these qualities, however, is characteristic of “Frat-Rap” according to Leonard:
“Whereas the other rap—the one that purportedly celebrates violence, sexism, and materialism, the one that pollutes hearts and minds—is dangerous and requires parental guidance, frat rap is just amusement, its pleasures seemingly more harmless.”
The contention that I am struggling with (and with which I struggled in my post) is that authoritative (‘real’) hip-hop is constituted necessarily by the subjects Leonard cites and by the color of the performer. This, of course, leads to a dangerous elision made by many people which is that the color of the performer necessarily translates into the character evinced by hip-hop.
As an answer, I guess, Sam Adam’s “I hate college” seems no more profound or dangerous than the earlier Roth hit.
My concerns, of course, only matter when we have to deal with people who misunderstand Leonard’s more serious point, namely that the expressions of hip-hop artists in their desperation are responses to their own experiences which have largely been conditioned by lives dominated by violence, prejudice and endemic challenges.
“Rather than entering into spaces where whiteness is made visible through contact with African-Americans, white youths are simply appropriating it in places that continue to be hostile to black students and artists. What the essayist and journalist Greg Tate has called whites adopting “everything but the burden” continues—without the “burden” of black bodies”
And this assertion leads me back to my anxiety about Macklemore. Again, although I am loath to compare Macklemore and Eminem merely because the two men both turn out to have light skin, the fact remains that the contrast between the two remains instructive. Eminem’s music is edgier and more violent as a reflection of his own experiences, the life he has lived dominated by broken families, poverty, addition and mental illness. In a way, Eminem is more suited to non-dance oriented hip-hop because hip-hop has become the music of the downtrodden, a voice for a particular range of socio-economic classes that are marginalized.
The marginalization of hip-hop voices is due to deprivation of different sorts–the same problems suffered by Eminem as a person have been suffered in large part by African Americans as a result of the still pervasive effects of slavery and the cycle of poverty, broken families, and a class mobility restricted by the color of their skin. The experience of the artists who speak from and to these groups, then, appeals across ethnic lines to anyone who feels marginalized by similar forces outside their control.
(Which explains in part, my brother, why hip-hop is so popular in white trailer parks.)
So, where we end up with Macklemore is that he doesn’t speak from the same marginalized position as Eminem. He is, to be fair, closer to the Beastie Boys than NWA and not because of his whiteness but because of his class. Nevertheless, the fact remains that well-heeled and well-educated black artists can still speak with authority because the audience (and the artists) assume the marginalization enacted by their appearance sufficient to put on the rapper’s persona.
My good friend Professor Mortis found Macklemore less entertaining and endearing after learning more about his background because he found it a bit condescending and preachy for Macklemore to speak out against such materialism and violence when he comes from such a place of relative privilege. I agree, to an extent, that the preachiness seems to carry a tone of condescension and that it saps the power of the message, but I still wonder if we would have a similar reaction if Macklemore were darker skinned. Yet, from a white man performing in a black genre, the message seems proto-colonial, nearly carpet-bagging, and, to a degree, tone-deaf.
It is unfair to limit or define any person’s life based on his or her skin color. There is no reason that good hip-hop or rap can’t come from a white person. But the fact is that there is an extra level of judgment reserved for anyone when they look or seem different than everyone around them. To this day, women in traditionally male careers have to be tougher and meaner than they would if their sex didn’t matter. A Black man in a largely white town immediately comes under suspicion and must cope with the prior associations that people have for his skin color.
And a white man who raps? He has to wear the clothing of his ethnicity just like the rest of us do. When he also carries with him the assumptions of a middle class upbringing, then he is doubly barred from immediate acceptance. That’s not fair, but that’s life. And the fact is that Macklemore is a good enough musician to meet the challenge.