Macklemore as “post-black”
You probably already know that a lot of people on Twitter — most of which appear to be black, though not all — are outraged at Jon Caramanica for calling Macklemore "post-black." It seems like many of the responses are basically asking "what does this even mean?" which is a fair question and an issue that has probably been exacerbated by people instantly reacting to the quote —”Macklemore is the first contextually post-black pop-star rapper” — before reading the entire piece, or even thinking about the idea therein. It also seems like a lot of people are reading the sentence as an endorsement, which is a prime example of how Twitter can distort a conversation pretty quickly.
(Also, it looks like a lot of people are reacting instantly against the phrase “post-black” which is a separate conversation that I’ll leave up to people who the term implicates.)
But I think Jon is right. My interpretation of the sentence is essentially two-fold:
1. Macklemore is the first “pop-star rapper” whose music caters first and foremost to white people. Macklemore isn’t the first white rapper and he isn’t the first rapper with a huge number of white fans, but he is essentially the first rapper to reach mega-stardom despite bypassing the traditional ecosystem (to steal a term from Jon) of hip-hop and, as a result, black audiences. This is totally new. Eminem came up through battle rap culture and was shepherded to popularity by a black artist in Dr. Dre. I’m too young to remember what it was like when Vanilla Ice was around, but my sense is that though he was a divisive figure, he also rose to popularity through the same channels as any black rapper at the time.
Also, Eminem and Vanilla Ice presented themselves like black rappers did. There was a pressure — either externally or internally — to not appear different. The current pop climate has rewarded Macklemore for doing the opposite: nearly every single one of his songs positions him against hip-hop. Songs like “Thrift Shop” or “Same Love” or “White Walls” or “Otherside” explicitly say “rappers are like this, but I’m like that.” This is precisely his appeal and it has made him a star.
2. The word “contextually” is an important one, I think, in Jon’s sentence. I read “contextually” — and I could be wrong, I’m not trying to speak for Jon — as referring to pop music, and arguably the story of pop in 2013 has been the ascension of white artists at the expense of black artists. This has happened on a general level — only a select number of black artists can break into the Billboard Top 10 right now — and also on a very specific level: Baauer (who is not white but whose audience is) going number one thanks to a meme that bastardized the Harlem Shake, Robin Thicke and Daft Punk (and even Justin Timberlake) being the white faces at the front of classically black songs, Miley Cyrus’ entire existence. We’re ending the year talking about whether Lorde’s number one single is an explicit critique of rap while it gets played on rap and R&B stations and then of course there is Lily Allen. And at the center of this storm is Macklemore.
"Post-black" as it refers to pop music at the moment isn’t absolutely accurate in the strictest sense — Jay-Z and Chris Brown and Drake and Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne are all very popular, and even Macklemore’s number one hits have hooks by black singers, though I don’t think there are any expectations that those looks are gonna birth pop careers. There are a select few black artists who are comfortably pop stars, but that number is dwindling, and it’s way down from where it was 10 or even five years ago. The opposite is true for white artists, and the gap is widening by the week.
I really like the new Danny Brown album Old. I keep zeroing in on on part of the album and saying it’s my favorite section but then I’ll jump to another and will focus on that. There is a line from the song “Torture”, a song about seeing too many terrible things too soon, that has been in my…
I hate crowded beaches
I hate the sound of fireworks
And I ponder what’s worse between knowing it’s over and dying first
- Chance the Rapper, “Paranoia”
Scratch that: the most alien experience I’ve had in 2013 is the apparent knowledge that some people needed Drake to tell them Twitter isn’t as satisfying as living in the real world.
His long awaited third album presents the rapper with a puffed-out chest.
My review of Nothing Was the Same, on Drake redefining realness but being lured by fantasy.
So Macklemore â a straight man â wrote a pro-gay-marriage song called “Same Love” that begins with him attempting to identify with actual gay people by revealing that he thought he was gay as a child because he liked to draw. At the VMAs, the song made him the central face of LGBT, with actual gays and lesbians only orbiting around him…
A question about Macklemore. Hip-hop artists are often criticized for being homophobic, misogynist and hateful toward groups other than themselves: Eminem, the last white rapper to reach this much success, used to drop f***** regularly and had to perform with Sir Elton John to get his LGBT cred. (Does Em have LGBT cred?) Macklemore, too, is straight and white. This, as Tumblr well knows, gives him privilege. He cannot pile these things up and explode them: they are who he is.
But to his credit, he chooses to rap about topics subversive for his genre. Kanye raps about “New Slaves” and drops $300 jeans; Macklemore raps about how $50 shirts are bullshit. He raps about gay rights, which, as he put it last night, are “human rights.”
Macklemore has become extraordinarily popular — as an independent artist, let’s remember — by making music that people like. He has an immense spotlight. He chooses to take that opportunity to spread a positive message. This is a hip-hop star who takes a Rolling Stone reporter to his AA meetings, by the way. Macklemore doesn’t give a shit about fronting.
So, the question: is Macklemore, by his privilege, unable to best communicate this message? How can he be the most powerful ally: by speaking out to his considerable audience, or by using his moment to step aside and let the voices of the afflicted, like singer Mary Lambert, be heard? Or by avoiding the subject entirely?
I ask this with complete sincerity. I’m sure opinions will differ. But I find it disappointing that a writer — a white male who writes about hip-hop for a living for an alternative rock magazine, dude, pause — who just months ago was calling out homophobia in hip-hop feels the need to call out an essentially positive action for not being positive enough.
Let’s talk some more about “Same Love,” since I’m being portrayed here as denying Macklemore the necessary praise for making a song about gay marriage. “Same Love” is fine, which is what I said in the little blurb linked at the top here. I took a purposefully blasé tone when describing the song because it mostly makes me feel nothing either way — I don’t think I would’ve ever written about it had I not been asked to.
That having been said: “Same Love” is being presented as progressive — by Macklemore, by MTV, by its defender here — where I find it naggingly regressive. The chorus was written and sung by a lesbian, but that it grounds an argument for gay rights in the language of bigots is weird and dispiriting. Should we be celebrating a song that mimics the thesis of the conversion therapy group that decided in June to shut itself down? Mary Lambert sings, “I can’t change, even if I tried” while the conversion therapy group essentially says, “We can’t change them, even though we tried.” These are not sentiments I feel particularly moved to applaud. To answer Rawkblog’s question directly: Macklemore can be a better ally by not dragging queerness back to a question of biology. (And this is to say nothing of the whole “when I was in third grade I thought I was gay because I liked to draw” thing. Imagine if Macklemore — a white rapper — opened a song by saying “when I was in third grade I thought I was black because I liked rap music,” then rapped about being black in America. Obviously this would never happen because it would be career suicide.)
Macklemore is also being presented — here at least — as subversive. But calling him “subversive” means that he has undermined a system — in this case the culture of hip-hop — from within. But he has not done that. Because he is an Independent White Rapper from Seattle, what Macklemore — with the help of his fans — has done is staged a takeover. No one denies this — it is his story, and it is celebrated. The residual effects of “Same Love” being a party to this are theoretically positive, but as white people — Rawkblog and I — we can’t speak personally on how it feels to have your culture overtaken by people who want to preach to you about materialism and homophobia. But as a gay person I can say that I don’t see bravery in the genesis of “Same Love.” And I sure as hell don’t see subversion.
Kanye West, to use Rawkblog’s example, is subversive. For his entire career he has chipped away at the notions of masculinity in hip-hop and hip-hop culture from the inside. Like, he produced for Beanie Sigel and then started wearing sweaters embroidered with teddy bears and tight khaki pants. That’s subversion. And then because his clothes kept getting tighter Kanye had to publicly affirm his straightness because 50 Cent implied that he might be gay. Macklemore will never have to assure rap fans that he’s straight, partly because “Same Love” already does that. Le1f is subversive. Danny Brown is subversive. Frank Ocean is subversive. Frank Ocean — who sings on songs by Jay-Z and by his friend Tyler who liberally uses the word “faggot” — has one radio hit, and it’s about loving a man. That is subversion. Frank Ocean has to endure rap lines like “No Frank Ocean, I’m straight.” Frank Ocean has to get in fights because other singers call him a faggot. No rapper is ever going to tell his audience that he is straight by rapping “No Macklemore.” Macklemore is never getting into a fistfight over his sexuality. So yes, because of his privilege Macklemore is unable to best communicate “this message,” even if the message is the very basic “gay people are humans, too.” His voice can certainly help to further the “cause” but to consider him a vanguard — or even especially progressive — you have to ignore history, reality, and, yes, his privilege.
And no it’s not hypocritical to bemoan the homophobia in Charlamagne lambasting Mr. Cee while also bemoaning the execution of “Same Love.” Only if you take an incredibly simplistic view of each situation — person A has said something “negative” while person B has said something “positive” — can you then hold them up against each other. Criticism is much more than just tallying morality points. At least good criticism is.