The Problem with Macklemore (Is Not Just Macklemore)

A lot of people are upset about Macklemore. Sure, a lot more people are probably excited about him than are upset, but there has nevertheless been a solid, vocal, and intelligent pushback against various aspects of Macklemore’s music and activism within the past year. I’ve wrestled (and still am wrestling) with my own opinions about him, but I think there’s a conversation built into almost every critique of Macklemore that I’ve read that never quite seems to be addressed head on: the responsibilities and expectations of allies.

Before I get into this conversation, I want to preface my writing with this disclaimer: many of the powerful critiques that I have read about Macklemore were written by black authors, and these critiques contained insight into the history, impact, and value of hip-hop to black lives. I am a relatively well-off white twentysomething college student who rarely listens to hip-hop. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I can contribute anything to those discussions, which are incredibly valuable and occasionally difficult for me to grasp because of my white privilege, my white-washed youth and adolescence, and my lack of knowledge about hip-hop and its history. I’m not naïve enough, however, to think that anything I may write about Macklemore could be entirely separated or removed from those critiques, from the reality of black lives and white appropriation, or from the genre of hip-hop itself. But here, I want to look specifically into Macklemore’s status as an ally, how his actions as an ally have been interpreted and critiqued, and what those things say about the sociocultural systems that launched him onto his current platform.

Writing for Racialicious back in March, Hel Gebreamlak notes that Ellen DeGeneres once introduced Macklemore on her own show by saying, “No other artists in hip-hop history have ever taken a stand defending marriage equality the way [Macklemore and Ryan Lewis] have.” Gebreamlak reacts to this kind of sweeping exaggeration as follows: “But, how can this be the case when there is already an entire genre, Homo Hop, comprised solely of queer hip-hop artists? Whether it is intentional or not, Macklemore has become the voice of a community to which he doesn’t belong in a genre that already has a queer presence waiting to be heard by mainstream audiences.”

What always strikes me as unsettling about assertions like this and the critiques they lead into is that they seem to affix more blame, or at least more attention, to Macklemore than to Ellen and other members of the media who make similar claims. Macklemore has been made into the voice of a community to which he doesn’t belong; he isn’t the one claiming flat out that no other hip-hop artists have ever taken a stand for LGBT equality the way that he has. We should be critiquing the voices that make those claims just as much, if not more, than we critique the subject of those claims.

David Dennis, writing for The Guardian, has voiced the observation that “some are using the Macklemore story to paint a narrative of one singular example of rap’s potential for positivity in a sea of endlessly destructive music,” and that such a reaction “threatens to erase the progressive music that has always inundated rap music.” Let’s not overlook the fact that Macklemore himself has made a few similarly problematic, sweeping implications about the genre during the second verse of “Same Love.” While he should be held accountable for those lyrics (see Gebreamlak’s paragraph about the song “[supporting] the idea or, at least, [implying] that people of color – particularly Black folks who created hip hop – are more homophobic than white people and that there are no queer people who feel supported in these communities”), it’s not exactly earth-shattering news to discover that a successful musician has penned lyrics that oversimplify cultural matters; for critics, in my opinion, the much bigger fish to fry in this situation is the reaction by the media, who take these lyrics at face value and who begin viewing Macklemore as some kind of savior, and who end concert reviews with lines like the following, from Thor Christensen of Dallas News: “Macklemore proved that intellectual rappers don’t have be geeky or dull.”

Madison Carlson, writing for Feminspire in an article called “Stop Telling Queer People to be Grateful for Macklemore,” comes a bit closer to the ally dilemma as I see it. Carlson calls Macklemore “mainstream media’s darling of equality,” and notes that “Same Love” is being “hailed as a gay rights anthem.” She then writes, “To essentially paint a straight, cisgender person as the leader of the LGBT rights movement is incredibly problematic, and it ignores the queer voices that have been speaking to issues of equality for decades.

It is undeniably true that Macklemore should not be painted as the leader of the LGBT rights movement. No straight ally should be the face of the LGBT rights movement – not Macklemore, not Barack Obama, not TIME Magazine and The Advocate’s Person of the Year Pope Francis. Why? Because allies should be making room for the oppressed, not standing in for them. By very definition, allies already have that room, in some form – they do not need to make room for themselves on the particular issue for which they are doing activist work. This is a nuanced truth that involves recognizing that there are many forms of oppression and privilege; as a gay man, I consider myself an ally to the transgender community, but my status as an ally does not mean that I am not oppressed at all – rather, I’m not oppressed for my gender identity, so, by definition, I can be an ally to those who are.

But what some critics of Macklemore seem to be missing is that Macklemore is not working in opposition to queer artists. It’s not as if there is only room for one artist to speak on LGBT issues and Macklemore has somehow closed the door on queer artists by virtue of his success. Carlson writes, “Real allies are great, but their voices should not be heard above the voices of the people they are purporting to help. We should not have to feel as though we aren’t allowed to speak about our own issues.” Is Macklemore’s voice and music being heard above that of queer hip-hop artists? Undoubtedly. Is Macklemore to blame? No – there are systems upon systems to blame for this. Blame the radio; blame the awards shows and the talk shows; blame the magazines and the sensationalized claims of the press. All of these systems played a role in Macklemore reaching the point of celebrity that allows people to speak about him as the face of the current LGBT rights movement.

If Macklemore has been painted as the face, or even just one of the faces, of the current LGBT rights movement, he was not the one who painted it that way. That’s not to say he just ended up in this position by coincidence or accident; he wrote “Same Love,” he released it as a single, he made a music video for it, he toured the talk show circuit performing it, and he makes sure to vocalize his support for LGBT rights when he’s not performing, too. He has always aimed to be an outspoken advocate and ally for equality – but that’s not the same as aiming to be the face of a movement. Being the face of a movement is more often a quality that is thrust upon an activist than a quality that an activist attempts to obtain.

Moreover, Macklemore released “Same Love” in July 2012, in order to garner support for the Washington referendum that would legalize marriage equality. That was three months before The Heist was released, and three months before “Thrift Shop” began its climb up the Billboard Hot 100. Macklemore did not write “Same Love” knowing that its video would eventually win “Best Video with a Social Message” at the 2013 VMAs – in all likelihood, he didn’t even write it thinking that it could be a contender for such an award. The songs on The Heist were not written by a celebrity; they were written by an independent musician who became an overnight celebrity once the white American culture machine(s) transformed him into one.

I’m not saying any of this to try to excuse him from any sort of responsibility. I agree wholeheartedly with a lot of those writing to critique him when they point out things that Macklemore could be doing, but seemingly isn’t doing well enough – chiefly, promoting the work of queer artists. He did feature Mary Lambert on “Same Love,” which was perhaps one of the smartest decisions he has made in his musical career as an ally to the LGBT community; he wrote a song about oppression that he does not face, and for the hook of that song, he literally passed the microphone to someone who does face that oppression.

Carlson writes, “If Macklemore really wants to support the LGBTQA+ community, ‘Same Love’ is not enough. Shouting ‘And Mary Lambert’ over his shoulder as he walks offstage at the VMAs is not enough. He needs to promote queer artists and make space for them to speak.” But in a small yet not insignificant way, this is exactly what Macklemore has already done with “Same Love” – he promoted a queer artist by featuring her in a song that became quite popular; he opted to feature an artist who faces oppression based on her sexual orientation in a song that he wrote about his own relationship as an ally to that specific kind of oppression. Is that enough? No. But let’s not act like he failed to make space for a queer artist in his song about marriage equality.

Those who take issue with Macklemore’s decision to feature Lambert in the song are being, in my opinion, downright irrational. Gebreamlak laments that Macklemore “does not even include a queer person of color in the song ‘Same Love,’ but instead chose Lambert, a white person whose success was also found in a Black art form [spoken word].” Could Macklemore have found a queer person of color to feature in the song, and could such a feature have helped correct the song’s problematic implications about black hip-hop’s homophobia? Yes – but the suggestion that doing so was somehow his responsibility is unfounded; when viewed as a whole, the song was not written about homophobia in hip-hop, but about the legal battle for same-sex marriage, and he brought in an artist who faces oppression on that front.

But Macklemore could still be promoting the work of queer artists a lot more, and a lot better. If he’s sincere about fostering a more diverse version of mainstream hip-hop, he should be using his newfound platform to encourage people to pay attention to the queer artists within his own genre. He could be acknowledging homo-hop artists during his acceptance speeches and talk show visits; while he is not a member of that genre (he is not queer and the majority of his music has nothing to do with queerness), he has failed to acknowledge the existence of such music when he makes broad generalizations about the hip-hop genre in “Same Love.”

And, yes – Macklemore could feature a queer person of color in a future song. He could tour with queer artists of color, too. I think it’s important and necessary for journalists, members of the media, and fans to call on him to make these kinds of choices – not because queer artists need his help or his promotion, but because these kinds of actions would help prove that Macklemore is truly interested in changing mainstream perceptions of hip-hop instead of simply profiting off his claim that hip-hop hates gays.

At the end of the day, I believe that critics of Macklemore’s status as an ally should spend less energy trying to shed doubt on his intentions and motives (particularly as they apply to music that was written and recorded before he became anything close to a nationally-recognized spokesman for equality), and more energy on illuminating and breaking apart the racist and heterosexist sociocultural systems that led to his rapid rise to fame and to his position as a national symbol of a kind of oppression that he does not experience.

Complaining that Macklemore – a white, straight, cisgender ally – is now the face of LGBT equality because of his popularity in a genre rooted in blackness and racial oppression does nothing to address the circumstances and systems that allowed for him to be painted as such in the first place. Macklemore has exposed a social problem: that queer artists in general, and queer artists of color in particular, are not being embraced as the faces of their own movements by mainstream media. That lack of recognition isn’t strictly Macklemore’s fault – although he could be doing more with his platform to address this lack, and critics should continue to make that clear.

Macklemore is an ally, and an imperfect one; but I’m anxious that we’re spending more time and effort trying to shame this ally for the platform that he has found himself on than we’re spending fighting against the systems of oppression that are at hand – not only the kinds of oppression that Macklemore writes about in “Same Love” and his earlier song “White Privilege,” but also the networks of oppression that have enabled the media to elevate an ally to such a platform, and allowed an ally’s insight to take precedence over insight from the oppressed themselves.

-Matt R. Metzler
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