Macklemore Over Kendrick: Why It Happened and What It Means
Last night, as you probably know, Macklemore took home a slew of Grammy Awards, including edging out Kendrick Lamar for “Best Rap Album.” I’ll get it out of the way right now: Lamar should have won the award. Even Macklemore knows Lamar should have won the award, as he texted Lamar saying precisely that after his victory.
I’m not going to dedicate this post to proving why Lamar’s album is better or haranguing the Grammy’s for selecting Macklemore’s album. This post, instead, will be an attempt to understand why it happened and, perhaps more importantly, what exactly it means.
For me, there are three potential reasons why it happened. First, the traditional White Privilege narrative. Second, the social message narrative. Third, the in-your-face-all-the-time celebrity narrative. Most people’s news feeds or twitter feeds likely are blowing up about all three of these. My bet is that the first is the most prevalent, the second surfaces sporadically, and the third will largely be ignored. But, that’s silly.
If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, if we really want to look at last night and understand how it happened, we need to consider all three of these narratives. We need to acknowledge that, as often in life, there’s not a sole explanation for a phenomenon. Instead, the real reason most often lies at the intersection of many causes, just as it does here.
The easiest to address is the second one—the social message narrative. Even before last night’s weird gay marriage ceremony, everyone knew that Macklemore’s “Same Love” track had become associated with both cultural and legal history. It was the anthem being played, at least in young circles, during last year’s ongoing gay marriage crusade. Macklemore released his song when the moment was ripe, when American history had hit a tipping point. As a nation, with “Same Love” playing in the background, we decided that love is love and that denying gay people the freedom to marry was a violation of their most basic rights.
Now, people might hate that this social message element is important. Some may think that art should be divorced from politics, unchained from any type of social cause. Art should be for art’s sake alone. Art shouldn’t try to change the world, and when it does, things get messy. Others believe that art’s most important function is to do precisely that, to spur change, to start revolutions, to rid the world of its evil.
But, it is entirely irrelevant where one stands in this debate. The truth is that art with a social message matters, particularly in the context of popularity and awards shows. To say that Macklemore’s vocal stance against homophobia, especially homophobia in the hip-hop community, is irrelevant is simply a misreading of how the entertainment industry (and the world) functions. And it’s not limited to music. One only needs to hop on an Oscar or film message board to see the Molotov-cocktail-inspired flames that erupt when film fans debate whether Gravity or 12 Years a Slave should win Best Picture. The consensus: many people believe that social context should factor into how we judge art.
Although influential, the social message narrative cannot explain last night fully. Thus, we arrive at the other two explanations, two explanations that are inextricably tied. Just as one would be silly to ignore the social message angle, only a dunce could ignore the white privilege angle. Hell, Macklemore has rapped about it extensively, even writing a song called “White Privilege.” It’s something that’s real and, more importantly, something that Macklemore is conscious about (see: the text to Lamar referenced above).
But, as mentioned, white privilege needs to be viewed broadly. It needs to be considered as part of a union with in-your-face-all-the-time celebrity status. Macklemore’s momentum has been massive and unshakeable all year. He’s everywhere. I very much like the guy and his music, but even I’ve grown a bit tired of seeing and hearing him all the time. Just a couple of weeks ago, he staged an “impromptu” public jam session on a bus. Unfortunately, this stuff—more specifically, a musician’s ability to sink himself into all forms of media to the point of saturation—matters. The Grammy’s are a part of music, which is part of the entertainment industry, which is… an industry. Because of this, it’s not surprising that a bunch of voters who don’t pay attention to or really understand the rap game chose to vote for the white guy whose name they hear the most and whose picture they can identify.
Macklemore is popular and marketable and thus can sell a lot of stuff, a whole shitload of stuff. The real question we have to ask is not whether Macklemore won because he is white. That’s too simple of a question. We have to ask: Does Macklemore get in-your-face-all-the-time celebrity status because he’s white? Maybe, but isn’t Kanye also at that level? Is it different because Kanye’s press is “bad” and Macklemore’s is “good”? Or maybe we should ask: does Macklemore get a license to sing about gay marriage more freely and effectively because he’s white? Again, maybe. I don’t know.
The point of this post isn’t to answer these questions because, unfortunately, those answers are difficult, and perhaps impossible, to find or prove. The point, instead, is to think about how our media works. To remind people always to consider that an event’s causes aren’t singular and that the answers we seek aren’t easy. The point is to show what Macklemore’s win means: to show that a variety of social structures—race, popularity, marketability, influence, politics—create biases that, to the detriment of our objectivity, we refuse to acknowledge. And, of course, to tell you that Kendrick Lamar made the Best Rap album of last year.