When I first heard Macklemore’s breakout single called “Thrift Shop” I thought to myself “oh no, they’ve found the next Vanilla Ice for this decade”. I didn’t pay much attention to him thinking that he was just another bubblegum parody in an industry that is starving for authenticity until I heard the beautiful and honest “Same Love” which speaks about gay rights. I decided to find out more about this rapper and took a listen to his now Grammy-award winning album The Heist. Turns out The Heist is actually Macklemore’s third album and that he’s actually been in the game for fifteen years now.
“Thrift Shop” is the most commercial of his songs that I’ve heard. His lyrics are peppered with topics ranging from the ills of materialism, sexism, struggles of drug addiction as well as the importance of owning your creative work. What’s even more interesting is that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are independent artists who are where they are today without the public relations machinery of a major or even minor record company. The Heist is entirely self-released and self-produced. They gained all their success, critical acclaim and renown without any money or influence from anyone in the music industry. They did it all by themselves for themselves and this album is most definitely not a bubblegum rap album. The audacious original uniqueness of Ryan Lewis’ production mixed with Macklemore’s astute examinations of himself as well as society in general makes this album worth the listen.
So let’s not say that Macklemore’s album wasn’t good enough to win the rap Grammy. His album was good but it just wasn’t better than good kid, m.A.A.d city. So how and why did he win the award for Best Rap Album? Most people are going with “white privilege”. Now while this may be the most convenient and seem like the most obvious reason it’s not entirely the most correct one. In all honesty I don’t think Kendrick would’ve won Best Rap even if Macklemore wasn’t in the nominations. I truly believe it would have gone to Jay-Z or Drake purely because they’re the most popular artists in that category after Macklemore in terms of sales and recognition. The reason why Macklemore won Best Rap Grammy is because his album was the most popular album. It just so happens that Macklemore is white so the debate will always converge to his race. But if he was black or not nominated at all, the reasons we’d be debating about why Kendrick didn’t win would be the real reasons why Kendrick didn’t win. The Grammy Awards tend to award the album that has been the most mainstream or most popular and not the most critically acclaimed or artistic.
The Grammy voting process is very flawed and more secretive than the voting-in of a Pope. It’s been said that experts from one genre can vote for an artist in another genre to win so it is fair to say that a country music exec could’ve voted for Macklemore to win best rap purely because he was the only rapper he knew on the list. I don’t think Macklemore won the Grammy because he was white; he won it because he was the most popular. What can be argued is that it’s his whiteness that afforded him that popularity to win the Best Rap Grammy. And this I think Macklemore knows as much.
His idea to Instagram what should have been a personal text between two artists was more a self-serving cleansing of guilt rather than a sincere act of respect and acknowledgement. Macklemore is not aloof about his white privilege. He’s been quoted as saying that he doesn’t think he would’ve been as successful if he was black. Macklemore also has a song called “White Privilege” from 2005 that goes something like “I’m gonna be me, so please be who you are/ This is something that’s effortless and shouldn’t be hard/ I said I’m gonna be me, so please be who you are/ But we still owe ‘em 40 acres now we’ve stolen their 16 bars,” so not only is he aware of his white privilege but he knows that he’s benefiting from it and he’s going to carry on anyway. It is far worse to acknowledge your privilege and carry on milking from it anyway than it is to be ignorant about it. How else can you justify what you do? And that’s why the Macklemore-is-a-selfless-open-minded-good-guy narrative is utter nonsense.
The fact is that the awards system is favoured towards artists that are more mainstream and popular and the fact is that if you’re white you’re automatically awarded this popularity. The Grammys have never cared for hip-hop. The Best Rap Grammy award was only introduced in 1995. The Grammy’s have been around since 1958. The first time “The Best Rap Performance” was awarded, it wasn’t even televised. Some rappers have boycotted the Grammys and Kanye West has been quoted as saying “I haven’t won one against a white person. I don’t care about the Grammys. I just would like for the statistics to be more accurate.” Jay-Z who once boycotted the Grammys in 2002 went on stage in front of millions this year to receive his gazillionth Grammy said “I wanna tell Blue that look, daddy got a gold sippy cup for you” so if Jay-Z thinks a Grammy is as irrelevant as a “gold sippy cup” that he drank cognac from at last year’s Grammys and is now a toy for his two year old daughter, why is hip-hop and its culture looking for validation from the Grammys?
What Hip-Hop needs is a respectable prestigious awards show that really and truly honours the culture and all those who participate in it with accuracy and objectivity and not a skewed tendency to look at sales and popularity only. Looking for validation at an awards show that doesn’t respect the genre is not healthy or productive in the progression of hip-hop. The Grammys never loved hip-hop and it never will. What hip-hop needs is a new hip-hop only awards show that is so reflective of the culture that no artist ever again will care about whether they win a Grammy and if they do it will be as important to them as an ashtray, a door-stopper or a “gold sippy cup”.
Written By: Nomusa Mthethwa