According to the Grammys, Macklemore is literally the quintessence of modern day rap music. As the winner of all three Grammys for Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Album, Macklemore is apparently now the face of rap music in America.
Just let that sink in for a few seconds.
Evidently, I’m not the biggest fan of the Recording Academy’s decision to bestow upon Macklemore the three most formally recognized rap honours in the entire music industry. I simply can’t wrap (pun mildly intended) my head around the sheer notion that Macklemore is the musical act that best epitomizes the essence of rap, both as a genre and a culture that were simultaneously born out of a marginalized group’s urgent search for an escape from its daily frustrations.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Macklemore. He’s a splendid artist and we text all the time – conversations which I cherish so much that I save them on my phone for future reference.
At first, I was certain that the source of my chagrin lay in the fact that Macklemore’s victory was nothing more than a woeful failure for the black artists – specifically Kendrick Lamar – who were robbed of their due recognition. More precisely, my visceral reaction to his triumph was one of resigned, yet completely predictable, disappointment; a reflection of the reality that the masses are willing to be educated on experiences that differ from their own only through the innate privilege and omniscience of the straight white male.
However, I then realized that first, the entire thesis is far too reminiscent of something straight out of the most radical annals of the McGill Daily, and second, this debate is not, and must not, be misconstrued as being founded on race. Despite how tempting it may be (trust me) to label this issue as yet another chapter in the discourse on American race relations, that’s shamefully easy, and wildly unrepresentative of reality.
That said, Macklemore’s “cleaning up” of the Grammys is not contentious simply because he is white and rapping, but instead because his victory regrettably serves as a testament to how his mainstream appeal makes him the safest choice for an award that is becoming more and more about media exposure and commercial success, instead of actual artistic merit and critical value.
To clarify, by no means am I asserting that “The Heist” was a lousy album, nor am I claiming that Macklemore is at fault for having accepted the awards that were bestowed onto him. What I’m truly lamenting is the inherently flawed nature of the Grammy’s voting process. To the dismay of many, it is nothing more than a system that places a greater value on the instant recognizability of the most mainstream artists than on the virtuosic merit of musical acts that command respect capturing the true zeitgeist of their genre. Quoting Rob Kenner, a current voting member of the Recording Academy, “the vast majority of the nominations are chosen by people who have little real expertise in a given field.” Egregiously enough, in the final voting process, voting members can vote in up to 20 different categories, regardless of how well they even know artists nominated let alone the genre itself. Thus, if you’re voting in a field that you know nothing about, it’s only natural, albeit unfortunate, for you to vote for the one mainstream artist you’ve actually heard of.
That’s exactly why formulating an opinion on this whole Macklemore debate is so tricky. On the one hand, he truly is a talented artist that is part of the movement of making rap more accessible to the mainstream audience. On the other hand, his victory simply testifies to how oblivious the Academy really is to the veritable ethos of the hip-hop community, whose unanimous support for Kendrick Lamar is as obvious as Lamar’s vertical challenges.
Frankly, I have no issue with the fact that Macklemore is white or, consequently, that the personal struggles he chose to recount are dissimilar to the racialized experiences that formed the basis of rap’s emergence. To be quite honest, like most people in the hip-hop community, I actively welcome these fundamental differences as a necessary component in rap’s evolution into a genre to which everyone can relate, regardless of their socioeconomic status or racial background. Rather, my main gripe with Macklemore winning all three rap Grammys is that this result is unreflective of the actual mindset of the hip-hop/rap community, for whom his victory was a yet another slap in the face.
That said, I must point out that a major element of Macklemore’s mainstream appeal is that his message resonates most with the Academy and its penchant for radio-friendly rap music that preaches the “traditional American values” of tolerance, inclusivity, and equality. Naturally, I’d be a fool to deplore an artist for espousing such values, especially in a genre like rap where they are so chronically under-represented. Nonetheless, the fact remains that such themes do not accurately speak to the realities of the majority of those who actually listen to hip-hop and identify with it as a culture. Instead, they simply tug at the heartstrings of the mainstream majority whose musical inclinations are limited by what is “safe” enough to be played on the radio.
In light of all this, if the Grammys is all about rewarding those who are most successful in getting their names “out there” to listeners of all genres, then Macklemore’s triple triumph is wholly merited, plain and simple. However, if the Grammys aims to showcase talent that is truly reflective of the ethos of its respective genre, then I think we all know what needs to be done.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.