Macklemore and Ryan Lewis picked up two prizes at the American Music Awards last night, for Favorite Artist and Favorite Album in the Rap/Hip-Hop categories. And while Stevie Wonder has pledged to stop performing in Florida and other Stand Your Ground states, the two men were in Florida yesterday, and decided to use the confluence of geography and a platform to make a different kind of statement about the same issue.
“Due to the fact that we are in Florida tonight accepting this award I want to acknowledge Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids each year that are dying due to racial profiling and the violence that follows it,” Macklemore said in the duo’s video acceptance speech. “This is really happening. These are our friends, our neighbors, our peers and our fans, and it’s time that we look out for the youth and fight against racism and the laws that protect it.”
The statement was both a good use of the televised broadcast, and a reminder of one of the issues that’s dogged Macklemore during his rise. The song with which he and Lewis broke out, “Same Love,” is a call for marriage equality. Macklemore is heterosexual, though Mary Lambert, who sings the hook on the track, is a lesbian. And there have been some questions about why a white, straight man’s hip-hop anthem to gay rights has gotten such attention and traction when black rappers’, and gay and black rappers’ work on similar subjects haven’t taken off in the same way. Is it because their work complicates the popular, though not particularly accurate, narrative of black homophobia, while Macklemore is able to call for marriage equality while still retaining the privileges of his skin color and sexuality? Or did Macklemore simply have a decent track, some good timing, and a label smart enough to put some money behind it?
This is, of course, an issue that Macklemore has addressed at some length on “A Wake,” a track from The Heist that hasn’t been released as a single, but that is just as meta and uneasy about pop tropes as Lourde’s “Royals.” The songs would be stronger as a piece of social commentary if he and Ryan Lewis had fact-checked his assertions about teen pregnancy, which is actually on the decline, in the first verse. And it would be better still if the song hadn’t descended into a cliched condemnation of some of hip-hop’s gender politics that seems more like an effort to bolster Macklemore’s “conscious” cred than to intervene in the conversation in a way that might have moved it forward.
But there is something interesting happening in the second half of the second verse, in which Macklemore meditates on the way media saturation affects our perceptions of racism, and the challenges of acting on race as a white ally, and as a celebrity. He raps:
Now every month there is a new Rodney on YoutubeIt’s just something our generation is used toAnd neighborhoods where you never see a news crewUnless they’re gentrifying, white people don’t even cruise throughAnd my subconscious telling me stop itThis is an issue that you shouldn’t get involved inDon’t even tweet “R.I.P Trayvon Martin”Don’t wanna be that white dude, million-man marchingFighting for a freedom that my people stoleDon’t wanna make all my white fans uncomfortable“But you don’t even have a fuckin’ song for radioWhy you out here talking race, trying to save the fucking globe?”Don’t get involved if the cause isn’t mineWhite privilege, white guilt, at the same damn timeSo we just party like it’s 1999Celebrate the ignorance while these kids keep dying
These are genuinely good questions to be asking. Can white people speak about racism without silencing or speaking over people of color? Is it a gesture of respect to acknowledge the death of Trayvon Martin on social media, or horribly trite, especially in a medium where context can get detached from an individual tweet? How do you balance commercial and social imperatives, especially when commercial success is the thing that means you might be able to have a political impact in the first place? And if you decide to try to turn your fan base from one set of concerns to another, what’s the best way to make that pivot? The easiest answer to this set of inquiries is to drop back and drop out in the name of deference to other people. The harder, but more correct one, is to try to determine where your voice fits, knowing well that you’ll be opening yourself up to criticisms both of what you say and on the grounds that your decision to speak rebounds to your own benefit.