February 3, 2014

GUEST ROOM | Grammy Gatekeeping and Macklemore

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By winning four awards (Best New Artist, Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Album) at the Grammys, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis appropriately capped The Heist. Unfortunately in doing so, they gained little — while they confirmed their wide scale popularity, their presence in the  hip hop community went from minor annoyance to legitimately upsetting.

The virtually annual awards-show-furor among hip hop fans was unusually fervent due to the fact that rap’s golden child, Kendrick Lamar, left the ceremony undecorated, despite entering the night with seven nominations (including nominations in each of the categories Macklemore won). Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was hailed as an instant classic by many, but apparently lacked appeal to Grammy voters, who certainly trend older and, not coincidentally, white. Ideally, this would be an opportune time for us to collectively ignore the Grammy awards as out of date and ill-informed (in virtually all genres). However, they still carry too much weight as an indicator of the state of music in the national conscience for that too happen.

As a credit to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, The Heist is not awful, and I commend Macklemore for doing so well as an independent artist. But at the same time, it is certainly not great. It had several catchy, quirky songs that lend themselves well to pop radio. The language is relatively clean and songs contain clear, if shallow, themes. Ultimately, it is both an achievement and an indictment of Macklemore that my mother not only is aware of him, but that she likes his  music. Kendrick’s music differs from Macklemore’s, with drugs, crime and violence as central aspects of an incredibly cohesive album, and I can appreciate that it is not as accessible. However, I find it indefensible that Grammy voters cannot at least check Wikipedia to get an idea of how the albums compare among people that actually take the time to listen.

Unsurprisingly, Macklemore’s success coupled with Kendrick’s futility unleashed  a torrent of criticism among Lamar fans. Macklemore attempted to preempt the backlash by sharing a text he had sent Kendrick where he stated that Kendrick “got robbed” and apologized for winning. This public pandering is both a little pathetic and sad (albeit accurate). First, Macklemore should not feel a need to apologize — he did not do anything to Kendrick, he cannot control the voting. Second, it demonstrates that Macklemore feels pressure to conform within rap. He obviously desires acceptance among the wider rap community, a community that looks down on him as an interloper, a white pop star masquerading as a rapper. I disagree with that assessment, accepting that Macklemore may use some unconventional sounds and themes, but recognizing that rap can appear in many forms.

Of course, rap as a genre still carries a chip on its shoulder due to its own exclusion. Despite its widespread popularity among diverse demographics, gatekeepers, such as the Grammys and traditional print media, have continued to disrespect and misrepresent rap. A recent article about Macklemore in the The Dallas Morning News called him “intellectual” but threw shade at the rest of rap, calling it a “genre marked by homophobia, violence and a mind numbing obsession with weed, booze and bling.” Obviously, this blatant generalization reeks of ignorance, but it still hurts, as does the frequent award show snubbing. The only albums that hover near rap and have won the Grammy for Album of the Year are Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. So while the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou? and Taylor Swift have each won, Kanye West, Jay Z and a host of others have all been passed over for the crown jewel of music.

Ultimately, given that failing to come through in the big categories is nothing new, it is especially painful for rap to lose its namesake awards (which are astoundingly not even part of the televised broadcast) to a white artist that makes mediocre music. Every aspect of it hurts — this is only barely preferable over a joke like Pitbull winning. Nonetheless, fans of any artist have no reason to bash Macklemore for winning an award, nor does Macklemore owe anyone an apology. Rappers of all kinds must continue to explore the boundaries of the genre and making the interesting, exciting music that has characterized hip hop of late, even if it goes unrecognized by upsettingly staunch traditionalists.