Ben Haggerty is a rapper, a talented one at that. His first studio album The Heist, a collaborative effort with photographer-turned-producer Ryan Lewis, dropped last October, and ever since that fated fall Tuesday, white upper-middle class twenty-somethings have been sitting in the pews of the Church of Macklemore. You won’t find these believers fanning themselves with church programs or wearing wide-brimmed Sunday hats, because the church is air-conditioned and the only hats in sight are snapbacks. I was there, with my Raiders fitted and shiny Jordans. In his singles he was preaching anti-consumerism, gay rights, and atheism. Through his mention of these issues in his lyrics, Macklemore is able to connect to like-minded individuals.
In the world of Macklemore, I was surrounded by people who looked like me and thought like me. We were all singing along, singing hymns of individualism and nonconformity. I felt like some kind of prophet, telling people, “having the same [shirt] as six other people in this club is a hella don’t.” My cheetah print muumuu is a source of pride, not exclusively because of its silky nature, but also because no one else has one. Sometimes originality trumps content.
To me, Macklemore was doing something crazy. He was exposing my crippling fear of being ordinary by building a fanbase out of all the other people in the world who felt the same way. Macklemore’s self-released The Heist featured language of revolution. But his revolution was not without motive. He seamlessly appeals to free-thinking and -dressing, anti-consumerist, whatever young people as a way to access a large, affluent market group. But for Macklemore, this tailor-fitted connection between lyrics and image seems too calculated, incongruous to the individualism he moralizes. I felt, as he himself says, “swindled and pimped, shit / I call that getting tricked by business.”
But so goes the way of the media. I was part of his target audience, and I had taken the bait. Macklemore was talented no doubt, but his art was cheapened in my eyes. His whiteness, which I had previously looked past, was now bothering me. Not only was he acting as something of a messiah for “individuals” (white college kids), he was also appropriating a culture that he couldn’t claim as his own to do it. It was only when I listened to his song “White Privilege”, released in 2005, that I saw his true place in the system. And as any good artist does, by telling his own story, he questioned the very institutions that allowed him to make his music.
As the first full-length song on his album The Language of My World, “White Privilege” can be seen as a preface to the rest of his work. The beauty in the song is in Macklemore’s honesty and self-awareness; his flow and rhymes have since improved.
Nonetheless, he addresses contentions I didn’t even know I had with him. Through “White Privilege,” Macklemore explains the problematic nature of making hip-hop as a white man who grew up in the suburbs. He doesn’t rap about the “block [he’s] never been to” or the “struggle he’s never been through.” The “Egypt” of hip-hop, the South Bronx, was the birthplace of a revolution. Unlike Wu Tang, Dre, and the Hieroglyphics, his cause is not institutionalized racism, black-on-black crime, or an inner-city crack epidemic. Macklemore’s creative convictions are a product of his come-up.
The mainstream nature of hip-hop today has turned a once subversive medium into something that longs for depth. And Macklemore is no exception. Macklemore wears his feelings on his tiger print sleeve. He laments, “we want what we can’t have, the commodity makes us want it.” Maybe Macklemore wishes he could rap about the struggles of growing up black in Compton, but he chooses not to. Macklemore doesn’t claim to be anything he’s not. Unfortunately his fans, myself included, cannot all share in his righteousness. My fear of being seen as common is a fear of being revealed as something I’m not: a fear of being misunderstood. This fear is a manifestation of a disregard for Macklemore’s primary tenet. “I’m gonna be me so please be who you are / This is something that’s effortless and shouldn’t be hard.” Unfortunately, being oneself is harder than putting on a pair of Pro Wings—Velcro is for kids who can’t tie their own shoes anyway.