This is the second chapter of a series called “White Chocolate” which will discuss and critique the modern impact and historical consequences of the white rapper in hip-hop culture through an intersectional lens.
I wanted every reason to despise the work of Ben Haggerty. I consider myself a survivor of the “Gimme the Macklemore” haircut era. I’ve seen “Thrift Shop” go off in the sophomore dorms as one of the only rap songs my white comrades genuinely embraced. And I leaked tears of frustration when I saw Kendrick rip shit with Imagine Dragons after good kid, m.A.A.d city caught the Grammy snub from a white committee that probably heard more echoes of taking my grandpa’s style in the mainstream consciousness than discussing the implications of Pirus and Crips getting along to slaughter Cornrow Kenny where he stood.
But I’m perplexed at how a freckle-faced Seattle man - one who spent a childhood infatuated by East Coast boom-baptism and over a decade in the independent hustle - could become the bullseye for Black dissent and the rightful anger at another white rapper co-opting our music to more fame than our artists. It’s a few parts societal, blended with some unprocessed guilt, but it’s safe to say the whole shindig is slowly coming to a head.
After a few years of worldwide touring and ducking the cameras, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ new LP This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is a slightly-less-poppy, but lowkey kind of good album, of how Ben has dealt with the rise in cap space and airtime while continuing to cope with himself in and out of the limelight. I say “lowkey good” because I’d never imagine Macklemore trading good raps with a fire-ass YG verse on a song called “Bolo Tie” (which I had to google, but we see what you did there). I also never imagined Idris Elba commanding me to dance until I look a damn fool; thankfully his native tongue wasn’t “too street” for the Mack, so salute that man!
But it’s much deeper than trading footie pajamas for mopeds with old Black dudes, or avoiding donuts to save the wasteline: Macklemore is on maximum apologetic. For his whiteness for fucking Kendrick over, for not calling home enough. He’s reached the point of fame that pays off while incessantly clawing at the devils that can make a superstar self-destruct for TMZ to behold. Hell, how can he strain his caucasian vocal chords to support oppressed people when he keeps losing his friends - and himself - in the drugs that once consumed him?
You read that right: Ben Haggerty was in the drugs forreal.
The Macklemore we have today was once Professor Macklemore: he dropped his first independent EP back in 2000, around the tail end of his high school career. In fact, he was a music workshop facilitator back in those days, teaching rap workshops with youth through the Gateways program in the Lewis County Juvenile Detention Center. After earning his bachelor’s from The Evergreen State College, he hustled around Seattle for almost a decade: rapping to whomever would stand there, self-releasing more music (with Ryan Lewis as a primary collaborator), and blowing his excess income on whatever would have him off the shits. He detailed these struggles through his earlier acclaimed works “OtherSide” and “Wings”: confessional moments about drowning in the muddy drink and loving his Jordans more than life because he could afford to sacrifice his individuality.
I remember when Lil Wayne did all his interviews and music videos with a double cup. I even remember when weed was still a taboo punishable by death upon rolling the paper, until around 11th grade when Kush & Orange Juice came out and I suddenly noticed that everyone was smoking a lot of weed. Though sneakerhead dreams never settled into my mental (like any sense of style in that time for that matter), I forever echo the sentiment of needing the Js on my first day even if they’re the only pair I’d get all year. I wouldn’t pick my hair out and my clothes were two sizes too large (“You’ll grow into them!”) but if the Js were clean, the ego is likely to remain spotless. I even remember the day some hater-ass fourth-grader pushed me in the mud on the playground when I had this fire-ass leather Avirex jacket on. That shame didn’t last too long once my moms came to pick me up and put it right in the cleaners around the corner from our townhouse. Shit was that serious and I apologize if your moms don’t go as hard as mine…
If memory serves me, Macklemore must be the rapper I’ve been looking for, right?
Perhaps the messaging was useful for me to hear, but I never gave the messenger another thought. In a high school career where I was the most anti rap nerd you could find - praising the works of Charles Hamilton and MF DOOM while shunning the primest era of Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame mixtapes - the idea of the white rapper was not something I disliked, but took no time to further explore. I had my Eminem phase like many, but after 8 Mile dropped, he was everybody’s whiteboy exception to the rule.
The same mindset that applied in high school permeated how I felt when good kid, m.A.A.d city didn’t get the fucking Grammy for Best Rap Album in 2013. It went to the white boys who made “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us” and we didn’t even get to watch it in real-time… they announced it on the Red Carpet.
Then he leaked the text that shook up the world:
Of course Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ win would annoy the semi-woke Black Panther-in-training I tried to find within myself in sophomore year. I lived in Wisconsin and heard “Thrift Shop” ring off in so many basements full of so many white kids who didn’t give a damn about hip-hop like the homies I aligned with. Hell, I once joked that it was a white-supremacist anthem due to the awkward flailing and off-time movement I associated the song with in those very basements where I had to hear about a broken keyboard in-between the EDM songs that I painfully waited to die out. Such a disappointment, such a heartbreak when I was sifting through my own Blackness in a city so many white folks hold to utopian standard. What the hell did The Heist mean to me than cruel irony from white folks who didn’t understand? When records like “m.A.A.d city” and “Backseat Freestyle” rang off through every dorm speaker and Black house party I could find in the white utopia I did my undergrad in? Where King Kendrick made us feel like we could survive even if we’ve never seen Compton a day in our lives?
What does any of this have to do with Macklemore? Everything and nothing at the same damn time.
Despite the pleas of my white friends, I refused to listen to any Macklemore album until this week. Upon listening to The Heist and This Unruly Mess I’ve Made back-to-back, the picture finally became clear: Ben Haggerty is flawed, but he may be one of the best allies we have in a hip-hop where white rappers are becoming more and more egregious in what they take from Black folks. He may not be the most stylistically impressive - a lot of the bars are corny as hell, but at least he stands by his corniness - and he will make his mistakes, but I’ve reacquainted myself with a man whose music has been used as a weapon of war by white folks who find hip-hop unacceptable. His porcelain skin is pure enough to be acceptable, his habits redeemable, and his shit is obviously much better than those hoodlums who rap about selling drugs in Auto-Tune. He’s the perfect hero of a tale he never volunteered to write.
“Sure, we’ll give him a Grammy, he did the gay thing, right? But, isn’t he straight? Who’s Kendrick L-Lamar?”
Further investigation into his catalog proves that Macklemore has never been blind to how his privilege asserts itself in a genre that wasn’t intended for him. In fact, the first edition of his “White Privilege” series arrived in 2005 - right after the peak of Eminem’s popularity - and almost every charge against his whiteness is clearly outlined from his own mouth. Clearly he’s not the first cisgendered straight white male to go on record documenting how his privilege affects others, but has the court of public opinion acted egregiously towards someone trying to figure all this shit out?
Like any white person positioning oneself as an “ally” to struggles of other cultures - more specifically, struggles within the Black American context - the most favorable approach for all parties must be “guilty until proven innocent” for the simple reason that whiteness wields and showcases such guilt like Excalibur as long as it is coded onto the human body. In the case of Macklemore, his public grace has teetered between refreshing and obnoxious in the years since his independent operation went pop. For every HOT 97 discussion, there’s a moment where he’ll “accidentally” rock an anti-Semitic costume to perform a song about thrifting and saving money. Not to mention the 2014 Grammys performance where he, alongside Queen Latifah, ushered in several gay marriages on national television like it was all lit because he’s the straight white guy who said it was okay in the first place.
On Ben Haggerty’s quest to serve as a true ally, he must continue to admit where he falters and we must continue to hold him under the microscope like any and all white rappers who step into our home. As we critique and observe that quest, we must be cognizant how much sunlight we let him burn from. “White Privilege II” from the new album is not the whitesplaining masterpiece that will put all op eds and Facebook-commenting fuckboys to shame, but it’s a much better step in that journey to utilize his newfound stardom as a platform for effective dialoguing about what the hell got him there in the first place. It’s not a song made for the Black folks whose skin serve as the frontlines for extermination - from where I stand, he hasn’t earned the trust or the Black dollar just yet - but if it can get a single white listener who came for “Downtown” to consider what the hell their skin means while they digest the occasional deez nuts joke, we may be headed upward.
If it’s taken Macklemore a decade to get where he is - and a fraction of that for me to swallow my own pride - we should brace for moments of high intrigue as we watch what Macklemore can do with this traction. He’s in a delicate dance he’s still learning the steps for; thankfully it’s not the dab or some shit like that. Can he maximize the potential of his anti-capitalist critique without shaming or blaming the Black MCs he will forever be juxtaposed to? Can he utilize his skin to dismantle the supremacy that keeps him popular, effectively showcase artists from underrepresented groups, and know which conversations to stay out of? Can we draft Ryan Lewis to the Blacks in the Racial Draft because his production is insanely-underrated and we need Young Metro to trust him?
The work of Macklemore remains in an interesting canon: Ben, the East Coast superfan, grinds his way to accidental pop stardom while coping with the persistence of his addictions and managing the price of his whiteness. Like he said on “Bolo Tie” I’m not his accountant… but I wonder if he imagined this between blunts at Evergreen, with a Premo beat soundtracking the bars spilling into his notebook. Did he picture the moment he’d get to rhyme alongside KRS-One? Time will tell how far he can take his unlikely role, but in a moment where white braids are poppin’ and blaccent is back like Backstreet, I see no one more fitting for the task.
Macklemore is not anyone’s savior, even if it took him a while to admit it. Ben still fights his demons and shows his scars so many like him don’t have to. But from the jump, he’s been interested in nothing more that being himself and he’s been that way. I may one day call him a brother; today, I tip my hat and tell him to keep this shit pushin’. I know now that he is not my enemy.
Previously: Post Malone tries to go post-racial in America
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.
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