Macklemore’s Grammy-Winning 16 Bars and the Search for Our 40 Acres

Or at least some damn recognition.

By Jamilah King Jan 27, 2014

Nine years ago, now-Grammy Award winning rapper Macklemore wondered about his place in hip-hop. He’d probably done that for years, but this time he put it in a song called "White Privilege." Its hook included the line: "I said I’m gonna be me, so please be who you are / but we still owe ’em 40 acres now we’ve stolen their 16 bars."

Those bars have since made the Seattle-based MC the most popular mainstream rap act in recent years, a fact that was underscored last night when he and producer Ryan Lewis walked away with the Grammy awards for best song, best new album and best new artist. And after last night’s big wins, the rapper’s tune changed. "I understand how certain people have said, ‘Oh, it’s the white, gay-promoting rapper from Seattle. That’s weird, he doesn’t belong here.’ It is what it is, it’s always going to be that. But it is hip-hop music. I’m just trying to push the art, push the genre."

The success that Macklemore’s had with pushing the genre, paired with his vocal awareness that his being white played a huge role in his success, brings up a question that my colleague Aura Bogado succinctly brought up on Facebook: Does he represent an indictment of white supremacy — or a celebration of it?

It’s what many black hip-hop fans find irksome about him, the fact that this 30-year-old white guy has gained so much notoriety for making a black art form palatable for white listeners. He raps of thrift stores and marriage equality and, don’t get me wrong, it’s good music, catchy; dude is undeniably good at his craft. But he wears his white privilege like one of his ironic fur coats, a gaudy reminder to show how the music industry’s racial inequities are still stubbornly in place. 

He made headlines even before the show began when it was announced that Queen Latifah would marry dozens of gay couple’s during Macklemore’s performance of "Same Love," his celebration of marriage equality. It was a move so calculated that you couldn’t help but roll your eyes, even if the intention was to put gay couples at the center of music’s biggest moment. It was, in many ways, too calculated, too obvious, a move that did little to shift attention to the plight of the black artists who are regularly screwed over by the industry that has so openly embraced Macklemore’s music. Perhaps a more meaningful act would have been to share the stage with a black queer artist, anyone from Angel Haze and New York-based rapper Le1f, who’s openly criticized him for profiting off of the plight of the LGBT community. 

But I digress.

Macklemore’s whiteness has been a topic of conversation at least since he burst onto the national stage with his hit 2012 record "The Heist." He’s addressed it directly in interviews with refreshing honesty. "We made a great album," he said to Rolling Stone last year of the hit album he made with white producer Ryan Lewis, "but I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing on to something. A song like ‘Thrift Shop’ was safe enough for the kids."

And that’s what makes his success so hard to stomach for some black listeners who want to see their realities reflected and celebrated at music’s highest levels with a big win at this year’s Grammy awards. He’s calling out the systemic inequity in the music industry and is aware of how he’s benefiting from it. 

It’s not just black fans that are conflicted. Days before the Grammy Awards, Vulture quoted a source close to the star-studded affair who described how many of the rap committee’s members didn’t want Macklemore included in the categories for best rap song and album because his music’s more pop than hip-hop. "It’s not that they don’t think he’s a rapper," said the source. "It’s just that when you’re trying to protect categories and someone has become popular, it should be judged as much. … Where does their music exist? Who are their fans?"

Those fans, according to the New York Times’s Jon Caramanica, are "hip-hop aware" but not "hip-hop exclusive." In other words, they’re white. 

Caramanica wondered aloud about the authenticity of a hip-hop moment that featured predominately white artists like Macklemore and Baauer (whose song "Harlem Shake" soundtracked much of 2012). He notes that where Macklemore differs from other white rappers like Eminem, Yelawolf and Machine Gun Kelly is that his "rapping is merely a tool to advance ideas that are not connected to hip-hop to an audience that doesn’t mind receiving them under a veneer of hip-hop cool."

To be fair, it’s a well-known fact that white kids love hip-hop. But what sets Macklemore apart is how willing he is to actually talk about how his privilege informs his popularity. A well-intentioned white artist can still, half a century after Elvis, suddenly become the face of a historically black art form. His intention may not have been to do that, but the impact stays the same. In the end, it’s important to keep in mind that it takes more than awareness to create real change. And, frustratingly, Macklemore knows, too. Again, here’s "White Privilege": "Hip-hop started off on a block that I’ve never been to / To counteract a struggle I’ve never even been through / If I think I understand just because I flow, too? / That means that I’m not keeping it true."