Is Macklemore the Role Model We Need This Year?
Dissecting The Grammy Award Winner’s Lyrics To Better Understand America.
In a world where lyrics and social media romanticize substance, self-sabotage, and sexism, there’s a figure unwilling to be quiet or complicit with the current, even if it’s at the expense of becoming an outlier. Meet Macklemore.
Yes, that Macklemore. The same guy who in 2012 walked into your club dressed in all pink except his gator shoes, with a leopard mink and a blonde undercut and said “What up? I got a big cock!”
Cold ass honky.
The Seattle rapper and songwriter has a past inked with stigma, relapse, Grammy awards, Grammy Award controversy, and appropriation. He’ll admit that. He’s a man, better a human, that for the past two decades has given fans the unedited entries to his diary. Pages, soaked in white guilt, with lyrics that criticize presidents, criticize himself and criticize critics.
But today, at the beginning of the third decade since his first release, he’s still relevant. 25,000,000 monthly Spotify listeners and millions more on social media have danced along from B-Boy to These Days, and recently tasted his Christmas release that will never compete with Mariah’s certified sextuple platinum hit.
They’ve stuck around in part thanks to his honesty and in part thanks to tragedy.
We’re losing members of the music community to substance-related deaths.
We’ve been losing members of the music community to substance-related deaths.
19.7 million Americans suffer from substance use disorder, and 14.4 million Americans have an Alcohol Use Disorder. Yet it’s the 47 deaths linked to vaping that direct legislative traffic, while the lost lives of 158,000 annually are barely being used to warn future generations outside of convenient campaign ads and 31 days each January.
This reality exists outside the window of social media accounts that glorify alcohol misuse and celebrate drug use, in addition to advancing misogyny, rewarding womanizing, and creating space for xenophobic enthusiasm towards violence.
Music plays a big role in this. Outside of calls for violence, you can find references to the other defendants in today’s top 40 countdowns. The logical solution that I’m then leading you to would be to police lyrics, or at least begin holding artists accountable, censoring them. But that can’t be our answer. Songs are autobiographies. What would excite us hidden in the pages of a book, when condensed to 3 minutes is not the root of society’s compromised values. Then again, musicians, like athletes, are the biggest influencers our culture has. They are today’s role models, so should we hold them more accountable?
It’s a thought I hadn’t considered until listening to Otherside by Macklemore. When I heard him speak “Us as rappers underestimate the power and the effects that we have on these kids”, a lyric recognizing artist influence, I needed to learn more.
If songs are autobiographies, what would listening to Macklemore’s tell me?
Over the course of this past January, I listened to Macklemore’s entire 81 song catalog. A library of music spanning 3 decades, which includes solo records, features, projects with Ryan Lewis, and even a trash Daft Punk meets Kanye rip from last summer.
What I learned was that Macklemore played the game. He built an audience through the releases of humor and pop dance tracks for Bat Mitzvah’s, told Jimmy Iovine, Interscope and their 360 deal to fuck themselves, and filled the remaining off-radio slots on his records with powerful reality checks using a magician’s misdirection. He risked being a starving artist, over succeeding at getting fucked.
It was after my third complete listen that I began considering if Macklemore should be one of my role models.
Your questioning gaze makes sense. Macklemore? Really? Four months ago, I too would have discredited anyone suggesting a reconsideration of the depth of Macklemore’s art. So, before you publish a premature response as he did to Kendrick, I ask for your patience.
A role model is a person looked at by another as an example.
To fit that shirt, Macklemore may need context. He’s fucked up, but he hasn’t run from who he is. He stands for something. There is an authenticity in his music that leaves me with a blend of admiration and curiosity.
I trust him. I trust myself. So hear me out.
Toknow Macklemore’s music is to be familiar with his relationship to substance abuse, relapse, and second chances. To be familiar with substance abuse is to know that over 70,000 people died from a drug overdose in 2017. To be familiar with drug overdoses is to know the Opioid Epidemic, a public crisis that during its prime has claimed more lives than the Aids Epidemic. And to know the Opioid Epidemic is to know that this is a result of inappropriate incentive programs that rewarded Doctors for their volume of prescribing. A truth surfaced in his song Drug Dealer where he raps “My drug dealer was a doctor, doctor, had the plug from Big Pharma” before addressing the incorrect assumptions that allowed this to continue.
When the war on drugs started in the 1980s, Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign was created to discourage children from engaging in illegal recreational drug use. It was a campaign too distant from street level to understand that providing multiple ways to say no can’t calm cravings and defeat addiction. First Lady initiatives are often good in nature, but this campaign was an example of the legislative blindspot that change is effected without policy.
Today, as the Opioid Epidemic begins to receive the attention it deserves, Macklemore offers an explanation as to why legislators now give a damn — “Now it’s getting attention cause Sara, Katey and Billy, but this shit’s been going on from Seattle out to South Philly” — an embarrassing and shameful observation that it has taken the reverse gentrification of a substance abuse crisis to receive the response it deserves.
Piggybacking the misinformation spread in the ’80s, Macklemore brings equity to the conversation of addiction and substance abuse with his relationship to alcohol.
We tend to think of alcoholism as a polarizing condition, but the truth is that alcoholism is a spectrum. From sobriety to morning screwdrivers in the shower, are moments of misuse and abuse, the common manifestations of alcoholism that many don’t associate with the disease.
Addiction is a disease and one that Macklemore suffers with. He also has an inability to suffer in silence.
In his 2019 song Shadow, he shares “And I keep going to meetings, I pray every evening but I can’t escape my disease — I’m back on day two, forgot how hard it was” a story about a public relapse that leaves me to speculate that Macklemore understands his pain has the power to relieve others. Maybe being a role model isn’t a coincidence, something he almost confirms in White Privilege, reminding himself that if he is doing this (music) for self-interest then it’s just a gimmick.
In Starting Over, a song about sobriety post relapse. He raps “The trust that I once built’s been betrayed, but I’d rather live tellin’ the truth than be judged for my mistakes, than falsely held up, given props, loved and praised” lyrics that exhibit his default of authenticity, setting the stage for a later line “If I can be an example of gettin’ sober, then I can be an example of startin’ over” cementing a theory.
A role model is a person looked at by others as an example, and Macklemore knows this. He had the opportunity to continue to invest in releasing knee-deep tracks that had landed him back to back number 1’s, but he hasn’t. There is a responsibility too palpable in his lyrics that, at a minimum, projects himself as an example, and propels us into the conversation of lyric responsibility.
Macklemore is the first to admit his hypocrisy. In My Language he raps “You glorify guns, they bust sex and drugs, of course, they’ll try it and I can’t even front like I didn’t, cause I still do and that’s why I’m spittin” admitting to his part in advancing dangerous narratives to impressionable audiences while also trying to advocate against it. But why straddle the conversation?
The answer might be in a lyric from his song Contradiction. “So MCs that don’t smoke or drink, talking about it to me seems questionable. It proves how much people just want to be accepted, and not seem straight-edge to their audience, so keeping it real is neglected.”
Here, he shines the light on a truth that audiences are responding to lyrics that promote a substance infused lifestyle, enough so, that lyric integrity is now being compromised in exchange for popularity.
But we can’t congratulate Macklemore for his integrity yet. First, we need to understand the impact of words.
“Many bullies now target other children differently than they used to, with kids as young as 6 mimicking the president’s insults and the cruel way he delivers them.” — Hannah Natanson, John Woodrow Cox and Perry Stein, 02/13/20
OnFebruary 13th, 2020, The Washington Post published Trump’s words, bullied kids, scarred schools in which it found that in over 300 reported incidents of bullying, racist and xenophobic phrases made popular by the President such as as “Ban Muslims”, “Build The Wall”, and “Send Her Back”, are being used by bullies to attack students. If the rhetoric of a single elementary tweeting President can incite over 300 cases of youth bullying, then the collective with ownership of lyrics that promote substance abuse, misogyny, and self-harm must be held accountable for the public’s response too.
In 1990, C. Delores Tucker, a well-known politician and civil rights activist, said: “You can’t listen to all that language and music with it affecting you”. For context, her criticism was directed at “Gangsta Rap” which we must defend as autobiographical, but does beg the question: is there truth in this?
Do Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney’s lyrics romanticize beverages that are responsible for nearly 100,000 deaths each year? Do Blake Shelton’s tweets encourage binge drinking? Do Wiz Khalifa’s green lyrics promote marijuana use? Did Mike Posner’s famous Pill In Ibiza suggest a pass for peer-pressured MDMA experimentation? Do Lil Xan and Blackbear lyrics introduce Xanax as an vehicle for escapism?
They sure as fuck don’t decrease the popularity of these substances.
In a culture where emulation is an expression of and measures fandom, responsibility is shared. Every action is a vote. As consumers of product, content, and the arts, where we show up, communicates our support. If I stream Circles, I’m also voting in favor of Post Malone’s relationship with Bud Light and cigarettes. When I buy a jersey of an athlete with a candy endorsement, I’m communicating I don’t care that sugar is killing my neighbors. If the lyrics of a song are self-hating, but the mumbled chorus slaps, what am I voting for?
The goal isn’t to encroach upon free speech, but begin using our audience vote to drive self-censorship. For artists the ask if clear: lyric responsibility. And, for audiences, the encouragement is in the promotion of individual thought.
As for individuals like C. Delores Tucker, and the critics from Macklemore’s diary, there is an ask for you too: Compassion. The same praise we’ve given to Anthony Bourdain or Anthony Kiedis for the exciting pages in their autobiographies must be extended to artists. In this process, the understanding that songs tell the stories of an artist’s life, criticism will deflate and be replaced by the cultivation of compassion.
Compassion, a word often in the same vocabulary as love, and love is the focus of Macklemore’s Grammy-nominated song, Same Love.
In 2015 same-sex marriage became legal nationwide, expanding over the course of a decade since Massachusetts’ overdue vote in 2004. My impartial attitude to nominating Macklemore for role model is due to the fact that he exposes me to myself. The same way our shared sobriety unites us, it’s the truth in his lyric “‘Man, that’s gay’ gets dropped on the daily” describes the decade of legislation I matured in. Throughout high-school “that’s gay” was the language of lazy disagreement, and my former silence made me complicit.
Today, the shock isn’t at the embrace of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights. It’s pointed in the opposite direction to the highest offices in our country. In Same Love Macklemore addresses those offices with the lyric, “The right-wing conservatives think it’s a decision, and you can be cured with some treatment and religion, man-made, rewiring of a predisposition. Playing God.”
So, to those who protest marriages, and cheer at the homo and transphobic attacks carried out across the country, from Orlando to November 20th, rather than shoving direct verses from the bible down your hypocritical pseudo-love thy neighbor bigoted throats, you can either suck my defiance or listen to 5:19 of Macklemore and Mary Lambert in Same Love.
Society is in danger when we embrace confirmation bias rather than confronting our convictions. At a time where free speech is cited to defend the spewing of hate and where national security is referenced in tweets that propose the killing of innocent populations or building walls, hiding behind amendments and policy are the stubborn cowards who refuse to confront their convictions.
The single most beneficial thing we could do is find ways to engage in respectful and patient dialogue.
I’m new to this conversation, I was raised in bubbles: Boston, Ann Arbor, Providence. I went to private schools and graduated from the Ivy League, where diversity admissions didn’t educate me, so it’s now my duty to continue my own.
So what did a man from Seattle teach me?
Let’s begin in 2009.
2009: Nearly 800,000 jobs lost; the unemployment rate rises to 7.8%, Circuit City, the number two electronics retailer in the U.S., announces the closing of all 567 of its U.S. stores and the termination of 34,000 jobs, Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, and it’s only in January.
2009 is also when Macklemore released the song American from The Unplanned Mixtape.
Written what seems like a decade early, American details a familiar version of American Pride. With the lyric “NRA hell yeah I support ’em, no pro-choice, no abortion, Mexicans, send ’em back over the border” the song’s character, Aberdeen Washington, expresses enthusiasm for violence, waving an American flag meant to intimidate and showcase the toxic machoism viral in our country. I’m tougher so I’m better.
Fast Forward to 2016, these are the words chanted at rally’s, in the hallways of schools, in the homes of half of America, and now in the White House come the evening of November 4th. On November 5th, Macklemore responded.
Wednesday Morning is a solemn song, that reads like a sermon, declaring that tomorrow, love will always win. Lyrics strong enough that an entire verse is needed to be shown, reformatted into a paragraph.
“Humanity is a privilege, we can’t give in. When they build walls, we’ll build bridges. This is resistance, we’re resilient. When they spread hate, we shine brilliant. March by the millions ’til they hear the children. We found ourselves at a distance. Open up the jails and the overcrowded cells. When we oppress anyone, we oppress ourselves. Greatest gift I ever learned is helpin’ someone else. You build, believe and build ’cause you forget about yourself. Service, purpose, works if you work it. Love everyone regardless of the God they worship. This isn’t the Apocalypse. We can’t address the hate ’til we acknowledge it. If Jesus was alive, would he let Mohammed in? This isn’t nature, my daughter hugs strangers. We teach fear and preach hatred. Put up a fence, scared to meet our neighbors. Think that if we let them in, they’ll take advantage of us later. There’s so much anger and this world is a razor. My daughter, hope it’s a dream when I wake up tomorrow.”
This verse itself could anchor a high-school elective curriculum designed to understand American attitudes and expose the pseudo bravado that is oppressive to so many.
In my life, I first was first introduced to this type of xenophobia on that Tuesday afternoon in 2001. A time when we weren’t able to understand, so we defaulted to a nationalism that separated us from them; even when they were us.
And then oppression. A word that describes so much of America. A word that fits into an explanation of why we are ignorant. If Ignorance is not from hate but from self-interest, the resulting actions from ignorant decisions are oppression.
Oppression, a result of a president who boasts about spending 2 trillion on a military to threaten Iran, while 530,000 Americans file for bankruptcy due to medical bills, and another 550,000 are homeless in America or housed in what Macklemore calls concrete houses in City Don’t Sleep:
“We’ve come to accept the homeless as part of our landscape, the money the government wastes could provide them with a safe place, to eat and sleep, but we cease to see that our own country is based around war, power, and greed, we got families on the street with nowhere to go, and the concrete’s the only place they have to call home”
The truth is I know an Aberdeen Washington, I was guilty of fearing Muslims in the early 2000s, and I’ve nodded my head with those who yell “Get a job” at empty Dunkin’ Donuts cups. I don’t share this to brag. I’m embarrassed and ashamed, but I share this admission hoping that those who are also guilty of the hate above confront themselves, and listen to Macklemore when he says “When they spread hate, we shine brilliant, when we oppress anyone, we oppress ourselves”.
Toeducate on American attitudes using Macklemore’s lyrics without addressing race is not to educate on American attitudes. One could argue race is the root of many of the dangerous American attitudes above. And race, as it relates to Macklemore, is not about a 2014 texting miscue filled with white guilt for his participation in selective appropriation. It’s deeper.
In How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram Kendi wrote that there are only racists and anti-racists. Silence is complicity. So if you are not actively working against racism, then you are complicit with racism. Macklemore is doing the work.
Throughout his 20+ year career, Macklemore has brought attention to racial inequities and not for popularity points. In 2005 he released White Privilege, in which he brings attention to racial inequalities, opportunities at birth, and the disguise of American imperialism.
He addresses his convenient participation in the appropriation of black culture “Claimed a culture that wasn’t mine, the way of the American” explaining that white people pick and choose elements of other cultures, without any of the daily trials of representing that culture. With music, Macklemore is a hip-hop artist that has never had to face institutional racism. His admission doesn’t come exclusively from a burden of guilt. It is the steadfast belief that acknowledgment preludes change.
“And most whites don’t want to acknowledge this is occurring ’cause we got the best deal, the music without the burden.”
Ten years later he returned to this narrative with the 2016 release of White Privilege II. Like selective appropriation, Macklemore addresses the imposter activists populating demonstrations across the country.
A march is a single demonstration, true activism is the consistent work of effecting change. He calls us out “Are you marching for freedom, or when it’s convenient?”
I’ve devoted time to March against guns, for Black Lives, and for women, but my follow up work has been weak. I’m a demonstrator, not an activist. I’ve called no senators, distributed no materials off-line, nor volunteered for an organization fighting injustice. I’m an imposter activist.
The same as those who buy a gas station Gatorade then donate to a sea clean-up, or retweet Tom Steyer’s calls for climate response, but still eat meat and fish. Even writing this could classify as convenient activism: A white male admits faults and encourages others to make a white rapper new role model.
I’m not writing this for my card. I’m writing this to create dialogue.
“It seems like we’re more concerned with being called racist, than we actually are with racism.”
And Macklemore isn’t releasing music for an invite to the cookout.
“If I’m only in this for my own self-interest, not the culture that gave me a voice to begin with, then this isn’t authentic, it is just a gimmick.”
Two songs don’t make Macklemore a race equity champion, but this man has been in this for decades, not since just since texting Kendrick. You can hear the white guilt he carries from his role in selectively appropriating a culture as I just did 6 lines above, and we can guess he offers his music not as penance, but as what he feels is his duty — his duty to make some sort of peace with what he was born into.
“But the one thing the American dream fails to mention is I was many steps ahead to begin with.”
Do you understand that?
Being born white in America is an advantage, being born a person of color in America is a disadvantage.
Even before a decade of White Privilege, Macklemore released Claiming This City, echoing the above conclusion.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t understand the fact was, there’s something called a social status, and my black friends weren’t in my financial bracket… Now look at the homeless rate, and tell me to my face the race doesn’t play an intricate part in your fate in the United States.”
These lyrics aren’t meant to dress us in guilt but rather a conscious wardrobe awake to the truths of our time.
Hey Aberdeen, did you hear that?
To some degree, I thought he was an exploiter, not an artist. Similar to those who tell Colin Kapernick to shut up because athletes should just focus on the field, I ignored any consideration of Macklemore as a qualified voice.
But dammit, song after song, this man converted me. I’ve been baptized by Ben.
And his catalog isn’t all substance abuse and race. He addresses fulfillment in the song Ego rapping “Comparison’s a mother-fucker” translating Teddy Roosevelt’s “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Then about resilience and perseverance in Inhale Deep with a reminder as to why we don’t give up: “The spirits there to knock you down, but if you make that the end, you will never know the beauty, of being able to stand up again and face it, with patience.”
That’s not just a lyric for artists or creatives. We’re all the contractors constructing our life. We have no immunity to the temptation to give up when we’re crying in the shower at what feels like rock bottom. Shit, I was there recently, and Macklemore’s been there too. In Excavate he raps, “I’ve been at rock bottom and I’m headed north, if you don’t love yourself, what’s the respect for? If you don’t love life, the check won’t correct yours” informing us of the superpower we all come equipped with, and the false fix we often reach for.
It would be easy to dismiss Macklemore and say it’s easy for an artist to share these lyrics now that he’s made it but he’s been sharing these. His 2012 release, Make The Money, speaks to his motivations “If I’d done it for the money I’d have been a fucking lawyer.” This isn’t about the money. Song after song, lyric after lyric, he’s proven this isn’t a gimmick.
He may have begun with music as an escape, but what he’s morphed into is a role model.
When I began researching this piece I wanted to demonize lyrics, but what Macklemore taught me is that lyrics are just accurate biographies. Even if they’re held accountable, authors don’t frequently get shamed on talk radio for the words in their chapters, so why should artists?
He also taught me that we need to be willing to be wrong, even when we’re well-intentioned.
I am willing to be wrong about climate change. I am willing to be wrong in my relationships. I am willing to be wrong about my comments on racial equity, social justice, and economic equality. This willingness doesn’t come with a gaudy pride, but a commitment to transition from a demonstrator to an activist.
My conviction on this path can be found in a lyric from Macklemore’s Victory Lap: “Don’t forget where you come from, don’t die holding on to your words, cause you know you got a whole world to change, but understand who you got to change first.”
And that’s where I begin and end. This proposal of Macklemore as a new role model may be confused as a brazen attack on music, or culture, but that’s not my intention. It’s a state of the union from someone who once idolized what I now advocate against. I’m marked with the scars of substance abuse, misogyny, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, and writing this doesn’t absolve me from my past involvements, even without understanding what I was participating in.
It’s this same lack of awareness that might allow you to consider dismissing yourself from this audience, but before you go consider the statistics: 1 in every 6 Americans (your neighbors), voted for our current racist xenophobic President, 1 in every 17 Americans (your neighbors), has a substance use disorder, 1 in every 3,670 Americans (your neighbors), will die from an alcohol-related death, and 1 in every 4,000 Americans (your neighbors) is a member of the LGBQT+ community. These lyrics may not have been written in your honor, but they are your responsibility.
Macklemore’s catalog uses generational relevancy to invite us all to consider our civic responsibility. In Growing Up, he speaks, “Don’t try to change the world, find something that you love, and do it every day, do that for the rest of your life, and eventually, the world will change…The quickest way to happiness? Learning to be selfless” and then in White Privilege II he asks us “What are you willing to risk? What are you willing to sacrifice to create a more just society?”
What’s best for all may come at the inconvenience of another, and to reject that is to act out of self-interest, which is ignorance. So if you’re still planning on rejecting Macklemore please hear a final lyric from Same Love:
“When everyone else is more comfortable remaining voiceless, rather than fighting for humans, that have had their rights stolen.”
So I urge you, do not pull down your window shade at the sounds of sirens, or go live the next time a person with mental illness enters your subway car or shares your crosswalk.
Instead, represent the brave altruistic version of yourself that dresses daily in an activist vest strong enough to battle injustice and oppression.
And, if you just so happen to bring headphones, stream Macklemore.
Because that is a damn good place to start.
*This piece dissected lyrics from 24 Macklemore songs and has been carefully curated in a playlist you can stream here.
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