Macklemore – the white missionary come to clean up black music

Anti-stuff, pro-gay, old skool - the Seattle rapper clearly sees himself as the antidote to greedy, sexist hip hop.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

Given he’s a hip-hop star, Macklemore’s gig at the Brixton Academy last night was a remarkably white affair. Not since I hung out with the BNP for a feature article for the New Statesman have I felt so surrounded by white faces.

The audience weren’t only white people in terms of skin colour – they were also White People in capital letters, of the sort so brilliantly satirised by that website and book Stuff White People Like. That is, they were achingly hip, Instagrammers to a man, sushi-eaters I’m sure, and very clearly in love with ‘black music that black people don’t listen to anymore’.

That’s what they love about Macklemore, ghostly white rapper from Seattle made globally famous by his consumerist-bashing ditty ‘Thrift Shop’: he self-consciously does what White People think of as purist, old-skool hip hop, pre-bitches, pre-niggaz, pre-bling, back when rap was innocent and sometimes even socially conscious. Macklemore’s the White Person come to rescue bling-addicted black music from its offensive gangsta funk.

I feel conflicted on Macklemore. His often witty tunes will make your toes tap as surely as a knee hammer makes you kick. Alongside ‘Thrift Shop’ – half knowing pisstake of hipsters who rummage through charity shops for old clobber, half critique of rappers who wear expensive brand-name clothes – these’s also the funny Euro-mocking ‘And We Danced’ and the pulsating ‘10,000 Hours’, which is about committing oneself to a vocation, which is nice. His album The Heist, made with Ryan Lewis, undoubtedly has some stonking songs. (Though claims that he is the new Eminem are insane – a bit like if in 1960 someone had seriously thought of Cliff Richard as the new Elvis.)

But as well as getting your toes moving, Macklemore can get your back up, too. What his fans see as his social consciousness is more often worthiness, an instinct to lecture his listeners, and more importantly the apparently corrupted world of hip hop made by people who have darker skin than Macklemore and come from less trendy, less PC places than Seattle.

He goes into deadly serious, chin-stroking mode about everything from the language ignorant hip-hoppers use to the drugs they take to their refusal to love gays and gay marriage. Yes, that’s right – like every other White Person, Macklemore doesn’t only live on Instagram, wear old-skool adidas probably shipped from Shoreditch, and post on the web photos of the healthy smoothies he drinks – he also thinks gay marriage is the best thing since sliced organic brown bread.

On ‘Same Love’, his saccharine and patronising hymn to gay people who can’t help the way they are (‘They can’t change / Even if they wanted to’), he lambasts ‘our genre’ (hip hop) for using the word ‘faggot’ and for spreading ‘hate’ towards gays. On gay marriage he raps, with more than a little blustering pride, ‘Damn right I support it!’. Of course he does – supporting gay marriage is on a par with saying ‘I preferred the rough rap of NWA over the stuff-obsessed hip hop of today’ when it comes to becoming a full member of the White People club.

Much of Macklemore’s output is focused on juxtaposing his own cultural integrity and moral decency to the slovenliness and greed of modern rap. So where they expect instant fame, he promotes study and dedication (‘I studied art / I observed Escher / I love Basquiat’). Where they rap about cars and cribs and bling, he celebrates thrift shopping. Where they riff on how many ‘bitches’ they can sleep with, he writes anthems to gay marriage.

It all comes across as a bit missionary, like Macklemore is a modern-day colonial come to educate foul-mouthed, gold-wearing blacks about a better way to think and act. The White People who ventured to Brixton to hear him get all earnest on their asses seemed to enjoy it. But I far prefer the combo of humility and self-possession you’ll find in Eminem: ‘I am white / I am a fucking bum / I do live in a trailer with my mom / But don’t ever try to judge me dude / You don’t know what the fuck I’ve been through.’

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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