When it comes to award shows and how they never fail to cave to the pressure of industry politics, few things actually surprise me. The 56th annual Grammy Awards ceremony held in Los Angeles was every bit of the mixed bag I expected it to be, delivering a few brilliant moments amidst the bemusement that I’m typically left with.
This year, the awards featured the most explicit example to date, of how industry politics and popularity pilot the vehicle which was built first and foremost, according to the Grammys, ‘to recognise artistic excellence’. Yes, I’m talking about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis collecting three out of the four gongs up for grabs in the Rap category.
Now as I was saying before, I wasn’t surprised when this occurred. When you consider that no black artists from anywhere in the world scored a number one single in 2013, especially in genres created and pioneered by black people, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ all-conquering display was a given. It was a categorical and poignant reminder that whilst black creations are themselves most welcome, when it comes to marketing them, a white face is preferred. This was further proof to back claims that the Grammys are more about the preservation of industry favouritism than they are about giving ‘the best’ his or her due. I would love to say something like “for all intents and purposes, Mack & Lewis’ album did very well to get as far as it did in the nomination voting”, but that would be naive considering the way that the Grammy voting process works. On that basis alone, Mack & Lewis’ heralded effort The Heist would be a shoe-in for Best Rap Album but there’s more to it: they were undoubtedly the most popular hip-hop act in 2013. If it weren’t for Daft Punk’s efforts in Random Access Memories and the ludicrously popular single “Get Lucky” featuring Pharell Williams and Nile Rodgers, they’d probably be considered the most popular act of 2013 full stop.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were the media darlings of 2013 thanks to the single “Same Love”. A song which resonated monumentally with the equal marriage movement, particularly in the United States where the push to have same-sex unions get the same legal recognition as heterosexual unions had reached a nationwide and international fever pitch. The pair produced one of the Internet’s most-talked about viral moments of the year when a long-time couple got engaged on stage at one of Macklemore’s gigs. These moments were truly inspiring but in the midst of this latest crusade for social justice on the LGBTQ community’s behalf, I got the impression from people who jumped on Mack & Lewis’ bandwagon that the artists were being lauded as the first in hip-hop to crusade against social injustice.
The more I considered it as time went on, the more I saw that the LGBTQ hip-hop community’s struggle had been “championed” (some might say hijacked) by a white, heterosexual, self-confessed “reformed homophobic” male. People seem blissfully unaware of the fact that “Same Love” itself features spoken word artist and singer-songwriter Mary Lambert, an artist that identifies as a lesbian. At first, I thought it was a cool move to have her on the hook but over time, I started to see how the song was being presented, which consequently left me feeling like Lambert was being used as an accessory in order to further fuel the Mack & Lewis craze. This particularly jumped out at me when Ellen DeGeneres introduced Mack & Lewis saying:
“Here’s why you need to care about our next guest. No other artists in hip-hop history have ever taken a stand defending marriage equality the way they have.”
That’s not just worrying; it’s also simply untrue. If that weren’t enough, the real troublesome bit comes within the lyrics of the tune itself: Mack broadcasts a long-held populist belief via the bar: “If I were gay, I’d think hip-hop hates me”. I’m not suggesting that members of the LGBT community haven’t already expressed similar sentiment where hip-hop is concerned (Eminem, anyone?), nor is my declaring that bar ‘troublesome’ intended to invalidate how members of the LGBT community may feel with regards to the hip-hop genre. However, populist beliefs are absolute. They are often opinions regarded as fact and considering there seems to be a trend of Macklemore fans that don’t listen to hip-hop in general, this is where the ignorance takes a wicked turn for the worst and tars all of hip-hop with the same incriminating brush.
You might believe hip-hop is hateful by nature. You might hold fast to that sentiment with utter conviction if you don’t know of the multitude of rappers before Macklemore that have addressed the issue of homophobia before the industry threw their weight behind Mack & Lewis… and you’d be found naked in your own ignorance for doing so. As a matter of fact, before Macklemore even picked up a pen to write the rhymes for “Same Love”, Kanye West not only made a public appeal to his friends and rappers alike to do better than resort to homophobic lyricism but he talked about how he wrestled with his own homophobia. The industry and the press seemed to overlook the solidarity shown by West, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Lil B, and many others. Worse still, they also turned a blind eye to Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, Le1f, and the entire queer hip-hop undertaking. The industry didn’t seem interested with giving LGBT hip-hop its own platform and it’s time to shine and it’s not like they didn’t have the opportunity to do so. When the equal marriage movement finally reached fifth gear in 2013, they disregarded every aforementioned artist and chose their representative. They chose the face that the media and those watching would be comfortable with. They chose Macklemore and everyone lapped it up like cats take to some juicy meat.
It’s no wonder Le1f took issue with this and quite frankly, I don’t blame him for being incensed. It’d be like having John Lennon and Yoko Ono spearhead the Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans at the expense of people like Booker T. Washington and Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m not suggesting for one second that Mack & Lewis had no right expressing their support for equal marriage because there are undoubtedly major positives to draw from the popularity of “Same Love” and what it means to LGBT couples that are pushing to have their unions given the same treatment as heterosexual ones. It’s also important for non-LGBT people to express their support for the LGBT community and stand in solidarity with them.
The entire point of this piece is that while Macklemore was getting minted off the back of spreading this message, the LGBT hip-hop community hasn’t seen a dime from the same industry; certainly not that kind of money or fame. While Mack & Lewis took every single plaudit and accolade up to and including those awarded at the Grammys, not a single LGBT hip-hop artist was promoted, shouted-out, or thanked by either them, or the industry at large. While the music industry used Mack & Lewis to spearhead a social justice crusade within music, they were hesitant (if not flat-out unwilling) to allow other homosexual identifying hip-hop artists to share that platform. To me, that’s unjust and equality without justice ain’t worth a damn.
Quote me on it.
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Joseph Guthrie is a UK-based IT professional, musician, and writer. Originally from south London, most of his education was set in central Florida (United States). His nomadic life has seen him return to the UK in 2010 and when he’s not tending to the IT infrastructure of a major printing company, he’s the lead vocalist for the band Ships Down and is Nothing Ain’t Nice recording artist. He also contributes to music blog Sampleface.
This piece was edited by Henna Butt
- “Popular culture” is no longer a “marketplace of ideas.” It’s a cartel. (mediadiversified.org)