On Macklemore & Musical Appropriation

I have two parallel streams of thought about Macklemore’s Grammy win last night. The first one goes something like this:

This is an awesome time for Seattle! Our football team is going to the Superbowl and our musicians are winning big at the Grammys! I’m so proud of my friends Katie, Pete, and Andrew who were instrumental in making “The Heist” successful! Go Seattle!

But there’s a much more complicated stream of thought going on too. It’s subject to the anxious understanding that there are some fucked up power dynamics in play when it comes to Macklemore’s success. We need to look closely at why a cis-het white dude is the one winning the awards for using a historically black form of music to “save” the genre from its own homophobia. Especially when there are queer artists of color (Frank Ocean, anyone?) who have been moving this ball forward for so much longer than Macklemore.

The conversation on Twitter about this issue last night went something like this:

Good white liberals: “If anything, Macklemore had to be better than the black rappers to succeed in the rap game. Plus he’s had hard times too so that erases any privilege he may have as a white male.”

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Lots of people of color: “White musicians have been stealing our music for years and making it acceptable to a white audience with their own whiteness. Meanwhile this culture still treats us like second class citizens. This is bullshit.”

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Last night was not the first time I thought (and got deeply anxious) about this issue. As a (mostly) white singer-songwriter whose music is heavily influenced by the blues and jazz, I am excruciatingly aware that I am swimming in the same deep, problematic waters as Macklemore. Daily, I ask the question, “what do I need to do to have it be okay that I am performing this music?”

For my own sake, I have to believe that the answer is not as simple as, “stick to opera, white girl, and leave the blues to black people.” After all, all art is appropriative to some degree; and while the power dynamics in this situation give me great pause, I’m not sure I can do anything but make this kind of music. It’s in my bones. How can you tease apart the social context from the artist’s responsibility?

I don’t have an answer yet. I may never have an answer. I have a sneaking feeling that I’m going to get (and deserve) a lot of criticism for performing black music if my next album, “Outside the Lines” is any kind of success. I’m bracing for it, because I’m going to release the album anyway. It’s good music. I’m proud of it.

But I still don’t have an answer. If anyone does, please let me know.

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