Race + Hip-Hop + LGBT Equality: On Macklemore’s White Straight Privilege

Much of the nation was introduced to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis this past weekend thanks to their appearance on Saturday Night Live, a major accomplishment and promotional tool for any musical artist. Considering the indie rap duo’s already growing popularity with their chart topper and multi-platinum seller “Thrift Shop,” it is important to examine the impact of their success.

Macklemore has already been touted by several media outlets as the progressive voice on gay rights in hip hop since the release of “Same Love,” his second single to chart on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. The song, which peaked at No. 89 last week, tries to tackle the topic of gay marriage and homophobia in media and US culture, focusing specifically on hip hop with lyrics such as, “if I was gay, I would think hip hop hates me.”

Though Macklemore is not gay, “Same Love” has gotten many accolades from fellow straight supporters, as well as members of the gay community. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis performed it on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where DeGeneres introduced them by 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.”

But, how can this be the case when there is already an entire genre, Homo Hop, comprised solely of queer hip hop artists? Whether, it is intentional or not, Macklemore has become the voice of a community to which he doesn’t belong, in a genre that already has a queer presence waiting to be heard by mainstream audiences.

Mary Lambert performs “Same Love” on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” We should also examine the song’s hook, performed by lesbian singer-songwriter Mary Lambert. Lambert first gained notoriety as a spoken word artist, and it is important to remember that spoken word, like hip hop, is rooted in Black culture. They are both a response to white supremacy.

However, Lambert, like Macklemore and Lewis, is a white artist. This begs the question, what does it mean to have three white people, two of which who are straight, be the beacon of gay rights in hip hop?

In “Same Love,” Macklemore does not address these concerns. Instead, he raps about hip hop as if it were his. The song lyrics even take it a step further by conflating Black Civil Rights and Gay Rights, which are both about identities he does not possess, and oppressions he does not experience:

A culture founded from oppression
Yet we don’t have acceptance for ‘em
Call each other f*ggots behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion
Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment
The same fight that led people to walk outs and sit ins
It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference

Macklemore speaks of hip hop as if his whiteness is irrelevant when criticizing the genre as a whole for being homophobic. These lyrics are very reminiscent of much of the shaming of people of color that occurred in 2008 after the passing of Prop 8 in California, where Black people and Latin@s were accused of being responsible for the anti-gay legislation passing, while seemingly ignoring the millions of dollars raised by white Christians to ban marriage equality. Though Macklemore may not be blaming Black people for homophobia, by focusing on homophobia in Black community spaces, as opposed to the pervasiveness of homophobia everywhere, white people get to remove themselves from the problem.

On top of this, the same argument that suggests that Black people should be more understanding of homophobia because of their own oppression is used both in the lyrics of “Same Love” and in many racist pro-marriage equality campaigns. This line of argument suggests that homophobia perpetrated by people of color is somehow worse because they should have known better as people who are also oppressed. Furthermore, when white people are homophobic, it is less condemnable because they don’t know what it is like.

Along with not acknowledging his white privilege in “Same Love,” Macklemore uses the homophobic slur “f*ggot” in the second verse seemingly without any consideration of his straight privilege. Though he is condemning the use of the slur, there are ways he could have held this conversation without inciting the word itself, since many folks within the queer community feel hurt by straight people using that word in any context. And in the third verse he raps, “and a certificate on paper isn’t gonna solve it all, but it’s a damn good place to start.” For many queer people of color who have not seen themselves represented in the marriage equality campaign, it can be very hurtful to have a straight person, let alone a white one in a musical genre that was created to address white supremacy, tell them where the best place to start is.

In a November 2012 interview with Chris Talbott of The Associated Press, Macklemore expresses his fear over touring in states like Idaho, Montana and Texas as a pro-gay artist. Macklemore was afraid that there would be backlash from the heartland, however was pleasantly surprised when the rap duo was met with open arms. “Those were three places where people probably sang the loudest,” Macklemore said.
Macklemore’s fear of traveling these states demeans the reality that there are queer people there to begin with, who are already living in communities that are theirs. He also fails to acknowledge that he is straight, and therefore experiences the privilege of not being gay bashed.

This line of thinking appears to have informed the song “Same Love” from the start. The single supports the idea, or at least implies, that people of color, particularly Black folks who created hip hop, are more homophobic than white people, and that there are no queer people who feel supported in these communities. This is very dismissive of queer people of color who consider people of color communities their primary community, who have experienced racism by queer communities, and for queer hip hop artists of color who have found a home in the undervalued sub-genre of homo hop.

However, Macklemore distances himself from his privileges. Continuing to focus on hip hop, he talked about misogyny and homophobia in hip hop culture with Kurt Andersen of Studio 360:

Those are the two acceptable means of oppression in hip hop culture, Its 2012. There needs to be some accountability. I think that as a society we’re evolving and I think that hip hop has always been a representation of what’s going on in the world right now.

By making statements such as these, Macklemore not only gets to remove himself from straight and male privilege, from both of which he benefits, but he also gets to be the white savior of hip hop. Macklemore pleads for hip hop to be more accepting of women and gay people, but he does not promote the work of women and queer hip hop artists of color. In fact, he does not even include a queer person of color in the song “Same Love,” but instead chose Lambert, a white person whose success was also found in a Black art form.

Macklemore acknowledged the complications of being a white artist in hip hop earlier in his career, in the song “White Privilege”:

[W]hite rappers albums really get the most spins
The face of hip hop has changed a lot since Eminem
And if he’s taking away black artists’ profits I look just like him
Claimed a culture that wasn’t mine, the way of the American
Hip Hop is gentrified and where will all the people live

Despite knowing that white artists get more recognition due to racism, Macklemore has not taken any steps to minimize this reality. He has not been accountable to homo hop artists of color, who not only are impacted by homophobia in society as a whole, but also go unsupported because of homophobia and racism that favors white straight men like Macklemore. Macklemore has not corrected the misinformation that he is the most pro-gay voice in hip hop, when what could be more pro-gay than a gay artist within the genre? And none of the artists featured on “Same Love” have been openly accountable to the fact that they are profiting in a genre that does not belong to them at the expense of queer artists of color.

Lambert’s website calls the song “revolutionary.” But, is it really revolutionary to take up space in a genre that exists in response to a system of oppression you benefit from? Is it revolutionary for Macklemore, as a white straight man, to assume that gay people, including gay people of color who may find strength in hip hop in the face of racism, must feel that the genre hates them as is stated in the first line of the second verse in “Same Love”?

And, is it revolutionary for white people to get mainstream recognition for talking about homophobia in hip hop, when queer hip hop artists of color are routinely ignored? The fact of the matter is, the success of “Same Love” is largely due at least in part to white audiences being more receptive to white straight men talking about oppression than oppressed people, as well as the comfort of being able to remove themselves from misogyny and homophobia because the oppression at hand is the fault of Black people in hip hop. What could be more revolutionary than that? How about listening to queer people of color?

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