The Problem With Macklemore’s Self-Deprecating Nice Guy of Hip Hop Persona


A day has passed, everyone’s Grammy hangovers have receded, Trent Reznor has calmed down… and Macklemore still has the Best Rap Album award. There’s been plenty of controversy over this, and I don’t want to rehash the rights and wrongs of his award here, because it’s been done to death already. To me, perhaps the most interesting development of the night came when this gentleman sifted through Macklemore’s Twitter account ca. 2009, with, um, interesting results. It feels slightly dirty to be digging up long-forgotten tweets, but it plays into a more interesting topic of discussion: just how much of Macklemore’s über-successful Nice Guy of Hip Hop persona is for real, and how much is successful marketing?

You can look through this timeline for the more salacious tweets, or just search Twitter for “from:macklemore” and whatever search term you think might turn up interesting results. Suffice it to say that they suggest Macklemore wasn’t always the enlightened family favorite he is these days, and like everyone else, was prone to posting some pretty dumb shit on Twitter.

Perhaps the most interesting progression comes from the three tweets that appear if you search “homo” (I’ve screencapped them in case they disappear):

As far as the “no homo” business goes, honestly, I think we’re looking at the record of a man growing older and wiser. Of course, the passage of time doesn’t make the original tweet defensible — after all, I wasn’t tweeting homophobic slurs five years ago, and I’m guessing you weren’t either. But I also think that these three tweets provide a neat encapsulation of the construction of the Macklemore persona, from being another kinda clueless C-grade rapper through becoming a decent human to evolving into the Macklemore we know today: the preachy Nice Guy, the reassuringly liberal and non-scary white guy who even your grandma can appreciate, the one who Speaks for Minorities whether or not they can speak for themselves.

The question with Macklemore has always been how much of this is genuine and how much of it is a calculated affectation. After all, his schtick is marketing genius; instead of being a goofy white guy trying to look like you fit in, competing with a gazillion other better qualified rappers to be taken seriously in a genre where the perception of authenticity is everything, you embrace your outsider status and make sure everyone realizes you’re painfully aware of it. Instead of competing with a load of others to appeal to “real” rap fans, be the one guy who appeals to soccer moms and, y’know, the Grammy voters.

You can call me cynical, but I suspect there’s a healthy amount of calculation to all this. Macklemore is painfully self-aware, and he’s also very much in charge of his own image — check this short profile from early 2011, which speaks admiringly of his work ethic and his business plan. “Macklemore has a three-pronged revenue stream,” enthuses the writer, “Up until now, he’s handled (almost) everything himself.” Back in 2008, the man himself told Seattlest about how he had “lost myself in the job aspect of my career… [but] most of the time I wasn’t treating it like a job. You have to if you want to be successful.”

In other words, Macklemore knows what he’s doing. And it’s worked very, very well for him. Largely unknown outside of Seattle a couple of years ago, he’s now a mega-famous international Grammy-winning superstar. And with the awards comes the backlash, one that he’s tried to sidestep by suggesting that Kendrick Lamar should have won the Best Rap Album award. If you missed it, he published a text message he sent to Lamar yesterday on his Instagram:

You can read this a couple of ways. Either it’s further proof that Macklemore is a Really Nice Guy, or it’s a kinda self-serving move to abrogate guilt and criticism. In an excellent piece in the New York Times yesterday, Jon Caramanica argued that, “an act that was presumably meant to be selfless and open-minded instead came off as one of self-congratulatory magnanimity…. In interviews, Macklemore speaks readily about his position of privilege and the role it has played in catapulting him to fame. But incidents like the text to Mr. Lamar reinforce the narrative of Macklemore as tortured intruder, keen to relish his success but stressed about all the shoulders he’s had to step on along the way. It’s a transparent ploy for absolution, and a warning of robberies to come.”

This is a criticism that has been leveled at Macklemore before (in particular, in relation to “Same Love”). If Macklemore is really stressed about all those shoulders he’s stepping on, should he stop stepping on them? There are certainly those who think he should just stand aside — the writer Ayesha Siddiqi, for instance, who suggested that “if Macklemore is so self aware then he needs to stop pandering w apologetic screenshots of ‘private’ texts and start bowing out… Like all white men occupying space they were unfairly awarded Macklemore should simply stop. He gets white privilege, he simply refuses to abdicate as if the acknowledgement is enough as if it isn’t something he’s actively maintaining.”

For what it’s worth, I’m always uncomfortable with the idea of making unilateral declarations that any aspect of culture belongs solely to any one group. As I’ve argued here before, culture is a fluid, ever-changing thing, and ultimately, throwing up barriers and/or declaring that certain spheres are proscribed for certain groups of people is more destructive than anything else.

But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what I think, because the interesting thing is that even Macklemore seems to feel that he shouldn’t be making the music that he makes. If you believe his own lyrics, he has done so ever since the start of his career. His 2005 debut album contains a song called “White Privilege,” wherein Macklemore, bless him, wrestles with the guilt of being a white rapper: “Am I just another white boy who has caught on to the trend/ When I take a step to the mic is hip-hop closer to the end?”

The conclusion he comes to is telling: essentially, yes, he feels that he is appropriating black culture, but hey, he’s going to do it anyway! “But I’m gonna be me, so please be who you are/ This is something that’s effortless and shouldn’t be hard/ I said I’m gonna be me, so please be who you are/ But we still owe ’em 40 acres now we’ve stolen their 16 bars.”

This, I think, is where we get to the root of the problem with the entire Macklemore phenomenon: you can’t have it both ways. Either you say, “Look, hip hop is a universally popular genre that has always been multicolored, and I think this music is for everyone, and I have as much right to be making it as the Beastie Boys or Eminem or Will Smith or 50 Cent,” or you say, “Hey, this music doesn’t belong to me, and I am essentially appropriating black culture.” And if you decide the latter, you stop. If you really, truly, honestly feel this way, I don’t see how you can justify doing what you do.

Macklemore, though, has his cake and eats it too. He feels that he shouldn’t get a Grammy, but hey, he accepts it anyway. If Macklemore really feels that Kendrick Lamar should have won the award, then Macklemore should go ahead and give it to him, not just post a message to his Instagram to show what a Nice Guy he is. If he really feels like he’s drowning out black voices, then he should stop talking. (But he won’t.) If not, he’s ultimately being disingenuous — and it’s hard to believe someone so self-aware isn’t aware of that.