This might seem weird to some people.
It might seem weird that the internet is expressing discomfort–nay, outrage–at Macklemore cleaning up ALL the rap categories at the Grammy’s last night. For those of you who missed it, the independent Seattle rapper won Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song, and Rap/Sung Performance (he also got Best New Artist). It was a huge night for him, and a controversial night for hip hop.
After all, the National Post said that this year’s Grammys “marks a high note for hip-hop.” Rap artists made an appearance in some major categories, including Album of the Year and Best New Artist. And Macklemore himself defended his controversial nomination by saying “I think that hip hop can be at times resistant to change…[but] hip hop has always been about expansion, about pushing the genre, about challenging the listener.”
So what’s the real story? Are Macklemore’s wins really that big of a deal? Are people just upset because the guy is white, or because his lyrics are “clean,” or because he’s too mainstream, or because (*gasp*) he isn’t Kendrick Lamar?
Short answer: Kind of, yeah.
Long answer: Kind of, yeah. BUT-BUT-BUT, there is a really solid historical reason why. This article does a great job of explaining it, but I know for non-rap fans it might be a little dense.
So I’m going to try to lay it out as best I can.
First, a quick early history of rap in ‘murica.
Rap and hip hop music have existed for a pretty long time…long before getting their popular due, and WAY long before being recognized by the Grammys. It’s a pretty typical story, actually:
- West African musical traditions are full of rap (that is, people talking rhythmically over a beat).
- West Africans came to ‘murica via the slave trade. They brought their musical influences with them.
- Rap became a part of American folk music– African American folk music, in particular.
- In the 20th century, the genre was embraced by low-income urban communities which had largely African American populations (and were thus influenced by their traditions).
This is important. It’s important because, for some reason, people seem to think that hip hop magically appeared out of nowhere in the 80s. Not so much. For example, you can still buy this Folkways recording from 1959 of preteen boys busting rhymes on the streets of NYC:
Yeah, 1959. This was a cultural phenomenon before we started calling it one, and WAY before the Grammys started paying attention.
The difference is that, unlike other traditionally African American genres (blues, jazz, banjo folk music, early rock ‘n roll), it took a long while for rap to be considered “sellable,” or even “musical.” It was not packaged or patron-ed in the same way these other styles were. So while jazz musicians were given legitimacy by powerful white Harlem Renaissance patrons, while banjos became a quintessential American instrument, while the blues built its fan base…rap pretty much stayed on the streets.
And honestly? It was probably better off staying on the streets. Historically, once those traditionally African American genres and musical influences were packaged and sold, they also tended to get pretty whitewashed. Why? Because the early 20th century. Because racism and capitalism are not a good mix.
Now, from a contemporary standpoint, there is nothing wrong with white people buying into, participating in, or being influenced by African American folk traditions. But there is something wrong with how it has been approached historically.
We’re still paying for it. We’re still talking about it. And we should be.
Essentially, there are two major ways the packaging and selling of traditionally African American music was first approached (spoiler: they both sucked).
1) The “dance monkey, dance” approach. In the early 20th century, music became increasingly seen as a product with mainstream selling power. When this happened, a lot of traditionally African American entertainment was marketed to white people as roots-y, even primitive. Patrons would create a “product” out of black artists and their oh-so-exotic background, but not actually invite them to participate in their own musical culture.
(Example: In the 1920s Harlem Renaissance era, white-only bars were decorated to have an “African” theme, and black people were invited to play music but could not come for any other reason. Traveling minstrel shows would entertain audiences with music and comedy designed to caricature black people–first with blackface performers, and later with actual black entertainers. And by black entertainers, I mean music legends like Ma Rainey and father of the blues W.C. Handy. The only way these musicians could be legitimized at all was by being good enough to impress the people who had come to laugh at them. And even when they were given a shot, they often became someone else’s product…and were rarely invited to the after party.)
2) The “we’ll take it from here” approach. Just watch from 8:15 on this below video, and you’ll get the idea on this one.
What does all this mean? It means that when rap finally was packaged and sold, this history was incredibly relevant. Artists were constantly weary of the influence and ownership of record labels and mainstream consumers. While rap was a great way to express what was happening in urban communities, to push mainstream boundaries (and hey, maybe to even bridge a few gaps a la Run DMC and Aerosmith) many people were and are tentative about the “dance monkey, dance,” and the “we’ll take it from here”-type histories.
And the Grammy goes to…
Now let’s talk about the Grammys, shall we?
To make matters more sensitive, rap does not have a very positive history with the Grammy awards. Like the American music industry in general, the Grammys weren’t very good at embracing rap…until it started making a crazy amount of money, that is. And even then, not much was done to understand the socioeconomic/historical/cultural context of rap music. The hip hop community is rightfully wary about how the Grammys treat their genre.
However, they are equally aware that Grammys are incredibly influential in the music scene, and even more influential in how the music scene appears to mainstream audiences. So it’s a tough spot, and one that needs considered critically.
Not because hip hop can’t be embraced by different individuals and cultures as a means of expression. Not because Macklemore isn’t musically awesome (I could probably recite every word of The Heist, let’s be honest). But because having Macklemore as the popular sound and face of the rap genre–which is exactly where the Grammys have placed him with all these awards–is questionable to people who care about the past and the future of rap music. And because we as a society have severely screwed up with approaching similar musical movements before, so red flags get raised pretty easily.
But why don’t we let the artists speak for themselves?
Now that we’ve gone over that background, I’m going to hand the mic over to some of rap music’s biggest players. It’s probably best to explain the last couple decades of Grammy-rap relations through their eyes.
After several years of serious commercial success, the Grammys finally start adding rap performance categories in 1989. But they were untelevised, barely mentioned, and their choice of winners was controversially soft and even confusing (Parents Just Don’t Understand? Really?). In these 1991 lyrics, TuPac is in no way subtle in addressing how the Grammys were “cashing in” on rap without respecting it at all:
“The Grammy’s and American music shows
They pimp us like hoes; take our dough but they hate us though”
(…remember that “dance monkey, dance” history I talked about? Yeah. That’s this.)
Naughty by Nature:
In 1996, the Grammys FINALLY (finally, finally) established a Best Rap Album award. Naughty by Nature won…and, as you can tell by this interview with the trio, they didn’t even know how to even comprehend it. When asked why they didn’t just say “Thank you, but no thank you,” to the so-called honour, DJ Kay Gee joked “They didn’t air our part anyway, so we didn’t have a chance to.”
FYI, they still don’t air these rap categories on the televised award show.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard (of the Wu-Tang Clan):
The year is 1998. Wu-Tang Clan gets snubbed on the Best Rap Album award. And OH-MY, this happens:
I think it’s relevant to note that this video has over 4,600 likes (only 100 dislikes) on YouTube. This snub was just plain poorly timed–this is only the third ever Best Rap Album award, and rap artists still weren’t getting proper stage time in general.
Jay Z has boycotted the Grammys on several occassions. His tipping point was when DMX was denied a nomination in 1999, but he also boycotted in 2002, saying:
“Too many major rap artists continue to be overlooked. Rappers deserve more attention from the Grammy committee and from the whole world. If it’s got a gun, everybody knows about it; but if we go on a world tour, no one knows.”
Oh my millenials, who could forget these lyrics from The Real Slim Shady?
You think I give a damn about a Grammy?
Half of you critics can’t even stomach me, let alone stand me
“But Slim, what if you win, wouldn’t it be weird?”
Why? So you guys could just lie to get me here?
So you can, sit me here next to Britney Spears?
Ironically, Eminem did win the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance with the single so…there is that. Interstingly, this article actually cites white privilege as the reason for Em’s Grammy success (relative to other artists).
Fast forward to 2004. Like Ol’ Dirty Bastard before him, 50 Cent takes a stand for what he considers a snub…this time in the “Best New Artist” category.
Okay, so his “stand” was a lot more subtle (actually, it was more of a cameo). But his statement afterwards was interesting: ”I think that the board is a lot older and they’re conservative, so some of the content in the music is offensive on some level. There’s a lot of people that don’t accept that hip-hop culture is now pop culture.“
I know, I know. But you can’t talk hip hop versus the Grammys without talking Kanye. Specifically, you can’t talk hip hop versus the Grammys without citing the New York Times interview where he said this :
I don’t know if this is statistically right, but I’m assuming I have the most Grammys of anyone my age, but I haven’t won one against a white person…I don’t care about the Grammys; I just would like for the statistics to be more accurate. I don’t want them to rewrite history right in front of us. At least, not on my clock. I really appreciate the moments that I was able to win rap album of the year or whatever. But after a while, it’s like: “Wait a second; this isn’t fair. This is a setup.”
The 2013 Grammys roll around, and Nas–with 18 nominations in his career and 4 that year–sits down with Dave Grohl to talk Grammys. Nas (who has never been outspokenly critical nor supportive of the award shows) had this to say about how they STILL, still underrate the Hip Hop genre in 2013:
Oh, and Macklemore himself:
Perhaps the person who is most aware (and most vocal) of how these things seem to go down these days is Macklemore. Yes, really. Let’s start with his 2005 song “White Privilege,” shall we?
I give everything I have when I write a rhyme
But that doesn’t change the fact that this culture’s not mine
More recently, he addressed race relations and public perception of rap music in his song “A Wake,” saying:
These interviews are obnoxious
Saying that it’s poetry is so well spoken, stop it
I grew up during Reaganomics
When Ice T was out there on his killing cops shit
Or Rodney King was getting beat on
And they let off every single officer
And Los Angeles went and lost it
Oh, and he also instagramed this message he sent Kendrick Lamar after last night’s Grammys:
The “speech” he was referring to was his acceptance of Best New Artist.
Why? Because he wasn’t even able to accept the controversial Best Rap Album award.
Why? Because Best Rap Album is still not a part of the main Grammy award show. Despite the fact that half the nominees are popular enough to be performing. Despite the fact that for years now rap has been the ONLY genre which has seen an increase in record sales. Ay-yi-yi.
So, what does this all mean?
Musically, I think Macklemore deserves an award–if not the rap honours, then at least that Best New Artist he was handed. And I congratulate him on his wins, genuinely. I don’t think he is bad for hip hop–his ability to break out as an independent artist is actually a huge step away from the “dance monkey, dance” history, and he has spoken out several times against exclusivity and race issues. I don’t think that just hating on Macklemore’s Grammy wins is an overly informed response.
BUT, I don’t think that just pushing criticisms aside as silly or ridiculous is informed, either. And it’s certainly not informed to talk about Macklemore like he’s some sober messiah who has swooped in to save the hip hop culture from its sexist, homophobic, gang-banging, drug-pushing ways.
That’s not fair. It’s offensive to the diverse and culturally rich history of rap music. I don’t know Macklemore, but it’s probably offensive to him, too. And the more people talk about him that way, the more rap fans are going to despise it when he gets these wins.
(Which is too bad. Because while being critical is good…I think we should really be more critical of the fact that Macklemore wasn’t even able to accept his awards because all those rap Grammys still aren’t on the main show.)
Either way, I hope this helped clear up some of the confusion people might have over all these very intense responses. If you have any thoughts on this, or if I missed something super important to this conversation, let me know in the comments!