Music’s biggest night isn’t always its best. That’s the conclusion that I had already come to by the time last night that it became clear that we were watching an extended eulogy of sorts to the art form that the Golden Gramophone was originally built on: Rock n’ Roll. With Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney winning the main rock categories and the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Neil Young and David Bowie as nominees beside them, it has become pretty clear in what direction Rock is trending. Members of Nirvana, Metallica Muse and Queens of the Stone Age looked like spring chickens next to the rest of the nominees. And that’s even though James Hetfield has firmly entered the “office manager” stage of fashion.
Performances from these and other fossils (Kris Kristofferson came over with the pilgrims) reinforced the feeling that we’re entering the grief stage over rock. Gary Clark Jr. was the only individual with a guitar on stage the whole night that was born after Vietnam (with a killer solo and his first Grammy…I really hope the kid has an amazing career). And he’s largely big-upped by rock insiders as a revenant; the guy who sounds enough like Hendrix or Clapton or Guy to soothe the hole in their hearts. Clark Jr. was also one of the few people of color anywhere during the rock performances. Rock was presented as the gatekeepers of the Grammys and a solid portion of active listeners want to imagine it: as a sanitized nostalgic form which-in keeping with cultural nostalgia-keeps blacks on the margin. Funny how that works for a genre built on foundations of black performers and art forms. Along with jazz, rock was one of the first modern forays into artistic appropriation as we know it.
The history on display in that arena in rock music was a perfect backdrop for events that caused an uproar this morning. If last night was a farewell to whitewashed rock as the driving music of the culture, then it may also have been a greeting to the era of whitewashed hip-hop as the replacement. Hip-hop has been more relevant than rock for quite some time, despite Nas’s predictions of its demise, and has been like jazz in that its sense of “cool,” its link to a very specific racial and economic struggle and its internal gatekeeping made wholesale appropriation difficult. However, what Nas may have been seeing was the degradation of some of these institutions that allowed hip-hop to finally stopped being seen as the music of “those people” and to be seen as “our music.”
The most visible sign of the shift received his coronation last night. Macklemore. The Thrift Shop Guy. The Guy That Made That Song about LGBTQ Rights. That guy. He’s taken the world by storm with some pretty mediocre raps that chastise rap about stuff. He’s not the best rapper. His music isn’t the best, especially against the contenders. But he now has the approval of the two highest gatekeepers in music; sales and awards. This is problematic to me.
I’m no hip-hop protectionist or purist nor am I a racial stalwart defending “our” things from incursion by profiteers. I’m pretty far from either, and it’s my genuine belief that hip-hop is such an expansive space that it can accommodate a ton of forms and different cultural viewpoints and still retain its integrity as a genre. In fact, I believe the diversity of form aids in the integrity and appeal of hip-hop. Speaking to Macklemore’s specific demographic, he’s far from the vanguard of white boy rappers and he’s not even novel at this point. White guys with bars are a pretty sizable part of the hip-hop legacy, all the way back to Beastie Boys through Eminem. White guys have always been a pretty large portion of the audience of even the most hardcore rap, back to the Wu-Tang shirts. Hip-hop has been enriched by diversity, and while I won’t paint the rise of white voices within it as an opposition-free phenomenon, I’d say that most of the curators embrace those who are among the titans and those who are on the rise. The first rule of hip-hop above all else is still “is your shit dope?”
The rise of Macklemore feels different than those of his predecessors. While we always got the sense that at least some of Eminem’s fame and appeal to the mainstream was a result of his race, at least until recently we could always take solace in the fact that he passed the first rule. His shit was dope, and although his recent albums have been lacking, any time there was doubt about his success we could just run back a video of him eviscerating opponents in rap battles or laying down a fire-breathing freestyle. Macklemore is different, because it feels like his race is the primary determinant of his success, and not just a handy aid. The response to his album in traditional hip-hop circles has largely been a resounding “nah,” and the singles that garnered his acclaim weren’t exactly ubiquitous in black media spaces.
It doesn’t help that Macklemore’s signature song about gender and sexual rights “Same Love” is about as deep as a puddle, is still prone to the problematic “I’m not gay but” line of support, and is an admonishment of an industry by an outsider who only gives lip service to its rich history including both its strengths and deep flaws. It also doesn’t help that songs written as explicit or implicit dismissals of hip-hop fared well this year, even though they had hip-hop roots (“Royals” is another example here). Meanwhile, socially-conscious anti-materialistic songs and even a few critiques about homophobia and hypermasculine backwardness in hip-hop from good songs with actual insights from within largely go ignored, largely because most non-party hip-hop songs from nonwhite artists go unnoticed by the mainstream. Black artists who fight the trends that black artists are supposed to fit aren’t given a space by mainstream media to express those opinions. Macklemore’s ability to even be heard giving such a message is a function of privilege, which I think he kind of realized in his awkward white-guilt ridden pseudo apology to Kendrick Lamar/fans. But the point still stands. I’m just not sure I can get behind applauding white wardens for social commentary chastising my culture when those things get ignored when insiders say them, even if the messages themselves are valid and on time.
But Macklemore isn’t the root of my ire. He makes the music he makes, and the majority of folks cosign him and think it’s the best thing ever. I wish him success, and I wish he finds a way to parlay a little bit of his guilt into real attempts to learn and immerse himself in the culture. They issue here is the Grammys, or rather what they represent. In terms of outright impact, the Grammys probably have the lowest causal relationship to sales and influence in their history now. However, they still have the very important function of showing what has been deemed acceptable and digestible by the masses. In this case, it looks like we are entering the age of hip-hop’s cultural ownership slowly changing hands to the place where the financial ownership also resides, if we aren’t there already. That’s an unwelcome turn for an art form which gave folks like me hope and a voice when we had no other venues. And if history tells us anything, said ownership will not be shared. The gentrification will likely continue, and Macklemore is just the first new house on the block. Hopefully, I’m wrong.