Macklemore and the Fear of the Minstrel Show

T he trajectory of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (“Macklemore”) is where the complexity of the race in music debate begins.

I. Introduction to Macklemore and the Pattern of Cultural Appropriation

The trajectory of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (“Macklemore”) is where the complexity of the race in music debate begins.[1] Because Macklemore emerged on an independent label from Seattle, he has experienced a very peculiar sort of hip­hop fame, one that has little to do with approval from the center of hip­hop.[2] Rap culture is rooted in 1970’s Black and Latino youth. While it has long incorporated participants of every race and nationality,[3] Macklemore’s success has unfolded largely without Black gatekeepers[4], a traditional hallmark of White rappers through the years, such as Eminem, Beastie Boys, and MC Serch.[5] Instead, Macklemore jumped straight from the independent hip­hop underground to the pop charts.[6] But he is more than just a White artist who muscled his way into a historically Black genre and walked away with America’s greatest prize for music, a Grammy.[7] Macklemore represents a feared revival of cultural appropriation.

American popular music contains this pattern of Black musical innovation and communal creation, followed by a copying and/or imitation by the dominant culture, commonly referred to as cultural or racial appropriation.[8] Macklemore has exercised the “entire cycle of racial borrowing in an environment of white privilege: [B]lack art, White appropriation, White guilt, repeat until there’s nothing left to appropriate.”[9] We knew this was coming.[10] A strikingly consistent characteristic of cultural appropriation is its one-way direction — White performers obtaining economic and artistic benefits at the expense of minority innovators.[11] Macklemore acknowledges his musical roots in Black rap artists of the late ‘90s such as Digital Underground, Hieroglyphics, Reflection Eternal, and Raekwon.[12] He also openly and adamantly admits that he benefits from white privilege.[13]

In Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, K.J. Greene identifies four distinct patterns resulting in inadequate intellectual property protection for Black music artists.[14] Macklemore’s music and acceptance into mainstream American culture fits the fourth pattern, which Greene labels the “Minstrel Show pattern,” defined by a period of innovation by Black artists, followed by white performers seeking to imitate and distort the genre. [15]  The distortion either (1) portrays Black culture in negatively stereotypical ways, such as the old Minstrel Shows, or (2) waters down the vitality of Black music to make it more palatable for white audiences, the so-called “cross-over” phenomena.[16] This crossover phenomena involves the absorption of African-American contributions as simply “American” or “universal” after being accepted by mainstream culture.[17]

II. The Reminder of Two Key Traits of Cultural Appropriation

On January 26, 2014, rap artist Kendrick Lamar lost every Grammy award he was nominated for, most infamously when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won the Best Rap Album Grammy. The fallout from the American public and media pundits was heated.[18] The outcry from African-Americans was not simply that Kendrick Lamar’s album deserved to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album. Furthermore, the quality or suitability of Macklemore as a hip-hop artist is not at issue here.[19] By Kendrick Lamar failing to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album, the Black inner conscience is again haunted with echoes of past grievances.[20] The juxtaposition between the Seattle-born Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar’s Compton roots has revived feelings from “the historical pattern of cultural appropriation included the predisposition of the dominant culture to stereotype and demean minority cultures.”[21] Macklemore’s victory is another abrupt-band-aid-pulling-scab-opening reminder of the American music history of cultural appropriation, including two of its key traits.

First, cultural appropriation pushes out cultural trailblazers – perhaps in efforts to be “colorblind” – in creating this mainstream American music culture.[22] In similar circumstances, the great jazz composer Duke Ellington, a towering figure in American music, was rejected for a Pulitzer Prize in the 1960s. At the time the board claimed that Ellington’s music was insufficiently “serious”; it regularly awarded the prize to composers working in the European art music idiom descended from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg.[23] Kendrick Lamar’s loss is a symbol of that historical ill, another prominent American artist passed over for justly deserved recognition from a White-dominated institution. The crossover of rap is not the problem; instead, it is the tendency for American music to reject the cultural origins of language and practices that it finds disturbing.[24] Because Macklemore won, a Black rapper from Compton could not win. It has happened before. America has witnessed cultural trailblazers like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and James Brown squeezed out of their place in popular consciousness to make room for Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, and others.[25] Macklemore symbolizes that it can happen again.

The second fear is broader: that African-American contributions to the arts are again being devalued. In genres historically considered Black, such as rap, a Black protectionist culture combats against the lingering results of a broad and pervasive social discrimination that both devalued Black contributions to the arts and created greater vulnerability to exploitation and appropriation of creative works.[26]

The Grammy snub was a reminder that even the social issues that Kendrick Lamar’s rhymes echo are not mainstream issues.[27] Both Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar are socially conscious rappers, using music as the currency to address current social issues. Kendrick harnesses the power of rap to discuss issues important to African-American culture through the lens of his complicated relationship with his hometown of Compton.[28] Macklemore appropriated his rapping style from Black culture, harnessing the story-telling features of the genre to address social issues closely affiliated with White America, such as gay marriage[29], materialism[30], and the suburbs[31].

The Grammy’s snub shows that Kendrick Lamar’s message and voice, his way of transmitting these issues into public space, are not accepted by the dominating White institution of music. Instead, Macklemore’s more mainstream message is more valued simply because it fits the agenda of the White majority. In failing to acknowledge Kendrick Lamar’s musical accomplishment, the Grammy’s have neglected his message and dismissed his music as “deviant.”[32] But worse, this snub occurred in a category defined and created by predominantly African-American artists and “gatekeepers”, representing a denial of the African-American voice. Furthermore, the economic value to an artist provides evidence that the Grammy’s serve as a mechanism for economic opportunity.[33] And while the economic exploitation of the African-American is well-documented, “the indignity of [economic devaluation] is not the sole one to which the [B]lack [artist] is exposed. [They] must also watch as less talented and but more palatable [W]hite imitators and popularizers reap the . . . benefits of [B]lack innovations.”[34]

III. Conclusion

Is Macklemore the next Vanilla Ice? Or has Macklemore opened the doors for White, post-Eminem rap artists to dominant the hip-hop landscape?[35] Regardless of the answer, America must remain aware of its history of ignoring cultural origins and devaluing Black artists.

Jaimie K. McFarlin is the Online Content Editor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law. She is a second-year law school student and is originally from Monroe, New York.  Jaimie is an avid fan of hip-hop, Motown, country, and anything else that sounds like music.  She spends her free time consulting for a small independent EDM record label.

Suggested citation:
Jaimie McFarlin, Macklemore and the Fear of the Minstrel Show, Harv. J.Sports & Ent. L. Online Dig., February 3, 2014, http://harvardjsel.com/2014/02/macklemore-minstrel-show/.



[1] On January 26, 2014, rap artist Kendrick Lamar lost every Grammy award he was nominated for, most infamously when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won the Best Rap Album Grammy.

[2] Finding a Place in the Hip-Hop Ecosystem, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/28/arts/music/finding-a-place-in-the-hip-hop-ecosystem.html?hp&_r=1

[3] Yohance Kyles, Hip Hop’s Anger Over Macklemore’s Grammy Win Is About Respect Not Race, http://allhiphop.com/2014/01/28/hip-hops-anger-over-macklemores-grammy-win-is-about-respect-not-race/.

[4] See Grammys: Macklemore Almost Cut From Rap Categories, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/grammys-macklemore-almost-cut-rap-673628 (detailing the controversy within the Grammy committee of labeling Macklemore and Ryan Lewis as a rap group).

[5] Yohance Kyles, Hip Hop’s Anger Over Macklemore’s Grammy Win Is About Respect Not Race, http://allhiphop.com/2014/01/28/hip-hops-anger-over-macklemores-grammy-win-is-about-respect-not-race/.

[6] Finding a Place in the Hip­Hop Ecosystem, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/28/arts/music/finding-a-place-in-the-hip-hop-ecosystem.html?_r=0

[7] Id.

[8] K.J. Greene, Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 371 (1999).

[9] Yohance Kyles, Hip Hop’s Anger Over Macklemore’s Grammy Win Is About Respect Not Race, http://allhiphop.com/2014/01/28/hip-hops-anger-over-macklemores-grammy-win-is-about-respect-not-race/.

[10] It is undeniable that the “appropriation of rap is readily apparent in pop culture.” K.J. Greene, Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 364 (1999).

[11] K.J. Greene, Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 368 (1999).

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWe9rnu32Kk; http://filtermagazine.com/index.php/exclusives/entry/filter_50_getting_to_know_macklemore_ryan_lewis

[13] See CRWN x Macklemore, Ep. 3: White Privilege and What’s Next, https://myspace.com/crwn/video/crwn-x-macklemore-ep.-3-white-privilege-and-what-s-next/109418054 where Macklemore states:

“But it’s something that I absolutely, not only in terms of society, benefit from my white privilege but being a Hip Hop artist in 2013, I do as well. The people that are coming to shows, the people that are connecting, that are resonating with me, that are like, ‘I look like that guy. I have an immediate connection with him.’ I benefit from that privilege and I think that mainstream pop culture has accepted me on a level that they might be reluctant to, in terms of a person of color…”

[14] 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 373 (1999).

[15] Id. See also K.J. Greene, “Copynorms,” Black Cultural Production, and the Debate over African-American Reparations, 25 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L.J. 1179, 1187 (2008) (discussing the minstrel tradition that profoundly shaped cultural values in America and was based on “[W]hite performers trying to imitate [B]lacks.”

[16] K.J. Greene, Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 373 (1999).

[17] Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, 43 Stan. L. Rev. 1241, 1288-89 (1991). For parallels in the jazz music context, see also K.J. Greene, “Copynorms,” Black Cultural Production, and the Debate over African-American Reparations, 25 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L.J. 1179, 1188-89 (2008) (asserting that “the most important effect that the advent of [W]hites had on jazz had nothing to do with the performance of the music at all . . . . [All] the [W]hite players did was to bring jazz into the American mainstream.”)

[18] For a summary of several critical responses, see Macklemore, the Grammys and race: An Internet tempest, http://blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts/2014/01/30/macklemore-the-grammys-and-race-an-internet-tempest/

[19] Macklemore’s music itself is not at issue. He is a well-respected hip-hop artist within several circles. See http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/album-reviews/id.1975/title.macklemore-ryan-lewis-the-heist; http://rapgenius.com/discussions/20755-Review-of-the-heist-by-macklemore-and-ryan-lewis.

[20] See K.J. Greene, Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 358 (1999) (documenting the legacy of racial and cultural appropriation in several music genres).

[21] K.J. Greene, “Copynorms,” Black Cultural Production, and the Debate over African-American Reparations, 25 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L.J. 1179, 1203 (2008) citing K.J. Greene, Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 358 (1999); see also Kimberlee Crenshaw, Race, Reform and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law, 101 Harv. L. Rev. 1331, 1380 (1988) (“White race consciousness, which includes the modern belief in cultural inferiority, acts to further Black subordination by justifying all the forms of unofficial racial discrimination, injury and neglect that flourish in a society that is only formally dedicated to equality.”)

[22] See Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, 43 Stan. L. Rev. 1241, 1288 (1991) (discussing colorblind incorporation of African-American cultural traditions in Skyywalker Records, Inc. v. Navarro, 739 F. Supp. 578, 582 (S.D. Fla. 1990) rev’d sub nom. Luke Records, Inc. v. Navarro, 960 F.2d 134 (11th Cir. 1992)).

[23] K.J. Greene, Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 369-70 (1999)

[24] Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, 43 Stan. L. Rev. 1241, 1299 (1991)

[25] Id. at 1299 (citing the “meteoric rise of [W]hite rapper Vanilla Ice [as] a contemporary example”).

[26] K.J. Greene, Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 356-57 (1999).

[27] For discussion of Kendrick Lamar’s socially aware music style, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/22/kendrick-lamar-good-kid-maad-city-review_n_2003113.html; http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/22/arts/music/social-minded-hip-hop-makes-a-comeback.html?_r=0.

[28] See Album Review: Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rap-genius/album-review-kendrick-lam_b_2006431.html

[29] “Same Love”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlVBg7_08n0

[30] “Thrift Shop”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QK8mJJJvaes

[31] “White Walls”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PLifPUIuic

[32] Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, 43 Stan. L. Rev. 1241, 1288-89 (1991).

[33] Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Forbes, “The Grammy Bounce: How Much Is An Award Really Worth?” http://www.forbes.com/sites/zackomalleygreenburg/2012/02/08/the-grammy-bounce-how-much-is-an-award-really-worth/ (sampling performers and producers to reveal a “Grammy Bounce” of at least 55% in concert ticket sales and producer fees during the year following a Grammy win); see also “How Important Are the Grammy Awards?”, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7304613.

[34] See Frank Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (1970).

[35] In these patterns, the “appearance of [W]hites in a black musical form has historically prefigured the mainstreaming of the form, the growth of the [W]hite audience, and the resulting dominance of [W]hite performers.” K.J. Greene, Copyright, Culture & Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection, 21 Hastings Comm. & Ent L.J. 339, 371 (1999).

 

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