Last week, while Twitter was focused on Cardi B vanquishing Taylor Swift to become the first unaccompanied female rapper to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in almost 20 years, Macklemore’s new album, Gemini, hit the top of the iTunes charts — a prime indicator of the listening habits of people too old to understand streaming. His new single with Kesha, “Good Old Days,” is all over Top 40 radio; on YouTube, the music video is closing in on six million views. After the strained commercial and critical semi-flop of 2016’s The Unruly Mess I’ve Made, Macklemore, it seems, is back.
Others have grappled, at length, with Macklemore’s privilege and place in the hip-hop world. I’m not a hip-hop expert. I am, however, a privileged white person from the Northwest, and have some answers for those of you wondering how this moderately skilled gomer is still around — and what that endurance suggests about white liberal allyhood.
The first time I heard Macklemore was in August 2013, when a student posted the video for “Thrift Shop” to the blog of the media studies class I was teaching. Turns out, everyone knew the song — it was all over campus, playing at every party. In hindsight, this was surprising: It would be weeks before it and Macklemore went national, and even with the internet, Whitman College remains a bit of a cultural backwater. But Macklemore was a Pacific Northwest kid, and these were Pacific Northwest liberal arts students. The year before, he had come to Whitman’s home of Walla Walla, Washington, to play a show. Supposedly, he’d bought the shearling jacket featured so heavily in the video for “Thrift Shop” at Walla Walla’s St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.
But Macklemore’s popularity at a school jokingly referred to as “White Man College” isn’t accidental. Whitman — like Macklemore, and so many of the earnestly liberal white residents of the Pacific Northwest — struggles with the same fundamental existential crises of privileged white allyhood. Namely: Is it possible? Does it always tip toward self-exonerating performance? And what does it suggest about the entire concept of “allyhood” when it can be shelved so readily?
Macklemore’s new album, Gemini, has been positioned as a “liberation” from the ponderous interrogations that came before. He’s done, as he put it, with “preaching to the choir”: rapping politics to the white liberals who compose the majority of his fanbase. Which, for many, comes as a relief. He remains the avatar of white guys trying hard not to be the worst, but he’s also — especially in this new incarnation — a salve for those exhausted with the enduring conundrum of white guilt. His endurance makes sense, but it’s also proof of the fickleness of so many components of white liberalism: When you can put a conversation aside when it ceases to thrill you or feed you, how deep was your investment? Is the ability to stop talking about injustice the greatest white privilege of all?
To truly understand Macklemore’s endurance, you have to understand the specific sort of white liberalism from which he emerged. Macklemore, real name Benjamin Haggerty, grew up in and around the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, in areas once known as the center of Seattle’s gay and black culture, which, over the last 20 years, have overflowed with white gentrifiers and wealthy Amazon employees. His mother, according to Biography.com, “was a social worker who encouraged him to be tolerant of difference,” which is a very Seattle white person thing to say to your child.
He attended Nathan Hale High School and Garfield, a school in the historically black Central District that bused in high-achieving students from across the district. There was little mixing, social or educational, between the (majority white) honors students and the (majority black) non-honors students. Seattle’s busing program, and the integration it sought to preserve, is a classic Seattle idea: Even the very best of intentions cannot overcome the sort of racism and self-division that occurs in a deeply white city.
After graduation, Macklemore put in a year at the College of Santa Fe, but didn’t get into the music program; he came home and enrolled in Evergreen State College, known around the Pacific Northwest for its experimental, experiential learning (no grades!). For all its reputation as a hippie school, Evergreen is one of the most diverse colleges in the Northwest — its current enrollment is 28.9% students of color — and has substantive and successful programs in place to increase its diversity. Evergreen, in other words, is trying not to be a caricature of the hippie white Pacific Northwest liberal.
As an undergraduate, it seems like Haggerty, too, was trying to avoid that fate. He taught music classes organized around rap at Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center in nearby Chehalis, Washington. “Green Hill is where, as the system would call it, the ‘worst of the worst’ type of kids lived,” he told The Seattleite in 2012. “However, it’s completely not that — they were incredible kids who just got caught up in other things. It was an intense experience and it gave me a lot to reflect on in my whole life.”
After college, Macklemore moved back to Seattle, where he got involved in the underground Seattle hip-hop scene, which meant spending time in “freestyle rapping circles” at Westlake Center: rapping for white passersby in the shadow of the flagship Nordstrom store. In 2005, he released a mixtape, The Language of My World, that included songs like “White Privilege”: “When I take a step to the mic is hip-hop closer to the end?” he rapped, “’Cause when I go to shows the majority have white skin.” (Other choice lyrics: “Hip-hop is gentrified, and where will all the people live? / It’s like the Central District, Beacon Hill to the South End / Being pushed farther away because of what white people did.”
Again, Macklemore was trying. But rapping “Where’s my place in a music that’s been taken by my race / Culturally appropriated by the white face?” is also a way of virtue signaling and self-exonerating as you do the very thing that you’re anxious about, the lyrical equivalent of prefacing a softly bigoted comment with “I don’t have a racist bone in my body, but…”
Soon after, Macklemore fell into an addiction spiral that had begun in high school. He got sober; he collaborated with local rappers, including the Blue Scholars, a hip-hop duo formed at the University of Washington. In 2009, he collaborated with Seattle producer Ryan Lewis on The Unplanned Mixtape, which led with an ode to Seattle entitled “The Town”: “This is our scene / our music, our movement, the history lives through us.” He performed at the Capitol Hill Block Party; the Seattle Times declared him “Seattle’s best shot at mainstream stardom.” He became a big Seattle deal.
A city’s major celebrities can tell you so much about the area. In Seattle, take away the non-native sports heroes and historical examples of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, and the reigning Seattle avatars are Bill Gates, Rick Steves, Jeff Bezos, and now, apparently, Macklemore: well-intentioned yet periodically exploitative or appropriative white dudes whose worldviews and politics have been shaped, in no small part, by living in a place surrounded by people who look and act very much like them.
The thing about well-intentioned white people is that we’re always fucking up, in ways larger and smaller than, say, “accidentally” performing in an anti-Semitic costume, as Macklemore did in 2014. Growing up white in a country that privileges whiteness dooms white people to this fuckery, even as it exonerates them from any blowback stemming from it. That’s how straight white activism became so fetishized, so lauded: How brave, how wonderful to fight to dismantle your own power.
It’s not anyone’s “fault,” to use a phrase I’ve seen a lot on not-so-well-intentioned white people’s Facebook walls, that they are white. That doesn’t mean the way that white people have tried to dismantle racism, and proclaim allyship, isn’t often faulty. Well-intentioned white people are bad at fighting racism for the same reason that rich people are bad at fighting poverty and straight people are bad at fighting homophobia: It’s not their personal problem. The stakes are not their own. Hence situations like what went down in Laurelhurst, an upper-class Seattle neighborhood, when liberals parents became infuriated when teachers chose to wear Black Lives Matter shirts to class.
You can become intimate with the problem, like Kim Kardashian did when she gave birth to a black daughter. (“To be honest,” she wrote, “before I had North, I never really gave racism or discrimination a lot of thought.”) That intimacy can be forced — like when your son comes out — or accidental. But white, straight, middle-class people, which is to say, the dominant population of the Pacific Northwest, do not deal with the embodied, quotidian experience of bigotry, which is why our solutions are often so facile, so sincere, so embarrassing.
Take Macklemore’s “Same Love,” which, in 2012, became the “anthem” for the fight to legalize gay marriage in Washington state. “Macklemore made gay marriage okay,” the joke goes, but the song was indeed made for straight people, arguing that queer love is the same as straight love, so don’t get freaked out. Granted, to win a statewide referendum, you need straight people on your side. But, like “White Privilege II,” released in 2016, it smooths out, waters down, and gives a white face to ideas that black, brown, and queer activists have been trying to communicate for decades. Macklemore doesn’t make it easier for those voices to be heard. He reinforces the notion that ideas are only relevant, only listenable and actionable, when spoken with a certain voice.
When Macklemore wins something — like his 2014 Grammy for Best Rap Album, beating out Kendrick Lamar — he feels embarrassed. So embarrassed that he texted Lamar afterwards: “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks and I robbed you.” So embarrassed that he screenshotted the text and posted it to Instagram. “I was gonna say that during the speech,” he texted. “Then the music started playing during my speech and I froze.” It’s the ultimate well-intentioned white person win: Accept the trophy for dominating one of the few fields not controlled by white men…while also publicly performing your ambivalence about it.
For fellow white people everywhere, this was either very cringeworthy or very much the right and sincere thing to do, or both. “White privilege, in all its many meanings, universalizes white people,” Doreen St. Félix writes.”They would prefer to feel special, individual, especially the liberal sophisticants. They hope there is a gulf between them and someone like Macklemore, but the distance is more like an inch.”
This might explain why white people in the Pacific Northwest proved such an accepting audience for Macklemore: We don’t fancy ourselves liberal sophisticants. Macklemore has been called suburban dad-rap, and Seattle is nothing if not filled with suburban dads. You don’t have to be male or even live in the suburbs to fulfill the archetype: You just have to like the Seahawks and local IPAs, live in a “starter home” that cost more than half a million dollars, and own multiple iterations of puffy jacket.
This type of person, and I count many of them as my friends, has far less problem liking Macklemore than the hand-wringing Twitter critics St. Félix references. That’s the thing about dorky white guys like Macklemore: Their confidence stems from their lack of shame, paired with their conviction of righteousness and liberal-mindedness, born of their subscription to the New York Times, their decision to keep their kids in public school, their drafting of Richard Sherman to their fantasy team, their purchase of both Kendrick Lamar and Macklemore from the iTunes store.
For this type of person to be embarrassed by Macklemore would be the same thing as being embarrassed by, or ashamed of, himself. And if a white liberal Macklemore listener has internalized one thing, it’s that he’s doing the best he can.
Which returns us to Gemini. Press for the album has labored to reassure fans that he’s done with all that agonizing: “Macklemore is so nimble and unburdened on his latest album,” Justin Charity writes on The Ringer, “that he sounds totally removed, and repaired, from the white-rapper angst that tanked his stardom after The Heist.” When Rolling Stone asked Macklemore to describe the album, his first response was that “it’s not extremely politically motivated or heavily subject- or concept-oriented.” He told NPR that “music is a form of resistance that doesn’t need to come via an overt social message.”
Macklemore got tired of feeling bad, so he decided to make music that was fun, that replaced the anguish of contemporary politics with the kind of joy fostered by music. Take the “Good Old Days” of his new single — they’re ostensibly the early days of his career, but as the video, with its vision of a multicultural utopia in the Pacific Northwest woods, suggests, those Good Old Days were the Obama years, when the fact of a black presidency helped cloak the endurance of white supremacy, even in, especially in, hyper-liberal cities like Seattle.
In Macklemore’s Gemini world, white supremacy still endures — just as it does in the Pacific Northwest — but no one’s mad about it. Instead, everyone stays in their lane: Macklemore gets to rap, the other white guy (Budo, who, un-coincidentally, went to Whitman) gets to produce, and black and brown people get to hang out in the background of the video and show up for verses. It’s a fun and hopeful world, one that’s particularly alluring to residents of the Northwest, whose world is reflected back at them as far more diverse and far less fraught than it actually is. But it’s also a convenient, insidious lie — disguised as a catchy, feel-good tune for white people fed up with feeling bad, who need to nevertheless be assured that they’re doing the best they can.
When asked about his amicable split with Ryan Lewis, Macklemore has been frank about the strain that “White Privilege II” put on their partnership. “I think it was really heavy to make a nine-minute song about race,” he told Sway in the Morning. Now that’s privilege. Because for many black artists, every song is always already about race; there is no moment of their stardom or their art that does not intersect with the fact of their racial identity. Whiteness has long been deracialized, which is to say, considered not as a race but as a baseline, not as a way of being so much as the way of being. And no matter how well-intentioned, if you live in a place where whiteness remains centralized, the conversation will continue to be exhausting. The work it entails is deeply unfamiliar, seldom gratifying, often frustrating. But then again, try asking a person of color how they feel about talking about race all the time.
Macklemore got exhausted with rapping about whiteness for nine minutes, and navigating a career in which “white” was always placed before his occupation. That he can largely leave that burden behind when he chooses — that’s the ultimate in white privilege, and the truer message of this album and its success. ●
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.