[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on 206up.com and Chul asked us to share it here, too, so we did!]
The white rapper with the crazy red fringe game and un-Googleable hairstyle danced acrossSaturday Night Live’s venerable stage two weekends ago like it was his last performance on earth. At first glance, the “blandly handsome” Macklemore (as Grantland’s Steven Hyden put it) didn’t look much like a rap music harbinger of doom, but for a concerned segment of hip-hop’s literati that’s what he closely resembles.
If you were a viewer watching at home, or maybe even in the studio audience, your reaction was likely one of either intense bewilderment, extreme delight, or furrowed disdain. Macklemore’s number one hit single “Thrift Shop” has very humble origins and the story of its rise to fame contains the standard tropes now associated with meme-powered feats of acclivity. But while sectarianism as it concerns bubblegum acts like Carly Rae Jepsen and petri dish experiments like Lana Del Rey can be reduced essentially to matters of taste, Macklemore’s ascent is complicated by the genre he practices in and the resultant untidiness endured by racial semantics.
A few months ago I saw author Dan Charnas (The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop) deliver a short lecture on the intersection of race and hip-hop culture, specifically as it pertained to the rise of white rappers both inside the genre and in mainstream pop culture in general. The lecture was part of a larger symposium about 1990s multiculturalism and Charnas’ part was too broad and abbreviated to be of much use. But the author did say something interesting at the end of his lesson; a sort of big, gooey mozzarella ball that lodged itself in the long-ago atrophied academic section of my brain. He said that hip-hop has been unable to generate transcendent, white superstar MCs because white American culture “is not strong enough to support them.” The kicker was delivered as the closing line to his speech, a sort of “Oh shit!” head-cocker for the race and culture nerds in the room before Mr. Charnas exited stage right.
At the time I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but after reading interviews with Charnas, I think I understand now. Here is Charnas discussing the continuity of rap music after it was initially dismissed as a fad (via the website Roots Forward):
…there had to be a culture worth spreading. Genres and styles are more likely to end up as fads or crazes when the culture behind it isn’t strong or complex enough. Hip-hop had a multifaceted culture (music, verse, dance, visual art, and style) by the time the first records surfaced.
Makes sense, yes? White American culture is flimsy because everything contained within it is stolen from other cultures. Thus, according to Charnas, constructing the Great White Rapper narrative upon hip-hop’s existing cultural bedrock is like the foolish man who heard God command that he put down his home on solid ground but instead decided to build his crib on the sand anyway. By the time societal and music industry machinations (both holy and otherwise) allowed for an entry point for white MCs, hip-hop culture was already an impenetrable monolith. White rappers, in other words, never stood a chance.
None of this is to say hip-hop hasn’t reached a level of democratization that allows for widespread participation. We have Eminem, for example. We have Mac Miller. We have Yelawolf (jokes!). And, yes, now we have Macklemore. And, as past history has shown, entry into hip-hop culture for the man born Ben Haggerty has proven to be bumpy. Of course if you’re basing the rapper’s recent success strictly on Billboard charting, YouTube views, and invitations to perform on late-night network television shows his landing appears much smoother, but that’s because the segment of the consumer public most responsible for Macklemore’s commercial rise is one not overly concerned with the health of hip-hop culture as a whole. I’ve stood outside the sold-out concert venues in Seattle and New York City and I can assure you these are the blind faithful: mostly high school or college-aged kids reared in a hailstorm of online media which has, for better or worse, converted hip-hop into a public domain. To them, it seems, this rap shit belongs to everybody.