Does Macklemore represent an Eminem/Elvis situation for Seattle hip-hop?

Sir Mix a Lot

Sir Mix a Lot

When Sir Mix-A-Lot reached number one on the Billboard chart and won the 1993 Grammy Award for Best Solo Rap Performance with his song “Baby Got Back,” Seattle hip-hop was placed on the national and international stage in a way that few places outside of New York and California had been to that point. With this accomplishment came questions, and some assumptions, about who would be the next figure in Seattle hip-hop to receive this kind of mainstream recognition. Given the immense power of the Seattle music scene as a whole at that moment, few would have guessed that it would be nearly 20 years before someone from the 206 would approach Mix-A-Lot’s prop levels.

Fast forward to 2012, the release of the album The Heist by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and the song “Thrift Shop.”  In terms of popularity, “Thrift Shop” had the necessary universal thematic and sonic ingredients to compare favorably with “Baby Got Back’s” ability to make an impression on the mainstream.  In terms of theme, “Thrift Shop” touched upon the increasingly popular concept of pushing back against designer clothing labels and supporting second hand stores like Goodwill and Value Village.  Sound-wise a catchy, looping saxophone melody made the sound of “Thrift Shop” easy to bob your head to and remember.

Almost exactly in between these two book-end Seattle songs, Eminem emerged from Detroit, Michigan.  His wave of success in the early 2000s revived a discussion about the white MC that had been essentially tabled since Vanilla Ice’s brief run in the early 1990s.  However, the key difference between Eminem and Vanilla Ice was that Eminem was recognized as a highly skilled rhymer.



This was certainly not the case with Vanilla Ice, even by 1990s standards.  With millions of records sold, a handful of Grammy Awards and even an Oscar for the song “Lose Yourself” off the soundtrack from his film 8 Mile, talk began to swirl around Eminem’s place in hip-hop history.  With this discussion came the inevitable comparisons to Elvis Presley.

After following in the footsteps of and borrowing liberally from pioneers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Elvis used movies and music to eventually become acknowledged by the mainstream as ‘the king’ of rock and roll.  These comparisons were not lost on Eminem, who in his song “Without Me” noted:

I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley, to do Black Music so selfishly
and use it to get myself wealthy (Hey)
there’s a concept that works 20 million other white rappers emerge

From its beginnings in New York City hip-hop culture has always been much more multiracial than mainstream media gave it credit for.  However, as a descendent of the legacy of privilege, power and oppression that led to the creation of hip-hop in the first place, the white male MC has always occupied a complex space in the culture.  This is in large part due what Charles Aaron, in his article “What the White Boy Means When He Says Yo,” describes as black people’s suspicion of “whites who identify too closely with African-American culture, primarily because those same whites often want to boost the culture wholesale.”

Traditionally this suspicion has taken two forms; the previously mentioned “Elvis Syndrome” and what Aaron refers to as the “White Negro Problem,” a Norman Mailer idea from the 1960s, or culture appropriating ‘wiggers’ as they have been renamed in hip-hop terms.



Although it is true that in the time between Mix-A-Lot and Macklemore the Seattle hip-hop scene has produced a variety of impact players who reflect the diversity of the greater metro area, its the lily white image and population percentage of Seattle that brings an added element to this dynamic.

In some ways, questions around the likes of Eminem and Macklemore begin to center around the status of the subculture of white hip-hop.  For example, in a larger historical context think of the cultural beginnings of the United States.  On certain levels early American culture was essentially a subculture of British culture until at some point, U.S. culture matured and stood on its own.  Similarly, hip-hop culture began as a subculture of African-American culture until, probably sometime in the late 1980s, it became a culture unto itself.  Have we reached a point where white hip-hop culture has begun to stand on its own?  If the answer is yes then what, if anything, does that mean?

In the 20 years since “Baby Got Back” was released, the song has been elevated to the rarified air of iconic pop cultural status.  The white girl saying, “Oh my God Becky, look at her butt!” at the beginning is one of the most repeated lines in recent music history.  The continued appeal and relevance of the song over the years is clear as it continues to make appearances in various form of popular media such as commercials for Burger King, Charmin Bathroom Tissue and Target as well as in movies like the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez bomb Gigli, Scary Movie 4, and probably most famously danced to by Cameron Diaz in Charlie’s Angels.

With the video for “Thrift Shop” at well over 400 million views on YouTube and the song and video nominated for all types of awards, this song appears well on its way down the path of “Baby Got Back.”  But with this, how will the various media elements document the history of hip-hop in Seattle in the post “Thrift Shop” era?

The ‘newest, latest is the greatest thing ever’ crowd who frequently populate social media could certainly have the potential to reduce over 30 years of history to essentially ‘the Macklemore show.’  However, Macklemore himself does not come across as the type who would approve of this approach having thoroughly acknowledged the richness of this history in 2009’s “The Town.”  In addition, the fact that the beginning scenes for the “Thrift Shop” video take place in front of the Northwest African American Museum is significant.

With songs like “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love,” Macklemore has risen to massive prop levels by going directly against two of the most well established norms in mainstream rap, namely bling and homophobia.  While it took longer than some may have thought for the city’s next hip-hop superstar to arrive, Macklemore is a great representation to the world of what Seattle hip-hop was and is, though not the only one by far.

written by Dr  Daudi Abe

Dr. Abe teaches at Hip-Hop Theory & Culture at Seattle Central Community College and is author of the book ‘6 N the Morning which chronicles West Coast Hip Hop History‘  Email:



From Miley to Macklemore: The Privilege Spectrum

miley-cyrus-2014Miley fatigue is in full effect, but we feel it is important that we as white people speak up, and hold our folks accountable to their racist behavior. The burden far too often falls on people of color to respond, to explain, to teach, to protest.

This year’s Video Music Awards were yet another historical moment where whiteness reigned supreme.  Black and Brown cultural creators and innovators were for the most part invisible, or worse, used as evidence of acceptance or racial progress. Jon Caramanica highlights how the VMAs were a window into a larger history within American popular culture:  “Mr. Timberlake was on trend in way, though: this was a banner year for clumsy white appropriation of black culture who were recipients of three awards, including best hip-hop video.”

In this context, the question of appropriation matters – power, privilege, stereotypes, and centuries of racism play through both the appropriation and the resulting responses.   To be clear, we are not against white folks embracing the art and culture that speaks truth to their hearts and souls, as hip-hop culture is still our first love, rather we are advocating for acknowledgement, accountability, and action. We are calling for examination of how stereotypes and blackness within the white imagination are often present within these moments of appropriation.

MacklemoreOn the privilege spectrum, we find ourselves appreciating Macklemore at a certain level, who is beginning, by at least acknowledging, in his lyrics, that white privilege is one of the reasons he is successful. Honest and courageous.  In a recent interview, he noted,  “I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing on to something. A song like ‘Thrift Shop‘ was safe enough for the kids….  the fact that I’m a white guy, parents feel safe.’”

His rhetorical and lyrical stance doesn’t mean he isn’t cashing in on his privileges.  The awards, the celebration of him as “exceptional” and different, the erasure of artists like 9th Wonder, Azealia Banks, Murs, Angel Haze, dead prez or Jasiri X from discussions of independent and conscious artists, and his popularity among white youth all speak to the centrality of whiteness.  For him, and for us, the next step is to take that and be accountable by being in action for racial justice. Using his platform to impact the movement toward racial justice.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Thicke and Cyrus, along with their media collaborators, which not surprisingly have left Thicke (just as it left JT out of the post Super Bowl panics) out harm’s way.  They are the embodiment of a history of not just appropriation and theft, but the ease to which artists are allowed and rewarded for pushing the boundaries.  “White artists have the privilege to be ‘ratchet’ but still be accepted by mainstream media and seen as safe and marketable,” states Jasiri X.  “It’s been going on as long as we’ve invented different genres of music, but I’m glad at least now we’re having a discussion about it. Let’s not forget that this current cultural appropriation began with the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of the Native Americans.”

Gender Privilege Takes A Bow

Robin Thicke-Miley CyrusIt’s telling that Robin Thicke seems to be getting a pass amid all the media discussions of Miley. We have seen this before in so many contexts but yet again the sexual performances of men are judged by different standards as those of women.  Despite the sight of a 36 year old married white men grinding up against a 20-year old white women, the outrage and dismay has been directed at her.  In the American landscape White + male means go directly to the bank and don’t pass go.  Miley on the other hand is forced to stop for a media tongue lashing before heading to the bank.

None of this is to say that Miley Cyrus deserves a pass, especially in light of her co-staring role in Appropriation-polooza the VMAs.  There is much to be said about how she, Macklemore, Robin Thicke, and Justin Timberlake all seem to be celebrated for their connection to and performance of cultural productions tied to blackness.  Yet, unlike their black counterparts inside and outside the music industry, they are not castigated for dysfunctional culture, or scapegoated for white social ills.   There is much to be critical of regarding Miley’s performance and the role of MTV here (putting her face in the booty of the African American female dancer; her history with twerking; and her recent interviews saying she loves “hood” music). This isn’t just about appropriation or even the performance of black culture that is rooted in the white imagination.  Rather it is about double standards.  It is the celebration of white artists amid a culture that denigrates African Americans who partake in these cultural productions.  It is about a culture that profits and privileges Miley and Thicke, but cites sagging pants or sexual dancing as evident of dysfunction and pathology.  To talk about “appropriation” and the centrality of privilege and anti-black racism requires also talking about whiteness

The panic, from Fox to MSNBC, is wrapped up in American history – it is where race and gender, where misogyny and white supremacy, intersect.  It reflects the fear resulting from contact or connection with what is seen as blackness.  Whereas Robin Thicke doesn’t need protection from blackness, from black male sexuality, and from the cultural pollutants found in hip-hop, Miley needs saving.  Taking their cues from history, the patriarchal media is thus intervening to save Miley from blackness.  “Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention,” writes Jody Rosen.  “Her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of ‘the hood.’”

The calls for intervention, and the fears about messages to “the kids” (whose kids, anyway?) are connected to her imagined proximity to an imagined blackness.  Once good little Hannah Montana has been corrupted by the influence of hip-hop and blackness.  From girl-next-door to girl-grinding- a-poll.  The idea that blackness is pollutant reveals the level of stereotypes and why Miley needs help.  Her fall from role model is seen as a consequence of cultural integration.  The fears are thus about protecting her assigned white feminine purity and those who want to be like Miley.

Not surprising we didn’t see a movement toward justice on the VMAs.  But we can hope, we can speak out, we can be accountable and hold others accountable, and we can act. What we would love to see with white performers, whether it be Macklemore or JT, who are benefiting directly and indirectly from white privilege and racism, is action: Use your platform and your voice to honor and pay respect to the people and cultures who originated the art form. Let’s not allow what happened to jazz and rock n roll happen to hip-hop and R n’ B.  Let’s not turn artistry rooted in the black community into spaces of stereotypes, appropriated by white artists who reap the benefits while African Americans suffer the consequences.

We are working toward a tipping point where the majority of white people can recognize we all still benefit unfairly from our skin color, and that we all have a stake in ending this injustice.  We can only hope that the outrageous acts we witnessed at the VMA’s push more of us to demand change, to stand up for justice—from cultural appropriation to dehumanizing stereotypes, from mistreatment of immigrants to stop and frisk, from the criminalization of black and brown youth to the prison industrial complex. It is all connected. It is all on the spectrum of injustice.

Stand up for what’s right.

Thanks to Rosa Clemente, Jonathan Fields, and Kwame Holmes all of who inspired this piece in important ways.

About the Authors

David Leonard is a professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race at Washington State University.

JLove Calderon is a conscious media maker, social entrepreneur, and author of five books, including her latest: Occupying Privilege; Conversations on Love, Race, and Liberation.

Copyright August 2013