At the American Music Awards Sunday night, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' The Heist took the award for Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album. ("Favorite"?) As always, Macklemore took the time to thank family, friends, and industry types, but he also stopped to address the reality that he was receiving this honor in the state of Florida, and suddenly his acceptance speech morphed into a commentary on George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, and racial profiling.
The rapper, best known for his massively successful (if somewhat problematic) conscious-tinged songs “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love,” sounded confident but hesitant, recalling some of the "Whoa, I'm going for it” wobble that Kanye West had in his voice back in 2005 when he told another national audience that “George Bush doesn't care about black people." Macklemore quoted Martin Luther King (“‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”) and continued on: “I want to acknowledge Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids each year that are dying due to racial profiling and the violence that follows it. This is really happening. These are our friends, our neighbors, our peers, and our fans, and it’s time that we look out for the youth, and fight against racism and the laws that protect it.”
Now, I've been consistently critical of Macklemore's music — particularly “Thrift Shop,” which misreads the reasons why rappers are focused on buying expensive things and then sells that misdirected indignation, via raps, to the increasingly rap-averse world of pop. Indeed, part of the guy's hustle seems to be posing himself in opposition to the rest of rap music, which is implicitly far more offensive and far less sensitive than he. But this speech was admirable and worthy of praise. This is the way massively successful white rappers should exploit their success: by taking a stand on something bigger than themselves.
In no way was anyone expecting Macklemore to do this — just being in Florida doesn't necessitate a comment on Martin's death, you know? And given the supposed populist nature of the AMA's — voted on by the music-purchasing public — he was ostensibly speaking directly to his fans, breaking down the far-too-common assumption that racial profiling and Martin's death are problems only for those directly affected. Given his strange position in pop (a massively popular white pop-rapper with a message), he had a unique opportunity here, and he took advantage.
So much of the conversation from those (like me) who find a problem with Macklemore's approach comes from a frustration as to what he can “get away with” as a white rapper. Namely, that he essentially picked up the didacticism and cornball sincerity of early-2000s conscious hip-hop and dropped it on the heads of pop-radio listeners, at a time when actual rap music, unadorned by EDM or big swooping pop hooks, is disappearing from the radio and the Billboard charts alike. Well, here he got away with commenting on a big, ugly reality of American living right now, and getting taken seriously — in part because he's white.
See, if a black artist had taken his or her acceptance speech time to comment like this, it would've triggered endless arguments about whether it was “appropriate," whether it was mere soapboxing, blah blah blah. If Kanye West's career could be quasi-derailed for simply interrupting Taylor Swift, you can only imagine what hot water a black rapper would get into for addressing Trayvon Martin at a milquetoast awards show. Macklemore doesn't have to worry about that kind of blowback, and he knows it. So he went for it. This is how you wield your white privilege.