The response (or backlash, really) to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ numerous wins at this year’s 56th annual Grammy Awards was inevitable. Specifically, the win that folks have taken the most umbrage with is the Best Rap Album category. I own and have repeatedly listened to each one of the albums that were nominated for that category and, in my view, good kid, m.A.A.d. city by Kendrick Lamar should’ve won the award. I believe, as does Macklemore, that Kendrick was robbed and had the better album. But this op-ed isn’t about my own personal preference.
Personally, I have respect for Macklemore and his hustle. He and Ryan Lewis have been in the hip-hop grind for years and managed to independently break into the pop mainstream. I like his message and topics, though I consider him merely ‘OK’ as an emcee in terms of flow, rhyming ability and wordplay. He has the guts to call out his genre’s rampant and casual homophobia and go against its invisible grain. But this op-ed isn’t about that either.
His wins have sparked a debate on the perception of this seeming perpetuation of the idea that a Grammy award for Best Rap album is only acceptable when the artist is not one of color. In light of Macklemore’s win, the perception seems real to many. Initially, it certainly did to me. In fact, one skeptical thought that popped in my head was that, if Macklemore was not one of the nominees and was replaced with say, Lil’ Wayne, then Drake would’ve won. Why? Because Drake’s half-White and would be the only nominee who’s the closest to being melanin-deficient (although, with him being light-skinned, he technically qualifies). In addition, Macklemore’s success has made a highly expected turn for his contrast with a certain other White rapper.
For the past few days, I’ve had discussions with fellow hip-hop fans about this issue and our discourse generated conclusions that ranged everywhere from “Man, you’re imagining things!” to “To Hell with Grammy’s, they racist anyway!” What compelled me to further examine the issue instead getting myself drowned in popular opinion was a conversation I had with a friend/co-worker the day after the ceremony. This individual, a Black female close to her mid-forties, stated to me that Eminem is the only White artist that should be getting the Grammy for Best Rap Album. I’ve stated this numerous times before, and it’s unfair that Eminem is the barometer, the very litmus test by which all other White rappers are compared. Eminem is not only one of the most prominent rappers in the hip-hop, but he’s arguably the genre’s most prominent White rapper. Personally, I believe that there are White rappers who are better than Eminem (such as Apathy and Copywrite), but can’t be classified as “widely successful” since they don’t register as even a blip on the radars of the proprietors of the mainstream or their huddled mass of consumers.
On the surface, it appears to be a valid argument that White Privilege plays a large role in selecting the winner in this category. With the exception of Encore and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (thus far), most of Eminem’s albums have won the Grammy for Best Rap Album and lend some credibility to that argument. But then, the Beastie Boys, the first White hip-hop artists, have had only one nomination in that category. Their sixth album, To the Five Boroughs, was beat out in the 2005 Grammy’s by The College Dropout….Kanye West’s debut album. With these two examples as clear factors, I can no longer conclude that Macklemore’s win was about race. The Grammy’s may claim that they’re about the music, but it’s a matter of unanimous personal preference.
You could say it’s a popularity contest, but what determines popularity? Of all the album nominated for best rap album, including…
Drake – Nothing Was The Same
Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis—The Heist
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, mAAd city
Kanye West – Yeezus
…Macklemore’s was the most pervasive. Throughout 2013, “Can’t Hold Us” and “Thrift Shop” were everywhere in every medium. I also don’t think that said “popularity” is based on record sales either. Each of these album went platinum in the U.S. alone, with Drake selling the most units to date of his album. But again, Macklemore won regardless, which means sales don’t seem to be a factor. Or maybe, unlike his fellow nominees, his kind of hip-hop simply appeals to some notion of what the deciders wish it should be.
In closing, Macklemore’s wins just….are. The Grammy’s are not an infallible institution with opinions on the music scene that are tantamount to the Word of God. They’re nothing like this:
But that’s a good thing. Acknowledging and accepting that the Grammy’s aren’t official proving grounds is a step in making your own thoughts on real matters with rational support behind them.
Sy L. Shackleford is a jack-of-all-trades columnist for Action A Go Go. A UConn graduate with a degree in both psychology and communication sciences, he is a walking encyclopedic repository for all things Marvel Comics, hip-hop, et. al.