By Galen Rock
Growing up in a black household, one thing was always made clear to me: If you want to be successful in this society, you have to do things twice as well as your white counterparts. I’m sure the parents of Grammy-nominated rapper Kendrick Lamar told him the same thing as that sentiment held true the night of Jan. 26.
Lamar, one of the best young rappers in the industry, was nominated for five awards, including a nomination in each of the major rap categories. He lost all three rap awards to his white counterparts, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
The duo’s album, “The Heist,” is also critically acclaimed and as of November 2013, the album has sold over 1.13 million copies. As of December 2013, Lamar has sold 1.1 million copies.
Both acts had nominations in the Album of The Year and Best New Artist category, meaning one of them was going to win in each rap category over other rappers like Drake, Jay Z and Kanye West.
Also, neither award is as important to this discussion as the non-televised rap awards.
It’s easy to point to album sales and commercial success as the sole reason for the duo sweeping the rap categories. But that would mean you accept the idea that our society is a meritocracy, where you are rewarded for your hard work equally and fairly. That would also mean you believe, one, Macklemore is a better rapper than Lamar, but that’s not likely. Or, two, you believe Macklemore made a better album than Lamar, but that’s even less likely. “The Heist” is nowhere near the rap masterpiece “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is.
This is white privilege at work. The only reason Macklemore won was because he is white and he makes easily digestible music for a predominantly white audience. The Grammys are part of that predominantly white crowd.
In fact, according to ABC News, there was some doubt leading up to the show whether or not Macklemore and Lewis deserved to be in the rap category at all. The out-of-touch Grammy voters saw it differently. I listened to “The Heist” twice, and both times I walked away pretty sure what I just listened to was not hip-hop. I actually believe Macklemore and Lewis make pop music and are much more similar to Bruno Mars than Lamar, Jay Z or West.
Following the Grammys, according to MTV News, Macklemore affirmed many of these beliefs with a text to Lamar: “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have.” Even pre-Grammys, Macklemore made statements that supported the nay-sayers’ case.
“We’re up against [Lamar], who made a phenomenal album,” Macklemore told The Source weeks before the award show. “If we win a Grammy for Best Rap Album, hip-hop is going to be heated. In terms of [that category], I think it should go to [Lamar]. He’s family. [Top Dawg Entertainment] is family, and I understand why hip-hop would feel like [Lamar] got robbed [if he didn’t win].”
Classy move by Macklemore, but after his blithe acceptance of the Grammy award for rap, it means nothing. He continues his ascent to mega-star, while Lamar works twice as hard to distinguish himself from a crowd of similar faces.
Macklemore is very aware of this privilege. A track off his 2005 album, “The Language of My World”, is actually entitled “White Privilege.” On the song, he rapped, “Where’s my place in a music that’s been taken by my race?/Culturally appropriated by the white face/And we don’t want to admit that this is existing/So scared to acknowledge the benefits of our white privilege.”
In a CRWN interview with Elliot Wilson in August 2013, Macklemore discussed his feeling further: “But it’s something that I absolutely, not only in terms of society, benefit from my white privilege but being a hip-hop artist in 2013, I do as well. The people that are coming to shows, the people that are connecting, that are resonating with me, that are like, ‘I look like that guy. I have an immediate connection with him.’ I benefit from that privilege and I think that mainstream pop culture has accepted me on a level that they might be reluctant to, in terms of a person of color. They’re like, ‘Oh, this is safe. This is okay. He’s positive.’”
The song and the quote are such an eerie foreshadowing of Macklemore’s present reality. They also show just how aware he is of his own success and the privilege the Grammys affords white artists.That awareness would have been great to hear in an acceptance speech for one of the awards he “robbed” from Lamar. But he didn’t even acknowledge the issue that he seemed so hyper-aware of. Instead, he smiled, spouted off clichés and walked off stage, award in hand, white privilege intact.