By: James Di Fiore
Disclaimer: I’m white.
Some of you just read that and thought, “Why is that important?” Others may have said to themselves, “Pfft…white boy doesn’t even understand.”
Both of those thoughts are correct in a way, but for the last quarter century my main musical staple has been hip hop. I’m a purist, meaning the Golden Era is like the bible to me, and I find the commercialization of hip hop to be tragic. Looking back, when I was a young teenager I admittedly tried too hard to “be down”. I wore clothes that didn’t suit me, spoke in a dialect that wasn’t mine and tried to rebel against the boring, stale suburban landscape through a new culture called hip hop.
As I grew older I threw away the clothes, stopped speaking in slang and simply embraced the music. I also woke up to the power of hip hop and its ability to unite. I rhymed in ciphers but was careful not to use slang I wouldn’t use normally in every day life. It took a while, but eventually the poetics merged with a more genuine mindset. I wasn’t a man who embodied hip hop, and I knew I could never be. I’m a white guy, and I know I am a visitor in this culture.
Like everyone else in this world, visitors have opinions. If I am a tourist in hip hop culture, I’m going to talk about how the resort looks to me. This place, this phenomenon known as hip hop culture is unique in the way it embodies not just the music, but an overall attitude. It is far from being a monolithic culture, but there are a few aspects that certainly contain a variable of consensus.
For example, it used to be that emcees needed to have obvious skills on the mic, not just with their ability to flow, but also through gifted lyrics. A purist like me would argue that hip hop abandoned this requirement somewhere in the mid to late 90s, replacing lyricism with jingles pasted over good beats. Meaningful lyrics were pushed back to the underground, and while certain artists maintained a decent catalogue of poetry, much of what mainstream audiences have been hearing for the past 15 years have centered around consumer products, violence and sex.
Fast forward to the present day. Hip hop is a little more eclectic. Kanye West, like him or not, is pushing more envelopes than a bank teller, Eminem continues to succeed, Jay Z is changing the way album releases are marketed to fans, and a kid named Macklemore has single handedly created a debate hip hop has needed for a very long time.
Macklemore is a white guy who doesn’t look anything like a traditional rapper. His signature track is called ‘Same Love’, a song about, and in support, of gay marriage. This is a first in hip hop; a well known artist speaking out aggressively against homophobia. Famous rappers began accusing Mack of pushing a ‘gay agenda’. Often, like in this Lord Jamar interview, you will witness rappers saying how they think everyone should do what they want, but in the next breath he talks about how he doesn’t want to be hit on by a gay person. It harkens back to when NBA players spoke about not wanting to be on the same court as Magic Johnson through fear of contracting HIV. Both of these situations are/were unrealistic and speak more to homophobia than reality. ‘I have no problem with gay people, I just don’t want them around me’. To be blunt, lots of rappers engage in a kind of double-speak so they can appear understanding while they let their peers know how they really feel about the gay lifestyle. The way this is pontificated is almost identical to the way white, evangelical Republicans explain their own intolerance towards homosexuals. Stranger bedfellows, funny enough, can not be found anywhere in North America.
And when Macklemore said these lines, “If I was gay, I would think hip hop hates me” – it struck a nerve. Feverish debates about homophobia in hip hop started to pop up everywhere. I began discussing the issue after Mack won his four Grammy awards, which was controversial because Kendrick Lamar left empty handed, and because his performance of ‘Same Love’ at the awards show reignited the debate of society’s, and hip hop’s, position on gay marriage. Critics have accused the Grammy winner of lecturing the hip hop community about the crystal clear homophobia ensconced within the scene. Specifically, Macklemore is being vilified for lecturing hip hop; a white person who is not seen as ‘real’ enough to engage in such lectures. He’s just too damn white to criticize a culture he’s visiting.
White guys in this genre have had some success, and individually these groups and solo artists have had completely different kinds of careers. Vanilla Ice was a poser, acting as ‘black’ as he could until he was summarily destroyed by his own stupidity. 3rd Bass and the Beastie Boys did well during the Golden Era but didn’t suffer from the same kind of identity crisis as Vanilla Ice. House of Pain had some recognition before fading away, and Eminem is considered one of the best emcees in history.
But now we have Macklemore. When discussing his Grammy win with members of the hip hop community online, the term ‘hipster rapper’ was uttered again and again. Mack doesn’t wear baggy clothes, doesn’t act hard and doesn’t rhyme about gunplay or misogyny. He’s also not anywhere close to being considered one of the greats, his image about as un-urban as you can get. He’s also considered soft by the more rugged hip hop enthusiasts, and clearly it has rubbed many of them the wrong way.
A racial divide in hip hop has always existed in one form or another, and when the visiting race communicates a strong opinion about a negative aspect of the culture, harsh words are used. It’s amplified by the correct assumption that if Kanye West or Jay Z had suggested hip hop was homophobic, none of this controversy would exist. So it isn’t the opinion that’s in dispute at the end of the day, it’s the skin colour of the guy who gave the opinion. The perfect storm of a corny white rapper winning Grammys while calling out hip hop for its historical and present day homophobia has turned the culture inside out. To be blunt, Macklemore is being assaulted because he’s white, and because he isn’t as skilled or respected as Eminem or Mos Def. There’s a divide among black fans of hip hop, but the side who has decided Mack’s race is a problem is much louder than the side who doesn’t see what the big deal is.
So now, instead of the white guy visiting hip hop culture, I feel more like the guy on the couch who has overstayed his welcome. But I’m not leaving, and they aren’t selling the house. There are leaks in the ceiling and mice in the walls, but perhaps a refurbishing will save all of us. In the meantime, and I say this knowing it will piss some people off, gay slurs need to be viewed through the same lens as the n word. People who look like me should never use that word, and it stands to reason that rappers should show similar respect by discarding all homophobic references from their rhyme books, turning the page to a more inclusive chapter, and verse.