a, Arts & Entertainment

POP RHETORIC: Grammys take the easy route instead of going Mackleless

Awards shows inevitably feel designed to frustrate fans. The very concept of a group of industry insiders picking a single album, movie, or TV show as the best from a given year almost guarantees that a large swath of people will be unhappy with their choice. However, certain snubs carry a broader cultural connotation, which makes them feel all the more egregious—and the 2014 Grammy for Best Rap Album belongs in that category.

Macklemore’s The Heist—the eventual winner—and prominent challengers Yeezus by Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d City were all nominated for the award. Each of the albums’ content deals with various social issues, though they all use different rhetorical styles to address them; Macklemore raps from a more detached perspective, while the other emcees address struggles that have been applicable to a certain degree to their own lives. Upon examining songs from each of the albums, it’s evident why Macklemore’s message was more palatable to Grammy voters than West’s or Lamar’s.

On Macklemore’s hit single “Same Love,” he explores the homophobia that continues to plague the hip-hop world and society as a whole. Though his decision to raise awareness around these issues is undoubtedly a positive thing, Macklemore comes across as detached from the people he claims to be trying to help. In the song’s opening verse, he explains how he himself is not gay, as if to suggest that him recording the song will lead listeners to be suspicious of his sexual orientation. His lack of empathy limits the capabilities of his advocacy.

By contrast, on good kid, Lamar presents the voice of those who actually experience oppression and discrimination. On “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” Lamar writes from the perspectives of three different people who have all grown up in a poor African-American community. “This orphanage we call a ghetto is just a routine,” one of them says. His use of the word “we” situates his song in a totally different context than Macklemore’s. Whereas Macklemore only associates himself with the oppressed when describing how he wants to help them, Lamar expresses the strife he’s actually been through. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates praises Lamar’s approach in his New York Times op-ed column “Hip-Hop Speaks to the Guns,” in which he calls good kid “an album that people grappling with policy desperately need to hear,” and praises it for showing “how gun violence extends out beyond the actual guns.” Rather than criticize injustice from a distance, Lamar shows what it feels like to experience it first-hand.

West takes the opportunity on Yeezus to speak through the voice of an African-American man who doesn’t have to deal with the horrors Lamar describes, but still faces systemic racism in other ways. On “New Slaves,” West says of his oppressors, “They throwin’ hate at me / Want me to stay at ease.” Once again, unlike Macklemore in “Same Love,” West writes from the point-of-view of someone who has to face injustice rather than someone who chooses to try and combat it. Whereas Macklemore decides to help people whom he deems in need of his assistance, West is the one who has people “throwin’ hate at” him and desire for him “to stay at ease” rather than fight back. In Tessa Brown’s recent essay “Yeezy Rising” in The American Reader, she describes West as “A black man [….]who has refused to stay in his lane.” She also refers to his music to be “calling out that there are lanes,” which she pronounces “an offense punishable by media death.” While Macklemore also acknowledges “that there are lanes,” he doesn’t explain how it feels to be put in one.

Clearly, Macklemore’s distanced confrontation of difficult issues played better with Grammy voters than West and Lamar’s accounts of their experiences. Though questionable decisions in awards shows are nothing new, some awards or snubs—such as The Wire never winning an Emmy, or Driving Miss Daisy winning Best Picture over Do the Right Thing—bring with them sad truths about the state of cultural affairs. By granting a Grammy to Macklemore over both Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, the voters have shown that they’d rather hear about someone condemning discrimination than face the bleak reality of its effects.

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