Golden Calves & Good Excuses: On Macklemore and the Cult of the Ally
The recent Grammy success of Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis stirred up a moderate storm of internet controversy, particularly in race issues and general social justice circles. Much ink has been spilled over Macklemore, Same Love, and his relationships to the black and queer communities and I don’t intend to add to that literature. If you’re looking for a good piece analysing and critiquing Macklemore, I recommend reading Ivie’s piece on Black Culture and (not or, their perspectives are different and each has unique points) Joseph Guthrie’s piece on Media Diversified. While I’m in profound agreement with the opinion that Macklemore and his status as hip-hop’s champion of the LGBT  community is highly problematic, it’s not Macklemore as such that I wish to discuss today, it’s the social structures that form the context which makes Macklemore so problematic (though I will be taking Macklemore as my text for this deconstruction).
Macklemore is a straight, white, cisgender  man. Still with me? Good. Now, this means that he enjoys an immense amount of privilege. Am I losing you? Well, try to hang in there and I’ll try to keep the critical theory speak to a minimum. White straight cisgender male privilege is going to be sort of your cost of entry into what I’m saying here, though.
We often talk about privilege as though it were a single thing, a quality or object of the universe which attaches itself to people and can be readily identified and defined. That’s not really the case, though. Privilege is a fungible, nebulous assortment of social constructs as well as personal and interpersonal realities. It plays out across every field of our interior, social, political, and economic realities. It cuts across the manifold ways of being human to form an irreducible complexity of effects. As a black man, I enjoy male privilege at the same time as I endure racialised oppression. When I walk down my quiet street at night, I see fear in the eyes of white women I pass, and I know that they are perfectly justified in worrying about a passing man on an ill-lit street and that my blackness makes me more threatening.
I have previously defended Macklemore against the charge of cultural appropriation. Yes, he is a white man working in a genre and generally associating himself with a culture that is coded black and which is largely the product of black peoples. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, though, being white and doing black doesn’t immediately equal appropriation. The difference, I’ve argued, is that Macklemore participates in the culture, he does not merely perform it .  But that participation in the culture does not erase the racial dynamics of privilege. As a white rapper Macklemore is desirable to white audiences in a way that black rappers are not. This is a reality you might call the palatability of normativity: the aesthetic preference for exposure to individuals who as closely as possible fit the straight, white, cisgender male ideal. His whiteness also gives him a contradictory status as both outsider to ‘black’ hip hop and ideal exemplar of hip hop, writ large, which status he parlays into the image of an intellectual artist who engages critically with the tropes and shortcomings of the genre. His video Thrift Shop was generally seen in this light: a critical appraisal of hip hop’s crass consumer culture, as typified by images of black men wearing excessive amounts of gold or diamond jewelry. Same Love, as both single and video, was seen in a very similar light: a daring, provocative subversion of a homophobic genre (Macklemore out and declares his genre homophobic in the opening lines of the song itself, an absurdly self-serving act and one swallowed uncritically by a fanbase otherwise largely unengaged with the genre) and a brave call for LGBT equality. Macklemore’s entire public persona is built upon a foundation of erroenous stereotypes about his genre which his whiteness gives him leave to critique.
Macklemore’s status as ally par excellence to the queer community derives not only from his straightness and whiteness but also his redemption narrative: Macklemore is a self-described ‘reformed homophobe.’ As befits a society steeped in cultural Christianity, the narrative of death to the life of bigotry and rebirth in the light of egalitarianism is as moving to us as popular stories of redemption found in Christ were to our forebears. Following his public baptism into the Church of Equality, Macklemore became a public spokesman for queer issues, widely lauded as the only voice of LGBT equality in hip hop (seriously, has no one heard of Le1f?). Somehow Mary Lambert, the only queer person credited on Same Love, went unnoticed.  As an interesting aside, Macklemore’s redemption narrative is often read as racialised even in the absence of specific details to that effect. It is seen as natural that someone who grew up in hip hop culture would imbibe the supposedly endemic homophobia associated with black-coded cultures.
Macklemore’s privileged ally status over the LGBT community coalesces with his privileged whiteness-amongst-blackness to make a more palatable representative of pro-queer hip-hop for straight and/or white audiences than any queer person of colour could ever be. In Macklemore, straight white audiences see themselves: a white person who likes gay people. In Mary Lambert, they see an Other: a lesbian with a non-normative body who speaks openly about her bi-polar disorder. In Le1f, they see an even more profound Other: a gender non-conforming black man, more likely to wear a dress than a basketball jersey and ice. So they choose not to see Lambert, they don’t engage with queer hip hop enough to even learn of Le1f’s existence, and they settle comfortably with an agreeably familiar face with an agreeably familiar message.
As an appointed and recognised voice of the queer community, his non-membership notwithstanding, Macklemore’s queer politics are given priority over those of actual LGBT persons. What are Macklemore’s queer politics? Assimilation. The clear message of Same Love and Macklemore’s public statements is that LGBT (I’d actually be surprised if he were thinking at all about the T) persons wish to be assimilated into the cisgendered, heterosexual norm. Before you start registering with Disqus so you can explain to me that ‘Macklemore isn’t trying to make gay people be straight,’ let me be clear: the discourse of equality is not inherently assimilationist, it just usually is. Equality is, fundamentally, the right (for everyone’s sake I will not get into my issues with the language of rights here) to be the same. When talking about legal equalities, such as equal access to certain legal institutions, like marriage, assimilationism isn’t necessarily at play: queers should, after all, have access to the same legal recognitions as straights. Mainstream marriage equality discourse of the type espoused by Macklemore is highly assimilationist, however, as it assumes that the end goal of queerness is to be subsumed under the heteronormative ideal of two-partner families with children (a model of queerness called homonormativity ). To many straight allies this is an unproblematic reality but many queers value queerness itself and do not not wish to sacrifice it, rather seeking for queerness to be celebrated for its own virtues, not merely its proximity to straightness.
By listening to Macklemore and his queer politics, straight and white audiences can absolve themselves of the responsibility to listen to blacks, to queers, to (heaven forefend) black queers (who exist, by the way), and thus risk encountering queer politics which challenge their homonormative, assimilationist assumptions about acceptable queerness or black perspectives which challenge their infantilising narratives about blacks. Thus Macklemore, both in his popularity as a hip hop artist and his status as hip hop’s champion of LGBT issues, is an expression of structural marginalisation of queers and blacks, seeking to speak for one and silence the other entirely.
 I’m going to be using the terms ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT’ broadly interchangeably as umbrellas for a broad spectrum of peoples, communities, and indeed spectrums. Both will cover, in my usage, lesbian women, gay men, the bisexual community/spectrum (including pansexual, polysexual, and other non-monosexuals), and the trans community/spectrum (including non-gender binary persons and straight trans persons). Gender identity being distinct from sexuality, trans individuals do and I mean for them to fall under the three sexuality headings, as well as none of them. I intend to refer to all individuals whose gender and sexual identities are classed as non-heteronormative and I may have missed some individuals or groups or included some who would rather be left out. I know such usage is contestable and controversial (especially describing straight trans persons as queer) but I need a consistent and not overlong nomenclature. Feel free to disagree with my choice.
 ‘Cis’ means ‘not trans.’ It’s a fairly recent coinage derived from the Latin antonym of the prefix ‘trans-,’ which means ‘across’ or ‘beyond;’ in Latin it means roughly ‘on this side of.’ Confer the Roman provinces of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, which were on the Italian and French sides of the Alps, respectively. Some will tell you that cis is derived from a Latin root meaning ‘to cut’ but they are incorrect and simply wish to slur trans persons with a false etymology making ‘their word for us’ sound violent.
 This is my take on the nature of cultural appropriation. Other members of marginalised communities may disagree. A self-perception of meeting the criteria I’ve described for participation, rather than appropriation, shouldn’t be taken to defeat a critique from another marginalised person.
 In case you’re wondering, Lambert performed the ‘featured vocals’ (I have no idea what that means). Do the words “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to. My love, my love, my love, my love she keeps me warm…” ring any bells? You should check Lambert’s She Keeps Me Warm, which is what Macklemore wanted to say but better.
 Homonormativity is a massively complex construct that no one wants me to go into here. A future post may expand on and/or deconstruct it further but for now I shall suffice with ‘it’s bad.’