WHISNANT: Ninety-nine problems and race is one
The gentrification of hip-hop indicates that our culture does not value minority perspectives and opinions
Twitter was ablaze with righteous indignation after Macklemore snatched all three hip-hop Grammys from his fellow nominees. That Macklemore — a white, middle-class suburbanite from Seattle who achieved commercial success without going through any traditional hip-hop channels — swept the category suggests that Grammy voters were at best ignorant of artistic merit or at worst racist. Especially slighted was Kendrick Lamar, whose “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” won plaudits as perhaps the greatest rap album of the past decade. Macklemore’s win, however, was far from a fluke. Instead of being an aberration from traditional norms, Macklemore’s victory was a culmination of the thirty-year whitewashing and gentrification of hip hop.
Since the commercial explosion of rap, beginning roughly with Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” record and marketing executives have made a conscious decision to water down political and artistic radicalism in order to appeal to a predominantly suburban audience. Voices like Chuck D, who urged his audience to “Fight the Power,” have been marginalized in favor of artists like Snoop Dogg who focus more on a hedonic lifestyle. Even Dr. Dre, the architect of the sonic shift between the two, moved from songs about creative expression and police brutality with his band N.W.A. to more party-focused lyrical content as a solo artist. This is not to say that no great mainstream records were made after 1993, as albums like “The Chronic” are as sonically invigorating today as when they were released, but artists like Dr. Dre demonstrate the lyrical compromises made in order to expand hip hop’s cultural reach.
As the genre has become more and more a part of the fabric of mainstream American culture, its de-politicization has continued apace. Label executives decided that in order to sell records, they no longer even needed to promote artists who could plausibly lay claim to sharing the gritty narratives of the American underclass. Gangsta rap had its excesses, but artists like Drake have paved the way for a world in which an artist like Macklemore can be successful. A former upper middle-class child TV star from Canada, Drake inaugurated the beginning of rap’s post-credibility era. While he has certainly produced artistically brilliant albums like “Take Care,” Drake’s lyrical concerns focus more on his own hyper-individualistic experience as a wealthy celebrity than on any kind of broader political commentary. Over two decades after Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back,” Macklemore’s album title “The Heist” is especially symbolic. There’s nothing wrong with an artist of any genre focusing on creating accessible music; it becomes problematic when an artist like Macklemore gains at an artist like Kendrick Lamar’s expense.
Albums like Kendrick’s and Kanye West’s “Yeezus” continue to perform fairly well on the charts, but a lack of radio exposure prevents their searing indictments of contemporary America from saturating pop culture. It’s easy to dismiss the Grammys as being irrelevant, which in an artistic sense they certainly are, but at the same time they signal what the dominant culture values. While Macklemore can’t be faulted for championing gay rights in “Same Love,” Kanye West started critiquing homophobia as early as 2005 and received little recognition for it in the mainstream press. When the Grammys refuse to even nominate Kanye’s masterworks “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” or “Yeezus” for Album of the Year, they’re signaling that cultural power brokers don’t value progressive statements when made by African-American artists. This is not to say that the Grammy voters are motivated by simple racism. More broadly, the Grammys reward commercial success over artistic innovation. Innovative rappers and artists who make conscious efforts to challenge their listeners tend to be particularly disadvantaged by this bias.
In 2013, Macklemore’s massive commercial success coincided with zero black artists topping the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for the first time in recent memory. This is a sea change from 2004, when every Number One Hit featured an African-American musician. In the following decade, entertainment executives have decided they can co-opt the aesthetics and sonics of hip-hop without including artists who can authentically lay claim to its cultural heritage. To paraphrase the Notorious B.I.G., the more money that hip-hop has generated, the more problematic the representation of hip-hop in popular culture has become.
Gray Whisnant is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Wednesdays.