[One of the best parts of being an AmericanStudier in 2015 is the abundance of impressive cultural works with which we’re surrounded. So for this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to give thanks for five great works and artists about which I haven’t had the chance to write in this space. Share your own cultural thanks in comments, please!]
On two complementary songs that exemplify the rapper’s identity and appeal.
Seattle-based rapper Macklemore and his writing partner, Ryan Lewis, are best known for a trio of songs that focus on being yourself, even if that self seems to be located somewhere outside of the accepted mainstream: the silly smash “Thrift Shop,” which featured singer Wanz and became one of 2012’s biggest hits; the very serious “Same Love” from the same year, which featured singer Mary Lambert and became the gay marriage movement’s most prominent anthem; and this year’s return to silly success “Downtown,” which features singer Eric Nally as well as three of hip hop’s most senior artists (Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz). These songs are distinct and unique in lots of ways (due in part to those guest artists and in part to Lewis’s ability to craft a new sound for each), but they all share that central emphasis on embracing one’s own identity and perspective come what may—a logical thread for a thoroughly independent, purposefully outside the system artist like Macklemore, who followed his own muse for many years before hitting it big with “Thrift Shop.”
I respect that journey and the consistent themes it has helped Macklemore bring to such songs, but to be honest I’m more interested in the themes of identity he captures in a pair of lesser-known, complementary songs that to my mind exemplify his unique perspective and strengths. In “Irish Celebration” (2010; warning, this one will be stuck in your head for weeks, but in a good way), Macklemore raps about his national and cultural heritage (his real name is Ben Haggerty) in both funny and thoughtful ways. Indeed, while the most famous Irish American rappers are of course the boys from House of Pain, I would argue that it is “Irish Celebration” which should hold the title as the best Irish American rap song, as Macklemore’s anthem is far more interested in examining, critiquing, and also celebrating the unique histories and stories that comprise this cultural identity. Take this couplet from the end of the song’s first verse, which has included histories of the Emerald Isle’s complex relationship with those colonizing Englishmen: “Preach nonviolence but remind us of the scars/That define us, put a pint up everybody sing a song.” Or this one, that links Macklemore’s own history of addiction to his culture’s fraught but unavoidable relationship with drink: “I put down the drink, couldn’t drink like a gentleman/That doesn’t mean I can’t make a drinking song for the rest of ‘em.” Yup, the clear winner for greatest Irish American rap song.
There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to that sub-genre of rap, however, and it’s one that Macklemore addresses head on in my favorite song of his (and one that, to his great credit, he wrote and recorded very early in his career), “White Privilege” (2005). Of course in the 21st century there is room for rap and hip hop made by every type of person in every corner of the world—in a unit on Global Culture in my IDIS Capstone course this semester we discussed songs by Psy, Matisyahu, and M.I.A., to name three such artists—but those ongoing evolutions don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t elide the genre’s clear and crucial origins in the African American community. And while other white rappers like Vanilla Ice and Eminem have tended to address those histories with a combination of posturing and defensiveness, Macklemore in “White Privilege” engages with them, and with related issues of cultural appropriation and the limits of identity and community, with an impressive degree of depth and thoughtfulness. “We got the best deal, the music without the burden,” he raps in the first verse, adding, “I give everything I have when I write a rhyme/But that doesn’t change the fact that this culture’s not mine.” And then in the multi-layered chorus he comes back to those persistent themes of embracing identity, but without leaving the history behind: “But I’m gonna be me so please be who you are/This is something that’s effortless and shouldn’t be hard/I said I’m gonna be me so please be who you are/But as I’m blessed with the privilege, they’re still left with the scars.” I’m thankful for the artist who can share both those sentiments, and many others worth our attention and response.
Last cultural thanks-giving tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Cultural thanks-givings you’d share?
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