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Friday, February 26, 2016

February 26, 2016: Rap Readings: Macklemore, J. Cole, and #BlackLivesMatter

[When I wrote a Thanksgiving post on Macklemore, I realized I had never written a full series AmericanStudying rap, one of the most distinctly American, and most complex and contested, musical genres. Well, that changes this week. I’d love to hear your own Rap Readings in comments! And I have to highlight here the work of Dr. Regina Bradley, AKA Red Clay Scholar, the best current scholar of all things rap and hip hop.]
On two complementary ways rap can engage and extend a social movement.
Back in that Thanksgiving post on Macklemore, I wrote about “White Privilege” (2005), the rich and thoughtful song through which he (at a very early moment in his career) considered what it means to be a white rap artist and the roles that race, culture, and identity have played and continue to play in the genre and its evolution. Well, just over a month ago Macklemore released a sequel, “White Privilege 2” (2016), and the new song is richer, more thoughtful, and more complex than the first in every way, including its use of multiple voices and perspectives, its layered engagements with Macklemore’s own identity as both a person (speaking to himself as Ben, his actual rather than stage name) and an artist, and, especially, its focus on the #BlackLivesMatter movement to ask questions about white agency, responbility, and limits not just in rap music but in American culture and society overall. Those looking to critique Macklemore as a poser or cultural appropriator will I’m sure find plenty to dislike—but to my mind, the song not only engages with precisely those issues, but also serves as a vital model for how all white Americans can support the #BlackLivesMatter movement honestly and self-critically.
It remains the case, however, that, as Macklemore put it in the first “White Privilege,” “hip hop started off on a block I’ve never been to/To counteract a struggle that I’ve never even been through.” Portraying that block and struggle quite powerfully, in both implicit and direct conversation with #BlackLivesMatter, is another recent rap album: J. Cole’s amazing 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014). Named after his childhood home in Fayetteville, North Carolina (also home to my favorite American artist, Charles Chesnutt!), Cole’s album is rivaled only by Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) as an artistic expression of what it means to grow up and live as a young African American male in late 20th and early 21st century America. And the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the years between the albums has allowed Cole, both in his album and in his public statements and conversations, to consider those social and historical issues of race and community even more directly and fully. Indeed, alongside Ryan Coogler’s stunning debut film Fruitvale Station (2013), I would call Cole’s album the best cultural complement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement to date.
It’d be easy to see Cole’s and Macklemore’s engagements with that movement as alternatives or even competing options—and given that radio airplay and journalistic stories and the like are ultimately limited in time and scope, I would agree that often priorities have to be established (and, to be clear, that Cole’s perspective on this issue should take priority over Macklemore’s in that case). Yet as I have done in so many posts here, I would also and most importantly return to an additive rather than a competive model for our culture and collective attention and memory. Not only because our digital and multimedia moment makes it far more possible for us to listen to and share lots of songs and artists (whether they’re getting radio play or media coverage or not), although that’s an important rejoinder to my first point in this paragraph to be sure; but also because as powerful as any individual work and voice might be, there’s an even greater power in putting them in conversation and resisting what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of a single story.” As I hope this week’s posts have reflected, rap has never been a single story, and indeed its many stories and voices are a key part of what makes it such an important American genre.
February Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other rap artists, songs, or analyses you’d share?

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