Seven months ago, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, securing a historical keystone in the fight for marriage equality. Within 24 hours of that historic moment, the voting rights act—a landmark victory of the civil rights era that enfranchised Black voters throughout the country—had been gutted under the watch of the country’s first Black President. At the time I had to ask myself: How does this moment sound off, or re-affirm, America’s disinterest in Black struggle? More specifically, how is marriage equality being used to eclipse Black inequality? I asked myself the same question last night, as Macklemore cleaned up four grammies including Best Rap song for Thrift Shop and Best Album for The Heist while Kendrick Lamar walked away without one award.
Both Macklemore and Kendrick are using hip-hop as a political platform in ways that are creating an important call to action. Macklemore’s Same Love is important and well-timed but in no way groundbreaking. He’s isn’t the first emcee to talk about LGBTQ rights or gay marriage, but he has with much deserved credit, seized the moment to make a much needed and exhaustingly overdue intervention in hip-hop conversations around homophobia. If only every emcee aligned their art with a movement or a campaign. If only every emcee was rooted in political conversation with and accountability to movements against homophobia, systemic racism, state violence and mass incarceration (as Kendrick has), or mass deportations, environmental racism and global warming. What would be possible with that much more momentum? The fact that Macklemore took that step is important but I have questions about how he understands his white privilege as informing his access to risk taking as an artist.
If The Recording Academy was actually concerned about the political relevance of art, then Same Love should have been nominated for Best Rap Song. It wasn’t. Instead, Thrift Shop which relies on caricatured Black vocals and aesthetics to validate its value in pop culture, took home the chrome. However redundant it might be, I think its important to ask why did the Grammy nominating committee choose caricatured Blackness over the more self-reflective and critical records that shared the same nomination. Why not award New Slaves, which for some was the sole reason Yeezus was a purchase, but explicitly critiqued mass incarceration and the existential violence of hip-hop materialism. Why not award Jay Z’s Holy Grail which critiques the music industry’s cannibalistic affect on entertainers (including Kurt Cobain and MC Hammer) and raised Black resilience as epic in the face of the IRS which serves as the governments economic lynch mob? Why choose Thrift Shop over records that provide more self-reflective and more developed criticism of structural racism and institutional violence for any other reason than to leech the relevance of Black struggle from popular narratives.
Kendrick is a calculated artist who see’s himself on a platform that is thinking about systemic racism, oppression, and his public persona. He’s Black man in America, he doesn’t have a choice. Section 80 situated the Black Power movement against mass incarceration with High Power and reminded us that sex workers are our community with Keisha’s Song. To that backdrop, the Grammy nominating committee had plenty to choose from with Good Kid Maad City. The albums cinematic and self-reflective narrative is a lyrical and production behemoth. Touching on themes of alcohol abuse and resilience, violence and community, as well as death and salvation, the album was a revival for the West Coast which hasn’t seen a grammy nomination for Best Rap Song since Snoop Dogg’s Sexual Eruption (2009) and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic 2001 for Best Rap Album. Let alone the fact the Kendrick is a far better lyricist than Macklemore. His ability to morph ideas into technically inconceivable cadence and rhyme scheme is far beyond Macklemore’s skill and he applies that skill to address themes that are urgently relevant to Black survival. Take Swimming Pools for example. As long as South Los Angeles remains a food desert, this song will be relevant. Kendrick isn’t the only Black man with a backstroking uncle in a city where access to liquor stores has trumped access to real food and nutrition for decades. He’s not the only Black man that has bore witness to coping with trauma through the bottle.
Every good artist deserves their critique and B*tch Don’t Kill My Vibe is that bitter sweet head bob for me. The self-examined critique of fame and its seductive means of creating “seasonal names” at the cost of “feasible gain” is important but is coupled with a chorus that like so many other hip-hop tracks falls in line with gendered violence. As we approach Super Bowl Sunday, a day that claims some of the highest rates of domestic violence in any given year, the idea of women being verbally or physically threatened for encroaching on masculine spaces haunts the head bob to this chorus. I was however, encouraged by what Kendrick did with the track in the wake of Rick Ross’s reference to using molly as a date rape drug during his collaboration with Lil Wayne on U.O.E.N.O. Using the B*tch Don’t Kill My Vibe video to bury molly as a cultural practice was an important message bolstered by a powerful aesthetic of sober Black celebration that is rarely promoted. While Kendrick didn’t say “death to date rape” or “death to sexual violence” in the video, the ending slogan does situate him in the conversation and to me hints that he is thinking about the impact of hip-hop as a platform to encourage or dissuade interpersonal violence.
The Recording Academy sets up a false decision on Grammy night. Last night, that false dichotomy reinforced the smoldering of Black struggle and Black resilience. That problem doesn’t begin or end with the Grammies as the 2013 American Music Awards produced the same results between Kendrick and Macklemore this past November. My hope is that the conversation around homophobia isn’t satiated by a Grammy but continues to grow into more victories. My hope is that a movement to end Black disenfranchisement and racist voter ID laws can strike blows against the Supreme Court’s attack on our right to vote. My hope is that Kendrick will get the recognition he deserves for reinvigorating an entire art form, for helping Hip-Hop remember how to beef as a practice of raising standards, for pushing the craft to its limits, for invoking the name of Bobby Seal and Huey P. Newton in popular culture, for having solidarity with incarcerated people, and for being Black and alive while doing it.