Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Oh, Macklemore: anti-Semetic [sic] edition

I feel like we here at SGS may have to start a feature called, 'Oh, Macklemore.'  Because he certainly seems to get himself into controversial situations on a regular basis.  For example, we could have done an 'Oh, Macklemore: Grammys edition,' for that time when Macklemore won a Grammy for Best Rap Album, then sent an email to Kendrick Lamar apologizing for his victory. This might not be such a big deal, except that Macklemore is white and creates music that has been described as closer to pop than hip hop and Kendrick Lamar is black and creates what people more traditionally view as hip hop.  Or there was also 'Oh, Macklemore: gay edition,' when Macklemore declared himself to be a supporter of gay marriage in a song ('Same Love') that was mostly about how he thought he might have been gay, but as it turns out, he wasn't.  If I had to sum up what people take issue with regarding Macklemore, it is that he has these ideas, and they are sort of okay, nice ideas, but they don't really have very much substance, yet his work remains popular regardless.  He is kind of like a Nancy Drew to your Agatha Christie novels, an Oliver! to your Oliver Twist, a 10 Things I Hate About You to your Taming of the Shrew.  A lighter, less substantial hip hop to your hard core, if you will.  Hip hop Lite.

That being said, neither of these 'Oh, Macklemore' situations was directly his fault, unless you count 'writing a relatively trite song in favor of gay marriage' as his fault.  It's not like he decided the Grammy voting or he contributed to the popularity of 'Same Love' with listeners.  But this most recent 'Oh, Macklemore' is, arguably, his fault.  Last week, during a performance at Seattle's EMP Museum, he showed up looking like this:

Oh, Macklemore
What the ensuing online debate suggests is that some people viewed this as possibly a Jewish caricature, while others didn't, and some of the people who didn't are even Jewish, so that should end all debates right there.  Because obviously if some Jews are not offended, then no one has a right to feel offended.  We are getting into some problematic territory here.  According to a post he made to his blog, he most certainly did not, under any circumstances, intend to be anti-Semetic (his spelling) and has even found out about this cool organization called the Anti-Defamation League that is, like, totally against Anti-Semetism (variant on his spelling) and we should all check it out and stuff.  I am harkening back to last week when Kim Kardashian revealed to the world in an online thought piece that racism is a thing, you guys, and while it has not been an important cause to her in the past (even though it was to Kanye), she is totally becoming aware of it still being, like, a thing, you guys.  Quick, someone tell her about the NAACP or something and really blow her mind.

[BTW, you may have noticed that Kim's essay had no typos, unlike Macklemore's.  This leads me to believe that Kim has an editor, particularly since there are so many 'it's' vs. 'its' potential pitfalls.  I truly want to see this person's business card--'Editor to the Kardashians!'--although I'm sure that all of his/her noble work is done secretly]

I don't think that Macklemore did this on purpose--I find it hard to believe that anyone would think that Macklemore was that sophisticated a performer to draw on racist caricatures during a performance of a song that talks about finding bargains as a way of confronting stereotypes about Jews or mocking Jews or whatever he was trying to do.  He's the kind of artist who encourages gay couples to get gay married during his anthem for gay marriage, as he did during the Grammys.  You're giving him too much credit, people.  I am on board with anyone who wants to find what he did offensive.  He may not have noticed what he was doing, but as a performer he is making a statement when he appears on stage.  If that statement is 'Nazi-Era Depiction of a Jew,' then he is responsible for that. 

There is a much larger, and much more significant, question here of the mutability of racism.  What struck me in reading comments about this story is that there is a generation of people (perhaps 'kids today') for whom this costume did not reflect an ethnic stereotype.  In a way, this is a good thing.  I was going to try and quote Kim on this but her writing was too convoluted (editor to the Kardashians evidently does not change run-on sentences); however, I will take the spirit of what she wanted to say and state that being unaware of previously damaging stereotypes is a positive development overall.  If kids today don't interpret potentially racist imagery as racist, then this has to be a good thing.  At the same time, though, how unaware should we be?  Whose responsibility is it to be aware?  Which ethnic slurs are okay, which ones are okay to forget, which ones are okay to appropriate?

This whole incident reminds me of a piece that Rembert Browne posted on Grantland a few months ago about the use of what continues to be the most damning of racial slurs in the US and attempts by the NFL to ban that particular word.  Browne came out in favor of this word, seeing it instead as a term that has been appropriated by the black community to describe (primarily) positive relationships between close friends and family.  For Browne, 'There’s no one answer, but what does seem clear is that the future of dealing with this word isn’t in its history. If using tales and images from the Jim Crow South hasn’t worked yet, it’s never going to work. I promise.'  Here I totally disagree.  You can feel free to use whatever word you want, but to forget the history of this particular term--which has not even fallen into history yet since it continues to be used in a derogatory fashion--is to forget part of a vital struggle that has forged so much of contemporary American society.  And if 'historical' tales and image had no effect, might I suggest that you were shown the wrong tales and images.  Try this one instead, taken from a 1963 interview on PBS entitled 'The Negro and the American Promise.'  This excerpt is from James Baldwin's lengthier interview; Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were also included as part of this show:

This might seem far removed from Macklemore, but I'm not sure that it is.  Macklemore's costume and apology suggests that he did not recognize the problem because he was unaware of its history.  The online reaction might suggest that for many people such imagery is now obsolete to the point where this costume is not associated with Jewish caricature.  Browne's piece, on the other hand, suggests mitigating a problem by ignoring its history.  The key word in both examples, of course, is history, and I think that without being aware of the implications that such performances entail, it is too easy to perpetuate the stereotypes associated with them--even if the agents here are unaware of/unmoved to change their behavior.

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