It’s difficult to argue the popularity of indie-rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. The pair has won three MTV Music Video Awards, sat comfortably at the top of Billboard music charts for 46 weeks, and has sold over one million copies of their album The Heist (Ramirez). If popular culture is defined within a quantitative dimension, dependent on how widely favored and well liked something is, then Macklemore & Lewis are undoubtedly popular (Storey 5). Their most recent hit single, “Same Love”, which deals with the issue of gay rights in America, has been praised for its progressive lyrics and message. When performing the song on The Ellen DeGeneres show, Ellen, a lesbian woman herself, applauded them by saying, “No other artists in hip-hop history have ever taken a stand defending marriage equality the way they have” (“Steve Harvey/Macklemore & Ryan Lewis”). However, the irony of “Same Love” is that in trying to resist hegemonic ideas about LGBTQ rights, specifically in the hip-hop community, Macklemore is essentially perpetuating them. Even though the need for popular media advocating gay rights exists, it’s also important to acknowledge the straight, white privilege inherent in this particular text. In effect, he is silencing the voices of actual queer rappers as well as attacking an entire genre of music for being homophobic.
Cultural hegemony, a theory developed by Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, is the process in which a dominant class exercises influence over subordinate classes, constructing their values and ideologies (Hall). Every text is actively seeking this hegemonic domination and trying to define what the correct ideology is. Yet because ideology often operates at the level of connotations, it’s easy to accept the message that “Same Love” presents on its face. Macklemore seems to be challenging conservative ideology by arguing that homosexuality should be celebrated as normative, but the connotations given off are that this is only a message to be taken to heart when presented by a white, straight male rapper. Macklemore is only one of many in a current trend of straight, white artists advocating against the oppression of a culture they are not really a part of. The problem does not lie simply in the fact that these artists are straight, but in the fact that once they are done singing about equality, they have the ability to distance themselves from gayness to avoid the very discrimination they want to end (Beusman). Gay rappers don’t have that option. They will always be marked as gay rappers before anything else. They will always be the subordinate class struggling against a dominant heterosexual audience. In this way, “Same Love” demonstrates how popular culture often works in the interests of the powerful. Its mass popularity is actually silencing the voices and struggles of queer rappers trying to express similar sentiments. As one journalist notes, “Whether it is intentional or not, Macklemore has become the voice of a community to which he doesn’t belong in a genre that already has a queer presence waiting to be heard by mainstream audiences” (Gebreamlak).
In fact, one of the song’s main themes of homophobia in hip-hop rests on very shaky ground. The second verse opens with the lyric, “If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me” (Haggerty). In reality, acceptance of homosexuality within the hip-hop community is becoming more common everyday, with artist like Jay-Z and Kanye West speaking out in defense of gay marriage (“Global Grind”). Additionally, there are a number of bisexual rappers, including Frank Ocean and Azealia Banks, whose popularity is growing within the genre. Hip-hop itself has its roots in black communities and to criticize the genre as homophobic, Macklemore is also criticizing the people of color who cultivated it. He is again asserting dominance, this time in a racial context. Lyrics such as “A culture founded from oppression, yet we don’t have acceptance for ‘em” suggests that “homophobia perpetuated by people of color is somehow worse because they should have known better as people who are oppressed” (Gebreamlak). This again allows Macklemore, as a white man, to distance himself from the actual problem. Not only that, but the connotations present in the song also excuse predominantly white genres of music, like country and rock, from being guilty of homophobia. The dominant ideology presents a tolerant white culture and an intolerant black culture (“On Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’”). The song has made Macklemore the “white savior” of hip-hop, a theory defined as “the specific type of activism where white and/or other privileged people enter communities, countries and cultural contexts that are not their own” (Cole). Yet while criticizing the genre for not being accepting of LGBTQ individuals, he does not go out of his way to promote or include queer artist of color in his own music (Gebreamlak). Instead of aiding in the erasure of queer POCs in hip-hop, Macklemore could use the white privilege he himself acknowledges and support artists of color.
While the importance of gay acceptance as a popular cultural narrative should not be overlooked, nor should the hegemonic devices at play in “Same Love”. It is incredibly problematic to put a straight, white male rapper on a pedestal as the leader and icon of the gay rights movement. Based on our society’s ideologies, Macklemore is unmarked by sexuality or race which therefore places him in the dominant majority. It also means that he cannot truly speak about the issues facing those in the minority. The voices of artists like Macklemore “should not be heard above the voices of the people they are purporting to help. We [the LGBTQ community] should not have to feel as though we aren’t allowed to speak about our own issues” (Carlson). “Same Love” shows how popular culture acts as a process by which relations of dominance and subordination are articulated. The song’s popularity overshadows the voices of the very individuals it means to champion. Macklemore simultaneously distances himself from discrimination and excuses himself from blame, making him not part of hegemonic resistance but rather hegemonic containment.
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