by Mo Wilson
Since its creation in the early ’80s, hip-hop/rap has, by and large, been a musical genre created by and for urban black youth. However, due to the genre’s subsequent widespread popularity, many white suburban kids started tuning in and, in some cases, began participating in the art form. Eventually white rappers such as Vanilla Ice, the Beastie Boys and, most famously Eminem, began making impact on the rap scene, posing the question: Can a white rapper participate in the art form without engaging in cultural appropriation? This study aims to explore this question by analyzing the artist Macklemore, a new white rapper on the charts, and the video for his breakout single “Thrift Shop.”
Hip-hop has come a long way in 20 years. What started as underground music made by poor urban youth in response to the harsh realities of their lives turned into a major cultural and economic force. Now hip hop has a Grammy category and consistent chart presence. As it has gotten a larger following, white men have started picking up the mic, cueing cries of cultural appropriation. As white musicians pick up the genre, however, they still associate the form with blackness. Miley Cyrus was explicit in conversations with her producer that she wanted a “black sound” for her hip-hop- and R&B-influenced makeover (Planton, 2013).
My personal experience from the genre has come largely from radio staples in my hometown of Atlanta, hip-hop singles being played at fraternity parties, and underground “indie” rappers on the internet and their videos. As a millennial, watching music videos online was my primary way of discovering new music, and I’m not alone in this practice. J.B. Hoffman (1991), famed media critic of the Village Voice and author of Vulgar Modernism talked about the importance of videos during the ’80s: “For MTV’s target audience, videos are pop songs, movies sitcoms, pulp novels and comic books all rolled into one” (p. 150). Now music videos have moved off the TV and into our pockets. YouTube is accessible via smartphones wherever we go, and the artists we are consuming have become hometown heroes as well as label-backed pop stars.
Macklemore is one of the former: an independent backpack rapper who was a local favorite in his hometown of Seattle before getting launched into the national spotlight. His album The Heist, made in collaboration with producer Ryan Lewis, was not released on any major label. Before its widespread popularity, he had a local hit with his mixtape. He rose to prominence with the viral video “Thrift Shop,” a song Rolling Stone called “so enormous it threatened to make him a North American Psy” (Peter Yang, 2013, p. 42). As a white rapper, does he participate in cultural appropriation, or is his video a genuine contribution? Similarly, I am very conscious of being a white man examining hip-hop and the privilege that comes along with this standpoint. I’m aware that, in many ways, it’s not my place as a fellow white man to deem Macklemore’s relationship to hip-hop one of cultural appropriation and racism.
The song “Thrift Shop” is, predictably, a song about the joys of Goodwill hunting. It features a chorus by the African American singer Wanz, a 50-year-old software-engineer tester. In this song, Macklemore brags about how fly he looks in clothes that he got for fewer than $20. Macklemore is a technically proficient rapper. He shows speed and creativity as well as enough self-awareness to change up the tempo of his flow to keep it from being monotonous.
An anti-label attitude is at the core of the song. Macklemore expresses this sentiment in the couplet: “They be like, ‘oh that Gucci, that’s hella tight!’ I’m like, ‘Yo, that’s fifty dollars for a T-shirt” and further dismisses the pursuit of such expensive items as “ignorant b*tch sh*t” (2:36-40). This spits in the face of all the materialism of mainstream rap. In hip-hop culture, one that comes from the lived experiences of poor urban youth, splurging on a Gucci shirt is a sign of hard work (“grinding”), and overcoming one’s poor circumstances. When Macklemore talks about making Pro Wings shoes from Payless cool, he ignores the fact that Tupac and many of the rappers he admired growing up didn’t have the option of choosing Payless to be sensible. They simply couldn’t afford anything else. The effect is Macklemore lecturing rappers on why their consumerism is “ignorant” when, for these rappers, being able to splurge on a T-shirt means more than just being out $50: It’s a sign that they have transcended their poverty.
This isn’t to say that minority communities don’t enjoy thrift shopping as well (as the video seems to attest). What is interesting is that this pushes the genre forward, away from past and current conventions where rappers talk about Versace, bling and Bentleys. While it’s pushing the genre in new directions, it is not a departure. Macklemore is still talking about how fly he is in his “leopard mink” and sneakers. The concept of expressing yourself by contributing to capitalism and buying things such as clothes, or even “skeet blankets” and “knee boards,” still falls within the hip-hop narrative of success being defined by flashy apparel.
Women are used many times to assert Macklemore’s heterosexual masculinity, just as they are in most hip-hop videos. The Slurpee women flank Macklemore as he rides in on his scooter, establishing his sexual prowess and desirability. Later in a night club, when Macklemore talks about “rolling deep” he is again flanked by white and black women. Macklemore has his arm around the black woman, and the white woman is clinging to him on the other side. Again, his act of performing his heterosexuality by surrounding himself with women aligns perfectly with genre conventions of the “mack” surrounded by adoring females.
Compared to the “scantily clad” women Jones speaks about, the women in “Thrift Shop” are dressed remarkably modest. The women’s clothing is of the same style as the men’s in the video, not revealing much of their bodies. Women do admire Macklemore as he spits “what up I got a big cock” a line from the first verse (0:43). However, they do so while retaining most of their clothes. When two women are draped on Macklemore in the club, they are touching him in a sensual way, but the women’s clothes, as well as the camera shots, do not emphasize their anatomy. Still, the sexual dynamic is in play, with Macklemore spitting “trying to get girls from a brand and you hella won’t,” while in the midst of these women (2:58). With this line, he is implying that they are attracted to him because of his thrift-shop style. It’s possible that they possess a sense of sexual subjectivity and agency in their own sexual performativity, but we don’t see it as a viewer. All we see is a coupling perpetuating heteronormativity and its relationship to patriarchy, with Macklemore in a position of superiority.
“Thrift Shop” walks a fine line, with Macklemore trying his best to be aware of his privilege and attempting to serve as a “true bard” with his brand of socially conscious yet irreverent humor. It’s a genuine (if imperfect) contribution to the hip-hop canon. It’s clear that he is well versed in his craft, rapping skillfully. It is implied that he understands the political ramifications of what he is doing through his background in interviews and b-sides, though little of that awareness makes it way into the song. His interaction with people of color and of all ages suggests an honest sense of belonging among them, but the brevity of the interactions and the constraints of the song’s three-minute format limits his abilities.
He brings in his political sensibilities further, grasping for the “true bard” status, but ultimately falls short due to his additional task of having to re-assert this sense of belonging. His camera angles largely avoid fetishizing women’s bodies, but his use of them to bolster his status as a desirable heterosexual male falls into patterns of objectification in hip-hop videos. His proclamations of the value of secondhand clothes attempts to make a critique of capitalism, but both thoughtlessly dismisses the reason that poor rappers value their designer brands, and takes their habit of endlessly bragging about expensive purchases and applies it to secondhand items. This shifts the focus of hip-hop’s materialism, pushes it forward, but does not undo it. His video is simply a contribution to the hip-hop canon. It is not a ground-breaking one.
In a grander sense, the same can be said for Macklemore’s existence. He pushes the boundaries for what a white rapper can be, including adding as sense of social consciousness that was missing in artists like Vanilla Ice and Eminem. Ultimately, the boundaries for white people in hip-hop culture have not been broken, merely stretched.
Mo Wilson wrote this piece for his Senior Seminar in Communications. This is an abbreviated form of the thesis & the Arts & Life team sincerely apologizes for space constraints that prevent the thesis from being published fully. In addition, the Arts & Life team apologizes for the profanity implied in said article, but acknowledges it is necessary for a cohesive conversation about the mediums discussed.