Thursday, May 9, 2013

Songs about Race: Macklemore vs. Brad Paisley

Original images by sffoghorn and Nesbitt_Photo of Flickr, respectively.
Last week, I wrote about that horrendous song by Brad Paisley, “Accidental Racist.” I talked about how racist it was, how unapologetic, petulant, and whiny it was, and how, even if Brad Paisley was well intentioned, he completely missed the mark by approaching the subject of race relations in an incredibly clumsy and insensitive way.

If you want further analysis of why the song is just a complete incomprehensible shitstorm, I suggest you watch a hilariously done video analysis done by Todd in the Shadows and The Rap Critic.

Since all I did was bitch in my “Accidental Racist” post about how Brad Paisley utterly failed to address the topic in any meaningful way, I thought I’d post about a white artist that has talked about the issue of race in America without coming across as a petulant douchenozzle.

I mean, if you read my blog regularly, you probably remember me mentioning Macklemore a while back when I discovered the absolute awesome that is “Thrift Shop.” However, since then, I've purchased his newest album, The Heist, and let me tell you, Macklemore is much more than some silly song writer. He writes about topics that are uncomfortable and serious, and he does it in a way that pays respect to the topic. He’s one of the few rappers I've heard of out there that has come out in support of gay marriage--and released a song about the topic.

Macklemore has a couple of songs that deals with being white in America. One of them, “A Wake,” covers a bunch of topics. One of them, “White Privilege”--off of his album The Language of My World, obviously deals with the topic a little more in depth.

In “A Wake,” Macklemore writes:

“I'm not more or less cautious
Than rappers rappin' 'bout them strippers up on the pole, popping
These interviews are obnoxious
Saying that it's poetry, it’s so well spoken, stop it”

He starts by defending the hip hop genre (and specifically, black hip hop artists) from people who claim that he is somehow better than these other rappers because of the topics that he covers. He claims that hip hop is about truth, and people are going to rap about what they know. If someone lived in an area that was heavy with drug and gun crimes, that’s going to be reflected in their writing.

He’s also argued this before in “White Privilege.”

“Now I don't rap about guns so they label me conscious
But I don't rap about guns cause I wasn't forced into the projects
See I was put in the position where I could chose my options
Blessed with the privilege that my parent's could send me to college.”

He then moves on to talking about white influence in black culture.

Hey, did you know that racism from the Southern states was tolerated by Democrats in the 1930’s because the Southern voting block was important enough that it was needed to pass a lot of the measures like The New Deal?

“In an unwritten compact between northern and southern Democrats, President Franklin Roosevelt and his allies let Jim Crow rule below the Mason-Dixon Line. In turn, white Southerners backed the New Deal and delivered their bloc votes to Democrats.” - "The Myth of Secession and States' Rights in the Civil War"
“[...]I've got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America. The Southerners...occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can't take that risk." - FDR (“Race in FDR’s New Deal”)
Keep this in mind, as it’s very important. Because Macklemore goes on to say in “A Wake”:

“And neighborhoods where you never see a news crew
Unless they're gentrifying, white people don't even cruise through”

These lines express outrage at two different concepts in White America. One involves the treatment of African-Americans. See, a lot of The New Deal rules wound up screwing over the black community, resulting in a systematic and generational poverty in the African-American areas that persists to this day.

Now, what’s gentrifying, you ask?

Gentrification is when wealthy Americans buy up run-down buildings, apartments, etc, and fix up the buildings. Once the buildings are fixed up, the cost to rent those buildings goes up. Eventually, it raises the property value for the entire area. This seems like a good thing on the surface, but in extremely poor areas, these poor people can’t afford the new higher rent, and so they are forced to move away, leaving space for wealthier Americans to move in. Since black people’s household income is only 55 percent of white household income, black unemployment is twice white unemployment, black people are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty, this is a huge problem. (Inequality.org)

In addition to that, this song addresses the fact that White America and the mainstream media don’t really concentrate on the problems of minorities. They report on massive tragedies like Sandy Hook, where most of the victims were white, but they rarely report on the tons of gun deaths that happen in largely black urban areas. They report on children that go missing when they’re white--starting a countrywide outrage and outpouring of support...for white people. But there is rarely, if ever, an African-American child that goes missing that gets the nationwide outrage of America, or hours and weeks of investigation and coverage on programs like Nancy Grace.

Macklemore addresses not only a well-documented issue that causes friction between the races, he also addresses how these situations make him, as a white dude, feel.

“This is an issue that you shouldn't get involved in
Don't even tweet, R.I.P Trayvon Martin
Don't wanna be that white dude, million man marchin'
Fighting for our freedom that my people stole
Don't wanna make all my white fans uncomfortable”
-- “A Wake”

Here, Macklemore addresses how he feels being the beneficiary of this system that is skewed in favor of people like him. He talks about how, on the one hand, he wants to write and rap about these types of topics because they are important to him. On the other hand:

“Now who's going to shows, the kids on the block starving
Or the white people with dough that can relate to my content?”
-- “White Privilege”

Add to that the fact that he feels like a hypocrite for railing against the system while also being the benefactor of it.

Besides demonstrating how Macklemore addresses issues of race, I wanted to compare how he approaches the topic to how Paisley approaches the topic in “Accidental Racist.”

Fighting for a freedom that my people stole
Don't wanna make all my white fans uncomfortable
[...]
Don't get involved with the causes in mind
White privilege, white guilt, at the same damn time
-- “A Wake”

Macklemore explains that he is white, and he knows he benefits from a system that favors whiteness. He expresses frustration that his colleagues won’t be taken as seriously as he is partially because of their skin color, and guilt over such an advantage--he doesn’t feel like it’s fair.

“They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years
I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin
But it ain't like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin”
-- “Accidental Racist”

In this quote, Paisley tries to talk about a very painful part of America’s history--Reconstruction. It was a hard time for people in the south because their economic model was recently made illegal. However, where Macklemore talks about the ways in which he’s benefited from the privilege his race gives him, Paisley fails to address the heavier topics--namely that post slavery, laws were passed to ensure that, despite being free, African-Americans couldn't get a solid foothold to create a stable livelihood. Instead, he complains, once again, that it’s darn hard to understand how someone else feels when you've never gone through a similar experience.

In fact, Paisley never really mentions that white people or the south have done anything wrong at all. He did include the line, “I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we've done,” but that is the only line like it in the song.

Interestingly, the only lines in the song that actually apologize for wrongs done in the past come from LL Cool J.

“I wasn't there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood”
[...]
“So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book.”

Since black people are the people that are still oppressed by our system, it’s really bad form for your song trying to heal the bonds between the races to feature only the black guy apologizing.

I mentioned last time that Paisley plays coy about white people being guilty of bad things with this line:

“The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south”
-- “Accidental Racist”

Paisley may not be the smartest guy, but even Kindergartners are aware of the historical significance of the rebel flag. Most kids can tell you what the Civil War was fought over. Therefore, Paisley’s idea that the flag is somehow the elephant in the room is a pile of crap. He’s being willfully dense, and you can’t honestly tell someone you’re trying to talk about racial relations in America if you’re going to disregard a huge chunk of the argument.

To expand on the example I gave last time, the swastika is actually a religious symbol important to the Hindu religion. In fact, the word comes from Sanskrit which literally means “to be good.” Now, was it the Hindu religion’s fault that Hitler took the symbol and turned it into a symbol associated with genocide, hatred, and military dictatorship? Nope. But how many people do you see today that wear the swastika in a religious way? You don’t. Because that would be rude and disrespectful toward the people who suffered from that conflict.

Paisley can try all he likes to separate the racial connotations of the CSA flag, but he’s wrong, it’s there, and he’s being disingenuous and rude in trying to ignore it.

As you can see, you can address the issues of race in America without coming across like a douchenozzle. Macklemore addresses concerns that he’s seen, expresses frustrations, while still acknowledges the complexity of the issues. Paisley spews some vague platitudes about everyone having been wronged, and then proceeds to bitch and moan that it’s not his fault the system isn't fair, so why should he be punished.

Same issue, to totally different approaches.

Basically, when discussing complex issues? Don’t be a dick.