White Saviorism and Cultural Appropriation In Macklemore's "Thrift Shop"


As interesting as the year 2013 has been, one thing has remained consistent: the greatest perpetrator of anti-blackness and white supremacist folklore has been the music industry. The examples are numerous from Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus, to LL Cool J’s and Brad Paisley’s love song to the Confederacy in “Accidental Racist” to the grotesque “Asian Girlz” by Day Above Ground. Going beyond mere cultural ignorance, each case represents a the symptoms of a much larger problem: the death-grip that white supremacist myths have over our social institutions.

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 12, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this respect, Hip Hop is really no different from any other style of music. I have expressed my doubts about hip hop as a space for political freedom, and I find it no coincidence that the same corporations that our privatizing our prisons are the exact same ones sponsoring the hip hop industry’s music and movies. Hip hop was once an expression of artistic creativity that began in the 1970’s, as an outlet for surviving economic and racial oppression. Artists ranging from Run-DMC to to Ice-T asked the questions that society did not want to answer. If anything, music as art should be used as a form of inquiring what needs to be asked. Fast forward to today, what I hear from my peers is that hip hop culture is mostly about “boot booty booty music” “twerking” “ratchet” EXCEPT for artists like Macklemore, (the stage name for Ben Haggerty) and Ryan Lewis.

English: Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon. ...

English: Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon. On December 21, 1970, at his own request, Presley met then-President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office of The White House. Elvis is on the right. Waggishly, this picture is said to be ‘of the two greatest recording artists of the 20th century’. The Nixon Library & Birthplace sells a number of souvenir items with this photo and the caption, “The President & the King.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hip hop was a music style created by persons of color; just as rock’n’roll was. White persons appropriating black music styles is not original in the least; before there was Eminem, KJ-52, and Macklemore, there was Pat Boone and Elvis Presley. The logic behind the launching of careers such as Boone was one of racial segregation. Boone had teens swooning to black music, but with a white face. This very much like the logic behind whitewashing movie casts in contemporary Hollywood (see for example, Star Trek: Into Darkness): its the assumption that whites are superior and can make more of a profit from white consumers in a racist market.

With white hip hop artists, things are a little different. In the instances of Eminem and Macklemore, both artists have at one point or another, attributed their success to their skin color, and therefore confessed their “white privilege.” This is the point of Eminem’s “White America,”: “I’m on TRL, look at all the hugs I get.” With that simple hook, Eminem is pointing to the hegemonic whiteness of Music Television. “Make ladies swoon baby (ooh baby!) Look at my sales Let’s do the math: if I was black, I woulda sold half.” Eminem’s is brutally honest about his own experience, “When I was underground, no one gave a f***, I was white.” Marshall Mathers makes it clear that his partnership with Dre is an inter-dependent, fruitful one where lyrical genius meets cultural exchange.

Similarly, Macklemore confesses to benefit from his white skin in his song, White Privilege where he contends that hip hop has come a long way, and is now gentrified. He gets the “music without the burden” but hip hop “isn’t just about black and white.” “What happened to jazz and rock’n’ roll is happenin’ now.”  Of all his tracks, “White Privilege” is one that I find the most enjoyable.

However, saying “I’m sorry” is not good enough.  Apologies are born out of privilege, and you can say “My bad” without ever acknowledging the offended party’s agency.  Even progressive artists can be guilty of perpetuating messages of anti-black racism. White hip hop artists such as Macklemore must work to embody [white capitalist] hip hop’s version of blackness while remaining acceptable to white audiences. In the track, “Thrift Store,” Macklemore begins the song by asserting his proximity to blackness vis-a-vis his hyper male-sexuality:

“Nah, walk up to the club like, “What up? I got a big cock!”
I’m so pumped about some shit from the thrift shop
Ice on the fringe, it’s so damn frosty
That people like, “Damn! That’s a cold ass honkey.”

By bragging about his sexual prowess, Macklemore has ascertained the right to enter a space of blackness (the dance club filled with black people wearing thrift store clothes). It is this opening line that shapes the rest of the narrative for the video.

macklemore pimp

To be black and male, as defined in this song, is to be a hyper-sexual animal, with multiple sexual partners. Ben Haggard is “pimped out” in a tiger fur jacket, reminiscent of an Old School trafficker of prostitutes from the 1970’s. Macklemore, because of his white skin, can CHOOSE to embody this form of untamed black sexuality. What goes unspoken is that this is an image that is prominent in hip hop culture and popular media, but it is a white supremacist relic from the days of USian slavocracy.

Negative racial+sexual stereotypes remain foundational for white supremacist mythology. The Hottentot Venus and Mammy Figures are images of Black women that are alive and well in North America’s racial imagination. Enslaved black males were categorized as the Violent Bucks. According to Womanist ethicist Kelly Brown Douglas, being a black man in a white supremacist culture meant being wild, super-potent, angry threats to white civilization. Black manhood was viewed as the competition for white manhood, a potential ravager of white womanhood, and a murderous criminal to both.

The consequences of black men who were “caught” acting upon their violent buck “nature” included castration, mob violence, lynching, and in some cases, all three. The rape of black women during the time of slavery was not a crime; the myth of the black Jezebel taught that black women’s bodies were the gateways to forbidden sexual pleasures. While the abolitionist movement worked to limit the uses of castration (since it was punishment for cases of fugitive black male slaves), dismemberment was a form of discipline to inform enslaved blacks who the masters of their bodies were. The most effective weapon of white supremacist terrorism was lynching. Lynching during the times of enslavement was used to punish escapees, insurgents, and accused rapists. After the Civil War, thousands of blacks were lynched each year to scare them away from using their right to vote and to enforce Jane and Jim Crow Law.

The invocation of the language of lynching has become rather easy in this day and age. White people like to use to when they feel “persecuted” like Hugo Schwyzer simply because they are asked questions. The easiness of these false analogies are proof of a white supremacist culture. Black people’s suffering is readily made available to anyone who wishes to appropriate that experience; however, blacks are told to shut up when we want to discuss history. This is why we should find it appalling that in Eminem’s “White America,” he compared the government placing a silver sticker on his CD’s and albums with ratings, or “censorship” with the act of being lynched.

eminem lynchingIn no way, shape or form is government regulating the freedom of speech like lynching. The practice of lynching took away the basic right to life from African Americans. When there are pranks on college campuses and high schools, the hanging of nooses are not targetting white bodies. Nooses are for the purpose of putting black bodies in their place. The denial of that historical experience by artists such as Eminem is the partaking in white supremacist culture. Lynching as public policy was sustained by the racist logic that Black men were biologically inferior, incapable of self-control, and therefore not worthy of human dignity.

This leads into my last point about Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.” While he may not admit it, in the video, Macklemore sees himself as bringing dignity to impoverished people of color by shopping and dressing like them Race and gender are social constructions, and as such, remain public performances. As Amaryah Shaye argued in the above essay on Macklemore and “Same Love,” Macklemore confuses his proximity to marginalized communities with solidarity. One image from “Thrift Shop” the video that is quite telling of Macklemore’s White Savior Complex is the scene where he is standing in front of a paintings of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

macklemore jfk

The underlying message of this frame is, “I am giving blacks and Latin@s and poor whites human dignity by me being here.” Given the thrust of the song itself (which is supposed to be about wearing our grandparents clothes to social occasions), this image was entirely unnecessary. Because he is white, Macklemore is free to impugn hegemonic whiteness, his cultural affinity with upper-class, Northern Elite whiteness [even though he is from the Pacific Northwest] and its “progressive” history while fluctuating into spaces created by the marginalized. Macklemore’s presence in oppressed communities is a sign of humanity trickling down onto bodies of color. To the extent that Macklemore speaks for the maginated, he affirms their humanity, and participates in the whiteness of the white ally-industrial complex. On the other hand, as Macklemore works to co-opt disfunctional male blackness as reified by hip hop culture, Macklemore disregards the God-given invaluable worth of women and LGBTQIA persons. Macklemore should not get a pass in his “White Walls” for referring to women as female dogs, and in another track he refers to person in the LGBTQIA community in homophobic terms.

In the end, there not really a difference between hip hop music today done by black male artists and Macklemore other than skin color.  The crucial difference is that Macklemore benefits and profits from entertaining his audience with white supremacist mythology+ white ally liberal white-washings of history.

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0 thoughts on “White Saviorism and Cultural Appropriation In Macklemore's "Thrift Shop"

  1. Tapji

    Thanks for this Rod. I find Macklemore and his music very frustrating , largely because of his urge to position himself against hip-hop (*Black rappers). I have wanted to say this for a long long time!!

    Also have you heard ‘MURS – And this is for’? he talks about the same thing ( the song is a few years old , so he doesn’t actually mention Macklemore , but Macklemore still fits the song).

    1. h00die_R Post author

      You’re welcome.

      Yeah fans I know tell me he’s so much better than black rappers, and I’m just like, ORLY?

      It’s not his talent, it’s his skin.

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