From Macklemore to Robin Thicke: What Gentrification Means For Hip-Hop

In the past few weeks, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” has been drawing a lot of attention and ire for its lyrics. (Hint: contents may contain rape logic.) Over Marvin Gaye-like beats, Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell Williams sing lines like, “I hate these blurred lines/I know you want it/But you’re a good girl,” and the song’s video only reinforces these ideas by placing its models in next to no clothing. (There’s also an odd bit involving a toy car? I don’t know what to do with this video.) Feminist blog The Vagenda labeled the clip an “orgy of objectification,” and the NSFW video had to be pulled from YouTube after complaints.

Despite the controversy, the “rape hop” label shows no signs of killing it as this year’s summer song. The Daily Beast argued that the reason it continues to gain airplay is that “women [don’t] take offense to the hip-hop lyrics in these songs because they feel that the lyrics aren’t directed at them personally. They think that the men in the songs are talking about people they know.” However, a friend of mine put the general reaction to the controversy more bluntly: “How is that different than 99% of the hip-hop songs out there?”

For many, that makes the controversy feel stale and canned (as if those wily feminists were looking for something to get angry about), but this argument is correct in that Thicke is hardly the only offender of my feminist sentiments. Kanye West’s divisive and dark Yeezus is rampantly rapey and anti-woman (and sometimes brilliant), but it’s also not being played on the radio.

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Featureflash/Shutterstock.com

The difference is that Thicke has done what many black artists right now have not: He has a number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100, a title he has held for four weeks and counting. While hardly a marker of quality or the larger market of music out there, this title means that Robin Thicke is getting the kind of exposure that other black R&B artists aren’t, an attention magnified by the color of Thicke’s skin. Thicke looks a lot more like the radio’s target demographic than Kanye does, as the tastes of young white people control the airwaves.

Robin Thicke is a Caucasian, second-generation celebrity in a genre created by African-Americans, a benefactor of the late 2000’s Justin Timberlake era of R&B. Black hip-hop artists and rappers may have dominated the charts in the 2000s (when they accounted for the vast majority of number-one singles throughout the decade), but today, popular black artists are widely being pushed from the charts. They’re still making music, but they’re not getting the same coverage that they used to.

Around 2007, many think pieces wondered if hip-hop was dead. People like Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike and Frank Ocean show that in many ways, hip-hop is as strong than it ever has been from a creative and artistic standpoint, and Kanye continues to take his music in boundary-pushing (even if shocking) directions. You could hardly get bored by him. They haven’t changed, the market has.

The last time a solo black rap artist had a number-one single was way back in 2011, when Wiz Khalifa took “Black and Yellow” all the way to the top of the charts. His only other big for a number-one single came as a guest on Maroon 5’s “Payphone,” which went to #2 back in 2012. The Adam Levine-fronted band, however, spent nine weeks at the top with their follow-up single, “One More Night,” a perfect microcosm of recent trends in music over the past six years.

With the dominance of Katy Perry in the late 2000s, popular music trended toward mom-friendly pop rock, music that could be edgy but wouldn’t offend your grandmother too much. Perry could kiss a girl, but don’t worry: she wasn’t a lesbian or anything. Black artists could share in the fun, but like Khalifa, they had to do so as guest vocalists. Former Billboard mainstays Snoop Dogg and Kanye West went back to number one by throwing down rap verses over Perry tunes, and Ludacris maintained his radio airplay by guesting on Justin Bieber tracks.

We can see the same trend continue with “Blurred Lines,” where Pharrell and T.I. score their biggest song in years by playing supporting roles for the white guy, and both of Macklemore’s number-one hits, which feature prominent backup vocals from WANZ and Ray Dalton. Interestingly, the only non-white artist who has reached the Billboard summit this year on his own is Bruno Mars, who has maintained his popularity while other black artists have struggled by making music that sounds “white.” “Locked Out of Heaven” sounded more like The Police than the soul-pop Mars made his name on and show not the slightest hint of his Latino cultural heritage.

Thus, you can have a number-one R&B or hip-hop single in 2013. You just have to be white.

Featureflash / Shutterstock.com
Featureflash / Shutterstock.com

Although this gentrification of hip-hop is hardly new (as folks like Eminem and Vanilla Ice have long had success in the genre), the rate to which it’s occurring is particularly alarming. Bauuer’s “Harlem Shake” went from obscurity to the biggest song in the world in a matter of days after a YouTube video of people incorrectly interpreting the classic hip-hop dance went viral.

Most watchers of these videos (and people in them) had never heard of the move before, and Bauuer offered the perfect cultural ambassador. He was white, offering a broad audience a way to participate in a black cultural form without it seeming “too black.” The dance was whitewashed for popular consumption, where the internet becomes the viral equivalent of Urban Outfitters.

This is one of the main reasons that Macklemore (nee Ben Haggerty) has been so successful, the Seattle native and veteran rap artist whose career skyrocketed earlier this year. Although Haggerty has been making music since 2003 (he got his start on MySpace), he’s the perfect face of the new wave of hip-hop. Mr. Haggerty is stoic and classically square-jawed, resembling more a Navy captain in an old Hollywood film than a rap superstar. He’s mom-approved and safe for radio, instead of having to be “cleaned up” for the airwaves.

Mackelmore’s fans love his earnestness and the fact that he shies away from rapping about overconsumption, drugs or women; he’s socially conscious without being too button-pushing or offending corporate sponsors. You can put a radio toothpaste ad after him, and in fact, he would make the perfect spokesperson. Although he’s an independent musician, any artist still has to be heavily endorsed by Clear Channel to get airplay, and they’re unlikely to air someone who won’t sell. It’s why the Dixie Chicks were dropped from country stations after speaking out against Bush in 2003. No corporation wanted to gamble profits on them.

Although Mackelmore is widely seen as the hipster in the rap crowd (and thus the perfect harbinger of gentrification), this proves the opposite. It’s not his hipster sensibilities but the logic of a corporate mentality behind him, whether his indie cred wants to allow for it or not. This is the reality of gentrification we often overlook, as we focus on gentrification as the process of young artists moving into minority neighborhoods to capitalize on cheap rents — and not the state-backing behind it.

Brooklyn has become a symbol of the whitewashing of New York, but its artist population is a symptom rather than a cause. The gentrification of the borough really took off in 2004 with the Plan for Downtown Brooklyn, backed by Mayor Bloomberg, the city’s Economic Development Commission and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. According to The Atlantic, “the plan rezoned key parts of the borough’s core commercial district, including the Fulton Mall – which, unbeknownst to many New Yorkers, had long been the third most profitable retail area in the city, after Manhattan’s Fifth and Madison avenues.”

Bloomberg felt that the “revitalization” of the Fulton Mall was a key symbol in remaking the district in Manhattan’s image, but it only served to push out the thriving businesses that were already there. Kelly Andersons’ documentary My Brooklyn chronicles the pain many long-time Brooklyn merchants felt when they were effectively forced out of their business by their own city. Transition isn’t simple; it comes with painful costs, such as losing the very history of the neighborhood you want to “restore.”

In Bed-Stuy, the apartment that Notorious B.I.G. rapped about on Ready To Die has become a “symbol of gentrification,” Targets and plastic surgery offices replacing the neighborhood culture he described. Technically, the apartment isn’t even zoned in Bed-Stuy anymore; it’s now called Clinton Hill. According to Good Magazine, “it’s now selling for $725,000 — a three bedroom with ‘hardwood floors, crown moldings, a coffered dining room ceiling and granite countertops.’”

However, Biggie’s place isn’t alone. Advocates are worried that rising prices around the city are driving out traditional hip-hop culture, especially in the Bronx, the neighborhood from which rap emerged. A New York Timesarticle from 2007 profiled the struggle that Clive Campbell (aka DJ Cool Herc) and others were having saving 1520 Sedgwick Ave. from being swept up by gentrification. Campbell hoped to have the building, where the first ever hip-hop performance took place, marked as historically significant for its place in American culture. This zoning would “[protect it] from any change that would affect its character — in this case, a building for poor and working-class families.”

Once described as the world’s most self-conscious MC, Macklemore is aware of his place at the center of this gentrification and even rapped about it on a 2005 track entitled “White Privilege.” Mackelmore sang,

“When I take a step to the mic is hip-hop closer to the end?/
‘Cause when I go to shows the majority have white skin…
And white rappers’ albums really get the most spins…
Claimed a culture that wasn’t mine, the way of the American
Hip hop is gentrified and where will all the people live…
Being pushed farther away because of what white people did, now/
Where’s my place in a music that’s been taken by my race?”

In his early work, Macklemore commonly addressed these issues of race and privilege in his work, and touched on them again in a track from 2012’s The Heist. On “A Wake,” Mr. Haggerty rapped, “Neighborhoods where you never see a news crew/Unless they’re gentrifying, white people don’t even cruise through.” He claims that he doesn’t focus on such themes in his work as much these days because “it’s a complicated fucking issue.” Haggerty stated, “I also don’t want to be the white rapper that’s talking about the black man’s struggle.”

The problem is that as white artists gentrifying a black genre, folks like Haggerty and Robin Thicke have a duty to pay tribute to those who came before them and raise awareness about the cultural implications of their work. Currently, Macklemore’s equality jam “Same Love” is storming the charts (and will soon break the Top 20), in which he and a bunch of other white people hold hip-hop accountable to its treatment of LGBT people, for which he’s been rightly criticized. Where are the queer hip-hop artists? Where are the people of color? These are great questions, and we need to keep asking more of them.

We all have a duty to ask questions of our popular culture, who it includes and who it leaves out, but Macklemore can be a leader in the discussion. If Macklemore wants to be the advocate he thinks he is, he needs to hold us accountable for our treatment of hip-hop — and use that straight, white-privilege for good. As the case of Robin Thicke shows, we’re listening. And we deserve more. TC mark

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