When I heard that as a Diversity Advocate Intern at MOSAIC we’ll be given a chance to write an opinion piece on current events that showcase systems of privilege and oppression, I couldn’t help but think of the recent Grammys and conversations that have been arising on privilege and allyship (I know it’s already ancient history in pop culture world). Of course I was one of the hip hop fans getting a cramp in my neck (from smh-ing too hard) after hearing Macklemore won best hip hop song and album. I’m not here to debate about how deserving Kendrick Lamar’s album was over Macklemore’s, because Macklemore’s confession of robbing Kendrick speaks for itself. It’s something well known in the hip hop community, and there is really no need for anybody to wait for Macklemore to affirm the fact. There are many aspects and layers to this situation, and since this isn’t a thesis, I’m just going to tackle a few points.
First off, I’d like to share a quote from bell hooks that has been re-directing my thoughts on the topic.
“Is rap authentic? Because once you become part of the machinery of an advance technological capitalism system of production that is all out for the most profit, questions of authenticity become to me totally stupid and meaningless. Because it’s already not anything that you can speak of any more as indigenous, it doesn’t have a marginal location any more. So you can’t talk about it as authentic to that marginal location because it’s simply not there. It is “authentic” then to what it is.”
The above bell hooks quote, which is from an older documentary Cultural Criticism & Transformation, reminds me that while impact of privilege and oppression on an individual level is important, much focus needs to be placed on the systemic forces that create and maintain those oppressions and privileges. Before going into the topic of institutional and systemic racism/white supremacy, I’d like to speak on Macklemore in this situation. Macklemore is no stranger to acknowledging his white privilege. He actually has an old track entitled “White Privilege”(2005) that has some good insight into what it means to culturally appropriate and take advantage of a culture he does not share struggles with and so on. This is where I want to address allyship, merely acknowledging your own privilege (while a necessary step) does not do anything to separate you from the oppression your privileged group is doing on to others. To be an ally is to want to destroy the system that is privileging you at the cost of oppressing others. As I was thinking about this topic Mia McKenzie wrote a great blog on ways to push back on privilege that I highly recommend checking out. In Macklemore’s case it could have played out by him refusing the Grammy for best hip hop album/song, or at the very least, he could have spoken about on how he was privileged over a more deserving artist.
As I mentioned earlier, it is crucial to examinate the systemic roots of the problem. One aspect of the industry that perpetuates oppression is the specific narratives and stories it promotes and those that it intentionally does not. The bell hooks video linked above explains how mainstream white male consumers of hip hop get excited over hip hop that portrays misogyny and violence, and so that is then the narrative of black life that gets pushed by the industry. The documentary Hip Hop Beyond Beats & Rhymes delves into how the industry dictates the narrative. One example given by former Def Jam president Carmen Ashurst-Watson is the rise of gangster rap when major labels started coming into hip hop music. Lyrical content became less and less diverse and the fifth element of hip hop, “knowledge”, started fading away as mainstream hip hop transitioned into a narrow depiction of black life that white audience enthusiastically enjoyed.
Many parallels can be seen between the music and film industry and how they choose to sell the narratives of black people (Gangster Rap Vs. Blaxploitation Era). Music and film are two strong vehicles for creating and perpetuating culture and worldviews. The entertainment industry as gatekeepers of what narratives are produced and shared play a huge role in upholding systems of oppression and privilege.
Bijan Bahmani is a Mosaic Diversity Advocate Intern and senior Social Work student at SJSU.