As a white male who is privileged in every way except being gay, I can't speak about race with any insider authority. Indeed, I tried to do this very thing recently when I wrote a poem about the Mark Duggan trial. In my rationale of writing, it was a call for equality and to be united. Yet when I performed it to an audience with approximately fifty percent black faces I came away feeling I had been, at best, patronising to a community and, at worse, borderline insulting through ignorance.
You see I am ignorant in matters of race, I don't know what it's like. I can imagine, I have been told, but I haven't grown up with a darker skin colour, and the perceptions in others that this may provoke. I've never been stopped and searched at random by the police on the streets of London, an occurrence that the spoken word artist Lionheart talks about with valid, visceral anger in his poems.
But I can comment, in an informed way, that I fear in the diverse reactions to Macklemore's recent performance of 'Same Love' at The Grammy's, the two major social issues of race and sexuality have become conflated into tangled knots of conjecture. Read an introductory line of Kelly Fox's Guerilla Feminsim polemic 'BOW DOWN, MACKLEMORE: Why 'Same Love' is NOT My Queer Anthem':
'Nothing embodies the fact that we live in a neoliberal society that believes that post-racialism is real and that homophobia is the last bastion of oppression quite like a straight white rapper winning all the rap awards at the Grammy's, many of which were for a song he wrote about gay people that perpetuates the racist myth of black homophobia.'
Fox isolates a 'Same Love' line as proof of this statement:
'if I was gay, I would think hip hop hates me'
She goes on to intimate that as hip hop is 'a musical genre created by and for people of color' this 'reinforces the racist myth that people of color are more homophobic than white people'. She omits to analyse the supporting, contextualising lines immediately following:
'If I was gay I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately?
"Man, that's gay" gets dropped on the daily
We've become so numb to what we're saying
Our culture founded from oppression
Yet we don't have acceptance for 'em
Call each other faggots
Behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate
Yet our genre still ignores it
"Gay" is synonymous with the lesser'
Whether your musical genre of choice is hip hop, pop, indie, rock or whatever beats you adhere to, I feel, personally, that these words stand outside of skin colour. I may not be in a position to speak with intuitive knowledge about race, but I am eminently qualified to speak about sexuality. I know that each day I hear on the streets and I see on my screen, 'that's gay' and 'faggot' trip from minds and mouths. Perhaps it's not (in general) meant with virulently homophobic intent, but it still makes gay people feel like lesser beings, and, as Macklemore writes above: 'we've become so numb to what we're saying'.
When a song becomes popular it can touch people outside of any confines of genre people may try to pin upon it. Macklemore's detail of a hip hop situation is applicable to a far wider reaching scenario, across international waves and the varying ether of the internet. And as Bradley Stern writes in his defence of the Same Love performance:
'Recognize that the performance last night -- while hokey, and sort of cringeworthy in places -- might have meant a whole lot more to a closeted LGBT teen in rural Arkansas than an out, successful twentysomething living in New York City or Los Angeles.'
Other accusations against Macklemore include the charges that he has 'used' the LGBT struggle to make himself wealthy and successful. I don't buy this argument. Whether you are a contracted recording artist or an unpaid poet on the spoken word scene, you can't predict how what you have written is going to be received. For someone to write a song that they wanted to guarantee them success in their field, I would imagine most people would lean on the crutch of cliché a la the plethora of pretty but forgettable candyfloss pop which pounds the ears in most gay bars.
When I heard 'Same Love' for the first time, it blew me away. I had never heard anything like it, and I never hoped to imagine hearing anything like it in my lifetime. The fact that it was by a straight man, whatever his colour, made those words all the more pertinent and, for me, touching. Because it seemed to begin to salve wounds of separation between gay and straight men, whether black or white, that needed healing. That there can be a power of humanity greater than the cultural identities we lock ourselves in. It was not what I would have thought of as a safe bet for success.
Another point of dissent is that Macklemore is being lauded by mainstream America when queer, black rappers, such as the wonderful Mykki Blanco, with similar messages are sidelined. Yet mainstream America is, regrettably, not listening to Mykki Blanco. Up to a certain recent point it can't handle queer, black rappers and yes, that does make me angry, but crucially - crucially - the success of 'Same Love' may provide a mainstream platform on which rappers such as Blanco can emerge and be heard.
For her part, Fox goes on to denounce Macklemore for conflating 'racial and sexual oppression' - exactly the very thing she is doing throughout her own article - when he says: 'it's the same fight that led people to walk outs and sit ins... It's human rights for everybody, there is no difference.' Purely on an epistemological level to begin with, it demands recognition that the fight for civil rights and LGBT rights are not the same - although neither one is more or less significant than the other. Because underlying both is a point that Macklemore captures simply and Fox misses in her tying knots of politics: a fight for greater human equality, and that therein lies our same love.