After winning four awards Sunday at the 56th Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Seattle rapper Ben Haggerty — who goes by the handle Macklemore — posted an “apology” to fellow rapper Kendrick Lamar on the photo-sharing site Instagram. He wrote, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have.”
Macklemore was referring to his award for best rap album, for “The Heist,” a win that came as a shock to rap insiders, since the competition included favorite Lamar and Kanye West, one of the most famous and accomplished rappers alive.
One might say the apology was even more surprising than the win, especially given the (continuing) firestorm it ignited on social media.
But for those who follow American popular music, it was more like déjà vu. Sixty years ago, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck apologized to Duke Ellington for getting on the cover of Time magazine before Ellington.
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“I was so hoping that they would do Duke first, because I idolized him,” Brubeck told a reporter. ”He was so much more important than I was.”
In Brubeck’s case, the embarrassment came in part from his admiration for an elder. But the subtext, as with Macklemore, was also race. Brubeck, like Macklemore, was white; Ellington, like Lamar, black.
Thanks to slavery, racism and segregation, America has an ugly cultural history that has resulted in a succession of travesties. The first jazz record, for example, was made by a white group (Original Dixieland Jazz Band, 1917).
White musicians historically have earned 10-fold to a 100-fold what black musicians do, playing the same music — “Stan Getz the money,” black tenor saxophonist Lester Young once quipped about his successful white stylistic heir. And Elvis Presley, not to mention the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, made millions playing music “borrowed” from black culture.
Even in our more enlightened, post-Motown era, when black musicians from Smokey Robinson to West also can and do make millions, the paradigm persists. Black innovation; white imitation; white wealth; black anger; white guilt.
In his brilliant analysis of minstrelsy, social historian Eric Lott has dubbed this paradigm “Love and Theft,” which unpacks the curious fascination — and envy — white people have had from the start with black culture.
Macklemore was operating squarely in this paradigm, one that should be familiar and comprehensible to all Americans, even if they haven’t thought about it.
What they likely haven’t thought about is who and how and why people vote in the Grammys, which are presented by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).
To be a voting member, you must have participated — as an artist, engineer, producer, writer of liner notes, etc. — in making a recording. The folks who vote in the Grammys are part of a trade organization meant to honor not only artistic excellence, but also craftsmanship — and, yes, success.
That’s why, every year, millions of fans shake their heads, wondering, “Why didn’t my favorite cool, new band win a Grammy? They’re so much better!”
And the reason for that — other than in the “best new artist” category, which Macklemore handily won — is that the Grammys are not about your favorite cool, new band no one has ever heard of. They are about excellence, craft and success.
That said, Grammy voters also tend to behave like investors — they flock to a perceived winner. Which probably explains Macklemore’s wins in three rap categories — best song and best performance (for “Thrift Shop”) and best album.
Does he owe anyone an apology? Maybe. Maybe not.
But one thing for sure, it’s nothing new.
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247