Fear and Loving
Macklemore and Marriage Equality
Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty is sitting in front of my building, in his own words "lounging in some shit Bernie Mac would've been proud of"—a beautiful 2008 Cadillac DTS Biarritz. I'd almost missed him, as I was looking for the car he was pushing the last time we kicked it, his mom's silver Prius.
"I guess you feel like you paid your green dues," I joke.
"Yeah, my carbon footprint is all good," he deadpans, "so I figured I had a little room to wild out." He suggests we get some Ezell's for lunch. When we get to Seattle's world-famous chicken shack, Mack gets hounded immediately after stepping out the whip—for once, not because he's a famous rapper. No, the guy wants to talk to him about that Cadillac.
Seattle fixture Macklemore, finally registering on big-time national hiphop's radar, more ears tuned in to him than ever before, is just about to release his next album's first single at the time of our meeting. Where most would take this musical opportunity to stunt, boast, let you know that they're the "freshest in the NW," instead it's a song called "Same Love," released in conjunction with Music for Marriage Equality and Sub Pop in support of Referendum 74, which would approve a law to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington.
"Why not?" he asks rhetorically, disbelieving. "Two people love each other. It's so fundamental. They love each other! They deserve to have the same rights as a straight couple. You deserve to go to a church, you deserve to wed in a field, to be under the counsel of a pastor, to put a ring on each other and say 'I love you and we're gonna love each other for the rest of our lives.' Everyone deserves that with another human being. It's so, so crazy to me that this is still an issue."
He plays me the track, as emotive and memorable as any of his anthems to date, with a beautiful hook from local singer and poet Mary Lambert (who was brought in by local scene dynamo Hollis Wong-Wear). After producer Ryan Lewis's tinkling piano intro, the Mack discloses: In third grade, I thought that I was gay—because I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight. I told my mom, tears rushing down my face, and she said, "Ben, you've loved girls since before pre-K..." tripping. I guess she had a point, didn't she?
"Man, I just thought I fit a lot of those stereotypes, before I was old enough to know any better," Macklemore admits. "Two of the four uncles on my dad's side are gay; with their partners, I had like four gay uncles. My godfather, who was very much in my life, particularly when I was younger, was gay; with his partner, I had like six gay men in my family off jump. My uncles owned the Surrogate Hostess, a breakfast spot up on 19th, in the '80s and '90s. So I was just always around that community, and I was a wild-ass, creative little dude, like I would dress up in tights and parade around. So being a third-grader, looking at my family, thinking about what society says is 'normal,' those things meant 'gay' to me. Meanwhile, I'm not attracted to boys, I'm having crushes on girls the whole time, but I'm not even old enough to put that all together. I'm just growing up, loving me some Cats and Les Miserables, thinking, like, 'Uh-oh.'"
Macklemore grew up on Capitol Hill, "obviously a liberal place," he says, "but I did come up Catholic, and I come from an Irish-Catholic family—and Catholicism is still very prejudiced. It's old-school mentality. My grandfather was an incredible man, yet he came from a generation that was very different. And he had two gay sons out of five. He embraced the situation, but he wasn't open about it. It was a little bit more like 'Hey, let's be in denial.'"
"I knew that I wanted to write this song," he continues. "You can only listen to your peers say 'faggot' for so long—say 'that's gay,' to use that as the ultimate dis or slander, clowning someone's manhood—before it's like, this is wack. How can I want to whup somebody's ass—a white dude, for saying the n-word, or another dude for calling one of my homegirls a bitch—yet saying 'faggot' and 'gay' gets the pass all day long? Combine that with the story we keep seeing: Kid gets bullied in school, nobody says anything, kid commits suicide. How long are we just gonna let that slide? Can we at least acknowledge this issue? Now, do I think doing a song about it is going to change anything? Hopefully, it brings about some awareness, or at the very least it gets people thinking."
I met Mack in 2004 or so, several waves back, and found that he was always thinking, which was and still is rare. He wrote one of my favorite songs in all of Seattle rap history, "Ego," in which, by examining himself, he thoughtfully broke down why people hate on their more successful peers. Since then, it's been a privilege to watch him become the biggest thing Seattle rap's seen since Anthony Ray went back the other way and stopped to eat at Dick's. In 2011, Mack's music with Lewis went nuclear, racking up millions of YouTube views and an ungodly amount of iTunes downloads. He went on a US tour that was, in his words, "98 percent sold out." He got home and got word that hiphop's premier magazine, XXL, had tapped him for an up-and-comer's dream opportunity—to be a part of its 2012 Freshman Class cover. For the most part, his cover classmates stick to the formulas of pop radio or internet buzz: absurd materialism, desperate self-indulgence, pure gangster fantasy—the polar opposite of everything Mack's built his career on. It's gratifying to see how far he's come. I remember him in 2008 or so, scared of how people were going to take his music after his long and unfocused hiatus—pretty laughable today.
"That's the whole thing about it," he contends. "I'm somebody that spends my life working on fighting fear. Realizing the fear that I have in myself, seeing fear in society and trying to address it and bring it to the surface. When it comes to the arguments against same-sex marriage, if you strip away the biblical, the religious shit, it all comes down to fear. Fear of something that you don't know. And that has been the root of negativity in humanity since humans have been walking around this earth. It's just, it's here, things are changing; I mean, great things are happening, but it's slow, and sometimes it feels like it's stagnant... but I just believe that this is the time, that there's a human evolution happening."
MACKLEMORE ON THE STEPS OF THE CAPITOL “It’s so, so crazy to me that this is still an issue.”
The timing of "Same Love" is impeccable. Aware of this, Macklemore insists the song was not some kind of quick-hatched cash-in. "I wrote it during SXSW. Finished it, planned to release it at the end of July. Then Barack comes out in support, and about time, it's fucking awesome that he did so. Selfishly of course, I'm thinking, 'Now this song is gonna look like some bandwagon shit...' But! This is great, and that's the bigger picture. Then Jay-Z comes out in support of Barack and gay marriage. And now they're asking T.I. about it on the radio, and Rick Ross, and Diddy, and everyone about this issue. It's become a thing. Then Frank Ocean comes out. I said that we need to release this song already."
Oh, they say, there he goes again—writing these big event songs to tug heartstrings and get publicity. "I get it," he laughs, "but I know my own intentions, I know where I write music from, I know why I write it. There is always gonna be a select population of hiphop heads, cynical writer people, people that don't like me anyway, much less my music, who are predisposed to think I'm this opportunistic, preachy rapper guy—I can't control that. I think that the actual mission, though—human rights, equality, and the legalization of gay marriage—that is a great thing, and that precedes me, my career, and how those people feel about me, all day."
When Mack started performing in a Legalize Gay Marriage shirt months ago, he was surprised at some of his fans' reactions: "At shows, I could just see it on some of their faces, like, just disgust. On Twitter, I'm getting called a 'faggot lover' by my fans, or ex-fans, I guess. That's the cool thing about Yes on 74—we really have a chance to set the pace in terms of the rest of the country. It's a big deal. After writing this song, I saw the bigger picture in it, particularly with gay marriage in Washington. I had dinner with Kerri Harrop, she'd just got the job with Music for Marriage Equality and the stars just kinda aligned; it was super organic. I didn't write this song to pass gay marriage in Washington, that wasn't my intention at all. That this song could, by being involved in the Music for Marriage Equality campaign, have some impact is really exciting to me. Because I do know that Washington just comes down to like hundreds of votes on serious issues. If this could have impact—particularly on youth, which is my primary fan base—and get some people off their asses, talking about it, and voting come November, that would be absolutely incredible."
He goes on, "Everybody is going to get criticized, put in a box, pigeonholed as this type of person—you can even do it to yourself, know what I mean? With this song, if I would have listened to those voices in my head, the ones telling me what people were going to say or think about, then it would never have gotten written. I would have gotten in a place of fear and gotten distracted. Thankfully, I have little breakthroughs of not listening to those voices, because they're there, and I try to combat them however I can. Whether that's exercise or service work or meditation, I work to not hear that shit. Because that shit is real, and the bigger you get, too, the more challenging it is to tune that out. Y'know, without giving anybody more credit than they deserve—there's been pieces written about me, in Seattle, that I'd be lying to say I wasn't a little bit rattled by. That I wasn't like, 'Okay, shit. Let me do some soul-searching and remember who I am, and remember why I do what I do, and who it speaks to.' And that's the most important thing. Everybody else... fuck it."