Macklemore’s Dabbling with a Dubious Jewish Stereotype Nearly Blew Up the Internet
"I’ve never felt more like a man,” Seattle rapper Macklemore told the packed crowd Friday at the opening of EMP’s Spectacle: The Music Video exhibit last Friday night. He was dressed in a black wig and beard and a big, hooked fake nose that many observers interpreted as a blatant caricature of Jewish features—while performing a song titled “Thrift Shop.” That Macklemore looked like something a propagandistic Nazi cartoonist might have drawn—or like Fagin, an unsympathetic Jewish character from Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist—apparently didn’t register with him or his handlers. Soon after Macklemore’s set, the internet erupted with outrage and disgust—as well as some shoulder-shrugging and accusations of overreaction.
How did one of the world’s most commercially successful entertainment figures get into this mess? Of all the costumes Macklemore (aka Ben Haggerty) could’ve chosen for this surprise gig, why this provocative get-up? “I’m completely confounded. Was it an attempt at career suicide?” Stranger hiphop scholar Charles Mudede wondered.
Surely Macklemore didn’t do this as a publicity stunt. He’s no Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga in that regard. Did he, as Dan Savage quipped, simply experience a confluence of “cluelessness and Jewlessness”? Even in Seattle, though, where Jews are a distinct minority, it would take a special kind of cultural tone deafness not to be aware of egregious stereotypes to which they’ve been subjected for centuries. Macklemore tweeted this response to the controversy on May 18: “A fake witches nose, wig, and beard = random costume. Not my idea of a stereotype of anybody.” That statement both evades culpability and offends grammatically.
But he has since apologized. Monday evening on his website, the loquacious MC issued an explanation and an apology for his actions that seems genuine. In it, Macklemore wrote, “The character I dressed up as on Friday had no intended cultural identity or background. I wasn’t attempting to mimic any culture, nor resemble one. A ‘Jewish stereotype’ never crossed my mind.” He expressed surprise that people would construe his costume as “anti-Semitic” and asserted, “I respect all cultures and all people.” Macklemore concluded with a shout out to the Anti-Defamation League and included a link to its site. Overall, the post was an impressive display of damage control, even if Mack showed an astonishing ignorance about the contours of witch noses (pro tip: always look for the wart).
Stranger hiphop columnist Larry Mizell Jr., who wasn’t at the show, said before the apology came, “Regardless of whether or not it was intentional, there's a lack of cultural competency there when you can't see that what you ended up with looks like a stereotype.
“I wasn't comfortable with [Macklemore’s] charro/mariachi suit in the ‘White Walls’ video, either, as he's flanked by two black twins,” Mizell continued. “There's other stuff about that video that disturbs me along those same lines. It's all kind of messy and weird, but I don't think that he's trying to do it—but the fact is, him being in his position, it's my opinion that he should actively be trying not to do it. Since he's so very message-based musically, he should be no less conscientious and clear in his presentation, or else he's losing ground.”
Shannon Stewart, a cofounder of the all-ages venue Vera Project who witnessed some of Macklemore’s early live performances, notes, “In 2012 when I worked on the cultural arm of the Marriage Equality campaign, he was generous and instrumental.”
Stewart actually preceded Macklemore onstage at the EMP as a performer participating in a re-creation of Daft Punk’s “Around the World” video. She and her partner Adam Sekuler were among those disturbed by Macklemore’s act. “Beyond the offensiveness of his get-up, the whole scene started to make me feel sick,” Stewart says. “Though we can focus on the mask, there were a lot of other things that surprised me. I don’t know if his performance always entails three scantily clad women (who were totally ballin’ dancers, by the way, but are they really called Macklerettes, though? Really?) and a host of black musicians backing him and Ryan [Lewis] up. Maybe it was just who was available that night? I want to see this in a ‘post-race, post-gender’ lens, but that would be easier if the roles were reversed. Then there were the 1,000 people who were totally eating it up, phones up trying to capture the whole thing.”
After Macklemore’s apology, Stewart wrote on Facebook, “I had faith this would happen and I’m glad it did.”
What was baffling about the whole thing is that Macklemore always has assiduously positioned himself as a proverbial good guy. He analyzed his white privilege in a track by that name, wrote the equal marriage rights ode “Same Love,” and last year played a role in helping raise more than $43,000 for The Stranger’s holiday charity drive for YouthCare’s Orion Center. Mocking a minority—in however an unintentional manner—seemingly goes against Macklemore’s character.
As someone who was raised Jewish but doesn’t observe the religion anymore, I find actions like Macklemore’s to be foolish, but, from a big-picture perspective, it’s a mild offense. There’s something almost quaint about how, during a time when real injustices and bigotry hurt millions of people daily, a dumb stunt like Macklemore’s can still trigger outrage. In practical terms, this hoary caricature of an ethnic group—even if it’s perpetrated by one of the biggest pop stars in the world—is probably not going to harm anyone directly. And if it did? “I truly apologize,” Macklemore says.
Additional reporting by Ansel Herz.