Promoting LGBTQ rights on a national stage: Macklemore’s activism puts human rights on the radio


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Two weeks ago, Alexa Williams wrote an article challenging Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s motives in promoting gay marriage and LGBTQ goals. Although I believe that various aspects of her argument are important, I think it is necessary to consider other perspectives and further investigate the nuanced social impact this duo is having on varied communities in the United States.

Much has been said about “Same Love” in Williams’ article and in general. It is first important to understand the historical context in which the song was written. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released “Same Love” in July 2012, and the music video in October 2012—about a month before Washington State’s general election. In this election, Washington citizens were asked to vote on Referendum 74, to approve or reject a bill passed by the state legislature in February 2012 to legalize same-sex marriage. Efforts to secure equal rights for gays and lesbians in Washington State had been ongoing in the state legislature since 1977; the fight for marriage equality was the latest in a long line of difficult battles.

The song was written and the music video released in mid to late 2012 largely to advertise voting for the referendum. In Washington, the video became synonymous with the referendum and was used in advertisements supporting it. It wasn’t until long after the election that “Same Love” reached the widespread national popularity of “Thrift Shop.” The song wasn’t written as “blatant exploitation” of LGBTQ folks, but essentially as a politically powerful, persuasive statement to mobilize support for legalizing gay marriage in Washington.

The vote to uphold marriage equality in Washington passed, but not by a landslide (53.7 percent approved, 46.3 percent rejected). Obviously it is hard to know exactly how a song changes political opinions, or if “Same Love” significantly affected the election. In a close race, though, every vote and influential ally counts.

I question Williams’s blanket claim that “any anti-LGBTQ folks are unlikely to change their worldview simply because a popular rapper sang about equal rights in that one song.” Actually, evidence from the world of advertising, as well as research from the field of social psychology, indicates that influential, popular entertainment figures do affect the opinions and behaviors of others. If this were not the case, multinational companies would not spend millions of dollars using celebrities to sell their products. I am not defending this practice, but simply pointing out that the link between admiration and persuasion is well established.

I can speak to Macklemore’s ongoing status as a respected and influential Washington (and, increasingly, national) musician, the fact that he draws a large fan base and his ability to actually affect the views of his younger fans.

I grew up in a conservative part of Washington—a little over 60 percent of my county voted against marriage equality (more people than voted against legalizing marijuana in the same election). Just a few years ago, some vocal members of the community objected strongly to creating an LGBTQ support group for teens. You read that right: many community members do not even want LGBTQ youth in the community to be able to get together and support each other. There was also opposition to forming a gay-straight alliance in my high school. This phenomenon is not just localized to Eastern Washington—according to a 2008 Pew report, only 50 percent of Americans believe that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” A full 40 percent of Americans think that homosexuality “is a way of life that should be discouraged” (according to the Pew survey’s wording).

However, all young people in my hometown know Macklemore. He is insanely popular in the state and has been since long before The Heist. He’s the local guy that made it big. People I grew up with, from families of all political parties and inclinations, listen to Macklemore. When they go to his concerts and listen to the radio, “Same Love” is bound to come up. And this exposure to the concept of LGBTQ equality may be the first for many of them. Where I’m from, many kids are inundated with homophobic messages from their families, their fundamentalist churches and their peer groups from early childhood on. People displayed neo-Nazi propaganda on their pickup trucks in my high school parking lot.

Ingrained normative beliefs about heterosexuality and patriarchy—along with anti-gay, sexist and racist slurs—are simply part of life; these attitudes can create enormous obstacles for those trying to achieve gender, sexual orientation and basic human rights. What I believe an artist like Macklemore does is challenge these norms and attitudes by introducing an alternative point of view. He is a respected musician (at least by many) telling teenagers from conservative towns about LGBTQ equality for the first time. Without question, this will make a difference and change minds. Such people become future voters, employers, parents and community leaders.

Because it is really straight people who Macklemore was and is talking (rapping) to in “Same Love.” He is not trying to speak for LGBTQ folks or talk down to them or replace them in the movement. The day after the Grammys, video blogger Arielle Scarcella said in a video, “This song is not for gay people. We know, obviously, that we deserve these rights. This song is aimed at straight people.” Getting LGBTQ issues onto major radio stations, in parts of the country where no radio station will even consider playing Angel Haze or Le1f or Mykki, is a step in the right direction.

It would be great if LGBTQ artists were played on the radio to the extent that Macklemore is. It is unfair and wrong that a white, straight, cis-gendered male’s voice is louder than theirs when talking about their struggles. But that doesn’t mean he can’t or shouldn’t bring attention to the issue, when he can and does reach a broad audience that needs to hear the message.

In an article written soon after the Grammys, author/journalist/co-creator of the “It Gets Better Project” Dan Savage noted the paradox of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ ally status. Quoting Scarcella, Savage writes, “Allies are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. If they don’t use their platform [to support LGBT rights], they are cowards. If they do, they’re using our sexuality for profit.” Sure, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are not perfect. Nobody is. But their work is reaching people where I came from, and this can only benefit the gay and trans rights movements.

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