Macklemore (aka Ben Haggerty) is a socially conscious rapper whose latest album, last year’s ‘Gemini’, eschewed politics in favour of dumb, fun party anthems that features the likes of Migos and Lil Yachty. What gives? Well, the answer perhaps lies in its predecessor, ‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’, which saw the musician and his then-collaborator Ryan Lewis grapple with some weighty issues indeed. The record’s lead single, ‘White Privilege II’, for example, was an almost nine-minute diatribe about race relations; the album met with a lukewarm critical response, after which Macklemore and Lewis parted professional ways.
As Macklemore prepares to play a string of sold-out UK dates this weekend, we called him up to talk about the freewheelin’ direction of ‘Gemini’, where hip-hop’s at right now and why, despite his currently apolitical approach to writing music, he’s fired up by youth protests in America.
Gemini is much less politicised than your previous record. Was that a response to the reaction to This Unruly Mess I’ve Made?
“No, it wasn’t a reaction at all. It was where I was at in life. It was much more about getting in the studio and to having fun. I think [I’m going to make political records] in the future I’m sure, but I always want them to come from a genuine place. I wrote records for Gemini that were much more political, that tackled heavier issues, but they didn’t make the album. They didn’t feel as genuine as I wanted them to be. If you’re going to make a statement about a genuine issue, it has to come from a genuine place.”
When NME interviewed Interscope Record boss Jimmy Iovine, he told us that hip-hop is less politicised right now….
“It’s not very popular right now, and I think that’s okay. I don’t think just because all of a sudden Trump’s our president that everyone needs to make a Trump song or make a political song. Everything that’s coming out of Atlanta is massive; I love that music and that’s the music that I listen to. It may not be the most political music, but it’s music that resonates with the youth. It resonates with the people.”
You’ve said that you don’t feel it necessary to make political music because everyone knows that the Trump administration is disaster, and you don’t feel you need to preach to the converted. That made me think of the last Eminem album, in which he’s very outspoken about Trump. I’m not saying you have the same audience to Eminem, but his audience is often described as very white and working class, so he’s kind of alienating his audience by talking about this stuff. Is there something to be said for taking that approach?
“I know what you’re getting at, and I think we did that on ‘White Privilege II’. I think that there’s definite parallels. Every time you speak about race in America, there’s going to be a very divided reaction. What are you willing to sacrifice? When I sit down to write, am I going to speak the truth right now, or play to my white audience to sell more records? Will I speak the truth knowing that it’s going to alienate some of my listeners, that they’ll hear this and turn their back? What am I willing to risk? But my politics can also be in how I back different organisations financially, or how I interact with the youth. It doesn’t always have to be a song, you know? I applaud anybody who does take a stand in the music without compromising the art, but I don’t always feel I have to do that.”
‘Same Love’ [Macklemore, Ryan Lewis and Mary Lambert’s 2013 track that supported gay marriage] is one of my favourite songs in the last 10 years. It’s such a beautiful track and it seems more relevant than ever. If you’re talking about people whose sexual identity is marginalised, you have to look at Donald Trump banning transgender people from the military and feel that ‘Same Love’ still sends an important message…
“I appreciate what you said; it’s the song I’m the most proud of for the writing in terms of reach and in terms of how it impacted people’s lives and culture. It came at a time when Barack Obama supported gay marriage. Up until that point, he wasn’t in support of gay marriage – not that the song changed it, I just happened to be writing it as that was happening. But there’s been a lot of progress, particularly in America and even in Australia recently in terms of legalising gay marriage. That’s a beautiful thing to see. It’s legal in America now and there’s obviously a small percentage of the population who doesn’t agree with that, but we’re changing that. I think it’s just a continuous battle for equality not only in legislation but in how we’re treating each other. You know, the language that we use, our stereotypes, the level in which we love or hate one another and we really marching forward in the fight for equality.”
Will you roll out ‘Same Love’ in this European tour?
“I’ll never stop performing that song. you feel the power in the record during the show and you see how people have resonated with it, you see that physically. That record is one that I enjoy performing every time I get on stage for those reasons and the message I sing needs to be heard. We’ve got a long way to go still.”
What do you make of Trump’s attitudes towards banning transgender people from the military?
“I think it’s bigotry in the truest sense of the word. It’s discrimination. it’s disrespectful to all Americans, particularly to Transgender people, who want to serve our nation, just the same way anyone wants to serve. They should have that opportunity, of course, and it’s disheartening to see a President dividing human beings.”
As a politically engaged person, what do you think when you look at the March for Our Lives rallies?
‘They’re great – particularly the fact that they’re youth driven. Protesting and growing up in Seattle, Washington, when we had the WTO protest happening in 1999 and 2000 [which saw protesters disrupt the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999], shaped who I am today. Our culture has been driven by the gun from our inception, and it’s inspiring to watch young people come together and mobilise in ways in which a lot of adults can’t. None of those kids had a platform until they stepped up and took it. Sometimes that’s what it takes to really get your voice to be heard.’