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On the Goe: Skilled MCs Challenge Status Quo

By David Goe

Caricature of Sage Francis by artist Neil Phyfer

Generally, I try to avoid classifying music into genres or oversimplified terms. Talking about a song or an artist in a couple easy words creates preconceived limitations and bias before you even have a chance to judge for yourself.

One such oversimplified term, and one taking center stage this weekend, is “white rapper.”

East coast native Sage Francis, hitting the stage at Mesa Theater and Lounge on Friday, April 19, and Seattle native Macklemore, playing at Colorado Mesa University on Saturday, April 20, are both unfairly labeled as “white rappers.”

Traditionally, hip-hop as a culture has four elements: DJing, breakdancing, graffiti art and MCing. Since the dawn of hip-hop in the mid-1970s, that culture has included people of all races. Only MCing has been commercially tagged as a black art form.

Labeling an MC as a “white rapper” is a diss on his or her skills and brings up comparisons of race and the underlying notion that he or she is not as skilled or as authentic as a black rapper.

The historic knock on “white rappers” is that they talk about things they know nothing of and come across corny as hell. While there have been plenty of wack MCs to make people wary of other “white rappers” — see Marky Mark, MC Snow, Vanilla Ice, Limp Bizkit, K-Fed, Asher Roth, etc. — skin tone has nothing to do with talent.

Both Sage Francis and Macklemore are skilled MCs, and referring to them in part by skin tone is just silly. Neither pretends to be someone nor represents something that isn’t authentic to their true self.

The best way to judge a rapper’s ability is to examine his or her flow. The lyrics an MC spits are so closely associated with the artist’s identity that they are the only thing that matter.

Forget “Thrift Shop,” Macklemore’s crossover smash hit, and check out tracks such as “Same Love.” A plea to end bigotry toward gay couples, “Same Love” is the kind of track that separates Macklemore from other MCs. Over the 30 odd years of hip-dhop history, the one topic that remains off limits is homosexuality.

“We become so numb to what we’re saying / A culture founded from oppression / Yet we don’t have acceptance for ‘em,” Macklemore rhymes over a Ryan Lewis beat. “No freedom till we’re equal / Damn right I support it.”

No one can accuse Macklemore of frontin’ with lyrics like that. He’s just about the only MC out there with the guts to say anything positive about the topic.

Sage Francis also is no stranger to tackling tough topics. His response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “Makeshift Patriot,” is a poetic fallout that, as he says, “goes far beyond the toxic cloud where people look like debris.”

“I’ve got exclusive, explicit images to present to impressionable / American kids and it’s time to show this world how big our edifice is / That’s exactly what they attacked when a typically dark-skinned Disney villain / Used civilians against civilians and charged the Trojan horses into our buildings.”

Those lines are raw but true to Sage Francis’ character.

Hip-hop culture demands authenticity in its MCs. Those who take their skill seriously transcend the ideas of race. Look at Eminem, the Beastie Boys or the group 3rd Bass. Respected for their group individuality and flow, they shed the “white” adjective and are just known as rappers.

MCs such as Sage Francis and Macklemore, who speak their mind and challenge stereotypes, are more deserving than the inferior labels. Hold them to the same accountability as other MCs. Do they have lyrical skill? Yes or no. Simple as that.

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