A couple of weeks ago, on the Grammy Awards, Queen Latifah, deputized by Los Angeles County, married 33 couples—same sex, straight, interracial, dressed up, dressed down, punk rock, and conventional. The ceremony occurred after Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert performed “Same Love,” and before Madonna joined them onstage.
Then the Internet exploded.
Most of the explosion was celebratory—like champagne uncorked at a wedding reception, a release of confetti and birdseed as couples walk down the aisle. And, unsurprisingly some of it was critical in the expected way. There were also those who bemoaned that the Grammy’s became “too political” that night (even though sometimes the best music out there is political, and awards shows, while fluffy entertainment on the one hand—a red carpet parade of celebrity baby bumps, long legs, and cleavage—have also often been political).
To a certain extent, however, I also expected the critique from the left. First off, let’s be clear, I get it: marriage, access to marriage, is not necessarily the most radical thing that people can ask for. As a contractual agreement, it is ultimately rooted in the transfer of property (the woman) among men (her father and soon-to-be-husband), and as such, has long been an excuse for women’s continued disempowerment in social life. Marriage can also be a place of terror for women, and men, who are subjected to intimate partner violence. To ask for marriage as a proxy for equality can seem, to some, to be asking for access to a less-than-liberated relationship.
And we also need to look closely at the critique of Macklemore as an unworthy ambassador of hip-hop culture, as someone who doesn’t have the cred to critique and comment on hip-hop artists’ use of words like “faggot” and “gay,” even as he Instragrammed a text he’d written to Kendrick Lamar, saying that Lamar should have won the Grammy.
Finally, I also get it the argument that celebrities have it too easy when it comes to political struggle, that they’re not living it but reporting on it; Macklemore’s performance at the Grammy’s was mere theatre and pageantry, empty otherwise.
But let’s hold off a minute, because, today, weeks after it occurred, I’m still in a bit of a celebratory mood when it comes to what the nation witnessed that night.
Often, because they use law to help achieve their goals, the most radical movements in the United States have been those that ask for some of the most mainstream things, marriage included. Remember Loving v. Virginia in 1968, when the Supreme Court finally said it was illegal for states to deny the right to marriage, to interracial couples? It was a radical request, and a radical decision, on behalf of access to what dominant culture had. Remember sit-ins and the refusal to get off a bus? People in the Civil Rights Movement were asking for the right to patronize small businesses, to ride public transportation to go to work—to be treated with respect. These were radical requests for mainstream acceptance.
Macklemore isn’t mimicking the Harlem Shake. His songs talk about hybrid cars and Seattle, about sobriety and the twelve steps. His music doesn’t feel like posing just because it speaks in a joyful note. And, as someone who makes rap music, he’s entitled to critique its vernacular, which is often—though not always—cringe-worthy in its treatment of women and gays.
Symbolic politics are still political. Pageantry and celebrity have long had roles in American political life, in moving the mainstream to accept the radical proposition.
I am the child of the 80s, which makes me lucky, I guess, because it means I remember “We Are the World” and the impact it had on me, in terms of understanding and caring about global poverty and inequality. I remember “Ebony and Ivory,” and thinking how silly it was that there were those who thought Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder shouldn’t share a stage. I remember U2’s “Pride: In the Name of Love” and the references to King, Ghandi, and Mandela— a radical trio if there ever was one.
Even more, I am a left wing child of the 80s, which means I have marched on Washington more than once; I have participated in “Kiss Ins” for love equality, and “Die Ins” to bring attention to the AIDS crisis, and—more recently—“Nurse Ins,” to remind businesses that women have a right to feed their children, even in public. I’m a child of the 80s, so I have watched the Guerilla Girls do street art, and I have watched Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins use the Oscar pulpit to criticize US policy towards HIV-positive Haitian refugees.
I grew up in a time when direct action was a way to accomplish something, especially when coupled with lawsuits and legislation. When pageantry of the kind we saw at the Grammy’s was recognized for the power it contained, not questioned as cooptation. I remember when politics was more than signing a petition on Facebook, even if it didn’t require putting my body on the line.
And that song, and the Grammy ceremony, they do contain power.
The first time my husband heard “Same Love,” he had to park the pick-up truck, and, in tears, he called and told me to turn on the radio, and listen. On Grammy night, during that performance, my little sister—who is a working class, thirty-something, White, straight, church-going woman who lives in South Dakota— got so excited and exhilarated that she went ALL CAPS on her Facebook page supporting love and equality, even though she knew some people on her friends list would disagree with her.
This is what it comes down to, for me. Those of us with privilege— the privilege of heterosexuality, the privilege of class position, the privilege of gender or race, the privilege of talent—and those of us with a pulpit— be that pulpit a classroom, a church, a column, or a concert hall—have a duty to stand up for equality. We have a duty to say, “human rights for everybody? Damn right, I support them.”
So today, I celebrate that some privileged and talented people with power were able to stand up for equality on a national, mainstream stage and move some hearts. I celebrate allies and advocates as joyfully as I celebrate the warriors on the ground. And if I had been at the Grammys, I would’ve stood in the aisle with my husband and said, “Marry us, Macklemore.”
Renee Ann Cramer is a Professor in and Director of the Program in Law, Politics, and Society at Drake University and a Life of the Law advisory panel member.