The poet as prophet: An evening with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (There is no crying at a rap concert)

Macklemore returned home last night to begin a 50-city tour of his recently released album The Heist. The album is the number one album on iTunes and last night’s concert at the WAMU Theater was one of those moments in life when things just come together: The album rising to the top, Macklemore kicking off his tour in his hometown, and over 7,500 members of his Shark Face Gang attending the sold out concert.

I am certain that most of the attendees had a great night, but I must say that my evening ended up being more of an opportunity to reflect on the role of the artist in society. This might sound like an odd reaction to a concert that had all of the markings of a full-scale attack on my senses, but when it was over there was a moment in the concert that will stay with me forever, a moment when I was genuinely moved to tears. Every so often things conspire and come together in a way that is more powerful than simple fate, Thomas Hardy writes of this phenomenon is his poem The Convergence of the Twain. The waste and opulence of the Titanic and its meeting with the uncompromising forces of nature. These two opposing forces are brought together in the poem in an epic collision that accentuates our human weaknesses and flaws. The concert provided a moment like this last night.

Scientist, Paul Dirac once said, “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!” In other words, poetry reveals a truth that is directly before us, one that all of us see, but just cannot express. For me Macklemore has done this with his song Same Love. The song relates a truth; marriage equality is a human right that can no longer be denied to couples of the same-sex. Bigotry and hatred can be masked in many ways, but a pointy white hood is a pointy white hood. Mask it in religion or mask it in tradition, either way the hood must come off and people must see the face of truth.

The concert had been roaring along for a good 45 minutes before Macklemore stopped, brought out a stool to sit on and then talked about what he called “the most important song I have ever written.” This was not hubris; it was the truth. He has written songs about several important social issues, but this one is situated perfectly in time and place. In Washington we will be voting very soon to see if marriage equality will be recognized in our state.

The song starts off with what can only be described as a church organ playing a sustained note, soon followed up with some plunking on a piano. Macklemore begins the lyrics to the song relating his earliest memories and fears of homosexuality and slowly begins to connect the opposing ideas of religious love and institutional bigotry and how these two forces can no longer control the debate about a human right that should be available to all people. When vocalist Mary Lambert blasted out her chorus and the crowd responded by singing in unison, Lambert was visibly moved. She paused, lowered her head, and tried to gain composure.  When Lambert could not draw the air into her lungs to sing the next note the crowd lifted her, sang her words, “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to. My love…my love… my love. She keeps me warm, she keeps me warm.” The words that were probably written in a small notebook somewhere in Seattle had converged at this moment: The words of Macklemore, the voice of Mary Lambert, and the crowd of thousands singing along. It was in that moment when the beauty of the human heart was revealed. The simple truth, the power of language, the elevation of the spirit, all converged at that moment to lift all 7,500 of us. We floated above the casual concerns of the earth for several minutes, all of us joined together in the common bond of love. The bond we all seek and explore in our many different journeys held us together and brought the air into our lungs as we sang together. Heaven must be as lovely as that moment.  The crowd lifted the musician who had lifted them. It was a perfect moment. There is no other way to express it. When the human soul is raised to an expression of love and communion like it did Friday night, what can one say?

The role of the artist in society is to uncover a truth that has been sitting before us but has gone unnoticed before. The poet’s job in his/her artistic pursuit is to breathe life and emotion into this truth so that when the truth is laid bare before us it is undeniable.

The artist reveals himself unapologetically. Bearing his soul, his frailties, and his imperfections to the audience so that we can see those truths in our lives also. His role in society as a truth-teller cannot be overlooked. There is no more important job on the earth. The artist may not be as valued as those so-called “job creators” but holding a looking glass up to society is the artist’s responsibility. Most of us shrink from the thought of baring our souls honestly and completely. Red Smith said that writing was easy; you just sat down at a typewriter open a vein and bleed.  Macklemore’s gift is that he hasn’t just opened a vein; he has taken out a surgical knife and opened a hole from his neck to his bellybutton. His blackened secrets come out as purging, hot blood: His struggles with addiction, his relapse, his fight for artistic freedom, and his personal connection to the issue of marriage equality. He heaps his guts on the stage. He also plays court jester to the crowd, turning that mirror on the obsession of the hip-hop culture with shoes and clothing. His ability to point out our nation’s mania with consumer goods in a song like Thrift Store is brilliant, but in a venue where T-shirts are sold for $25-$45 Macklemore manages to strike the right playful tone.

I won’t be joining the Shark Face Gang anytime soon (the sweatshirts were already sold out), but I can say that this Macklemore fellow has what it takes to be called Artist.


3 thoughts on “The poet as prophet: An evening with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (There is no crying at a rap concert)

  1. “…you just sat down at a typewriter open a vein and bleed… ” For me, writing the truth is the hardest part of writing. But again you must conquer yourself to write what you don’t want to reveal. The fear. The excruciating pain. Or your bland writing is no art at all. He’s one brave man, Jon.


  2. You can see that your old man is just catching up…but to read about what you have talked about…my only comment would be from my POV that where you use the word Artist, I would sub the word Prophet. Macklemore is a prophet for our time.


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