Last week, a TMZ cameraman bum-rushed Machine Gun Kelly at Los Angeles International Airport. The Cleveland rapper — born Richard Colson Baker — was loading his headphones with the Rolling Stones only to be bombarded with a series of inquiries from the photographer that began with: “In my eyes, you’re one of the top five greatest white rappers of all time.” MGK quickly defended himself. “I mean, I’m not just a great white rapper. I’m a great rapper,” he responded.
The impromptu exchange then morphed into a conversation about Macklemore‘s “White Privilege II,” a racially charged single that explores the Seattle rapper’s thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the public’s perception of a rapper with his skin color.
Look beyond rap to Super Bowl 50-bound quarterback Cam Newton. The Carolina Panthers star recently faced a room full of journalists, tackling inquiries about black quarterbacks. “I don’t even want to touch on the topic of black quarterback, because I think this game is bigger than black, white or even green,” he said, even telling one reporter, “It’s not an issue. It’s an issue for you.”
MGK took a similar stance when Billboard spoke with him almost a week after his previous quotes to TMZ became instant click bait. “Race is not an issue. Race is an issue for people like Macklemore,” he said at the time. After wrapping a hectic work week that included Sundance Film Festival and the X Games, MGK clarified his “White Privilege II” comments and why he takes issue with classism over racism.
As a Cleveland native, would you say you were always surrounded by racial diversity?
100 percent. The high school I went to [in Shaker Heights] was predominantly black. My best friends to this day are people I consider more than just friends and are black. My daughter is mixed as well. It’s funny that someone would take when I said “race is not an issue” out of context. I’ve never had those problems. I still don’t think I have those problems as far as being one of those white artists that had to walk on eggshells. My executive board, my management, my friends, are so ethnically diverse. That’s just never been something that’s been associated with me.
Fans look to your video for “A Little More” and the name of your label EST19XX — Everybody Stand Together — and a common theme in your work seems to be a message of solidarity.
Yeah, and when the [TMZ] reporter was asking me as I was walking through the airport a question, my comment was in direct response to the interviewer asking me a racially charged question. You don’t ask Jay Z if he feels like he’s the best black rapper. You don’t ask whoever if they’re the best gay singer. I was highly offended because I’m a musician. Everything I stood for, forever, since the beginning of time, has been about seeing people as humans. Not as man, woman, white, Hispanic, any of that stuff. I’m not here to represent color, I’m here to represent change.
The interviewer was trying to put me into a box and if you know anything about me by now, you know that I will not be put into a box. It wasn’t even a diss to Macklemore, it was moreso the fact that he chose to speak about race in his music. I think a big part of why race is such an issue is because we feel stereotypes or add to the stereotypes. I don’t want to shed light on anymore stereotypes because it just helps foster that hatred. That was moreso why I said “race is not an issue.” Race is obviously an issue in the grand scheme of the world but for that particular question and for the way I see music, race is not an issue. I don’t listen to Sam Cooke because he is a black singer. I listen to Sam Cooke because he’s an amazing vocalist and his song content is beautiful and I can relate. I can’t succumb to everyone being mad when I say “race is not an issue” for that particular thing because I’m moreso taking away color and looking at people as humans and for their level of talent. Just to be clear, if I win a Grammy, I am not apologizing.
A Grammy for best rap album or a trophy in general?
Yes, if I was to be nominated and when I am to be nominated for best rap album, I will not apologize because everyone in that audience, after all these years, will have known that I earned my spot up there.
In terms of Macklemore’s song “White Privilege II,” what were your initial thoughts when you first heard it?
I think me and Macklemore exist in two different worlds. I would never think twice about marching next to my brother for an issue we both believe in. These are issues that I am actually facing. Cleveland, Ohio is the real deal. We’ve seen it happen especially moreso with all of these police shootings, friends of mine being killed, all of that happening within the past couple years. The tension is rising more and more and I just have no reason to think twice about standing for what I believe in. I don’t see these people as my black friends — these are my friends, these are my family, these are people in my city that we want to stand up for. I think just as much as racism is an issue so is classism. Economics runs the world. The one percent [of the population] get rich and fat, leaving the other 99 percent to suffer. I’m part of the 99 percent and I’m sticking up for everyone who is trying to do something with their lives and make it out.
To be honest, I don’t want to get into too much but I don’t believe in social-issue hopping. Like I don’t believe in hopping from one social issue to the next to be a part of the movement for a moment. Anything I’m involved in is something that I would die for. I can’t support things that don’t feel genuine.
What should artists keep in mind when raising awareness for sensitive issues?
Show me it’s genuine, show me it’s real. Don’t talk the talk, walk the walk. I’m authentic because I walk the walk. Like I just said, I don’t believe in social-issue hopping. It’s real convenient when everyone speaks their mind when the issue is hot. I’m actually out here living it.