If I Can Be an Example: Macklemore and the Search for Real Male Role Models

But I’d rather live telling the truth than be judged for my mistakes /
Than falsely held up, given props, loved and praised /
I guess I gotta get this on the page

If I can be an example of getting sober, I can be an example of starting over /
If I can be an example of getting sober, I can be an example of starting over

Macklemore – Starting Over feat. Ben Bridwell


 I have a bad habit of idolizing impossibly great leaders. Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, and Salvatore Giunta all populate my list of men whose influence and grandeur I wish I could replicate to even a fraction of a degree. These men have earned their place in the annals of history through various means, but they all represent a powerful, ambitious sort of person. They represent the type of man who is seemingly unburdened by society’s expectations of what it means to be masculine and successful.

In an educational setting it’s easy to create a lesson plan or presentation on any of these men (or any man like them) showing their virtue and their drive, especially when trying to address one of the large number of issues associated with our male students. But are these messages really getting through to them? How many of our K-12 and college men are set on overhauling racial stratification or radically changing the face of technology? It’s tough to find a middle ground – on the one end we have these monolithic figures, on the other we have athletes and pop culture icons who embody the restrictive societal norms of masculinity: tough, emotionless, drunk. How can we as educators and concerned citizens find a compromise?

Enter Macklemore.

You may not know Macklemore well or maybe you’ve never even heard his Macklemorename, but you’ve probably heard his biggest hit. Three months ago if someone asked you about a thrift shop you might be inclined to think of Goodwill. Now, Thrift Shop and Can’t Hold Us are getting serious play time and Macklemore aka Ben Haggerty, a white guy from Seattle, is rapidly becoming one of the most successful independent rappers to ever hit the airwaves. Building off the success of his notable release Otherside, a powerful song about addiction and recovery, Macklemore (along with his incredible producer Ryan Lewis) debuted his new album, The Heist, in October 2012.  What makes The Heist different from your average rap album is its content: within its tracks you’ll find a song about relapse, a song about gay marriage, and a song about the commercialization of urban youth.

Of course, Macklemore is hardly the first rapper to tackle broad social justice themes: Lupe Fiasco (with songs like American Terrorist and Words I Never Said, among others) and even K’Naan are just two of the myriad artists who have used their lyrics to touch on topics more meaningful than most of what gets played on pop stations. But something about Macklemore stands out. 

He’s not preachy.

He’s real. Relatable. Despite the content of his lyrics, there’s no holier-than-thou attitude.

And he certainly doesn’t elevate himself.

These interviews are so obnoxious /
Saying that ‘It’s poetry; You’re so well spoken’? Stop it.

Macklemore – A Wake feat. Evan Roman

Before we go much further, I think it’s important we recap exactly what’s going on with college-aged men, especially on our campuses.  There’s not a huge amount of research out there, but what we do have is telling.

 College-aged men1

  • are overrepresented in university conduct hearings

  • party more and study less than women

  • drink, on average, twice as much as women

  • are five times more likely to commit suicide than women

 …and we haven’t even begun to touch depression, violence, and sexual assault yet.

 It’s easy to dismiss these issues as “boys being boys” – the age-old adage of man’s instinctive role as troublemaker. But if we applied that same narrow thinking to women or to race or to sexual orientation, wouldn’t we be (rightly) lambasted? So why is it socially acceptable to espouse the same ideas towards men? What is at the core of male misbehavior?

In several published articles and in his popular but controversial book Guyland, Michael Kimmel argues that there are three cultures that men face in their gender identity development2:

  1. Culture of Entitlement

Men grow up believing that they can show neither empathy or compassion.  So why are we surprised when men commit violent acts? Men are being raised by people who say that crying is bad, but stoicism is good. Men are being told that we have to be the best, and when we don’t get what we want or feel we’ve earned, we feel slighted.

  1. Culture of Silence

Men are also told that we shouldn’t talk about our feelings. This silence can range from simply being upset and not acknowledging it to being uncomfortable with something another man is doing to a woman but not speaking up because of some fear about breaking man law.

  1. Culture of Protection

Finally, men put each other before anyone else. “Bros before hoes,” as it were. You don’t want your drunk buddy to get an MIP so you keep him on the couch and hope he doesn’t have alcohol poisoning. You don’t want your brother to get in trouble for hazing, so you don’t say anything about what he’s doing to new recruits.

Do any of those sound familiar?

macklemoreAnd this is where we tie it all back in – despite the norms that tell men we aren’t supposed to talk about meaningful issues or engage in serious dialogue with our brothers, Macklemore is making a name for himself by forcing the issue. Macklemore is breaking the silence, stripping himself of his entitlement, and putting the greater good first. Macklemore is comfortable being uncomfortable, as evidenced by many of his songs.

Self-Awareness and Esteem

And I had to find out who I really was /
Who I really wasn’t /
So sick of who I was becoming /
Yeah, tired of running /
Time to look at the man in the mirror until I can learn to love him

Macklemore – Make the Money

Father/Son Relationship

Oh well I’ll just take my slip to the grave /
Uh, what the f— are my parents gonna say? /
The success story that got his life together and changed /
And you know what pain looks like /
When you tell your dad you relapsed then look him directly into his face
Macklemore – Starting Over feat. Ben Bridwell

LGBTQ Rights and Social Justice

A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it /
Gay is synonymous with the lesser /
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion /
Gender to skin color, complexion of your pigment /
The same fight that lead people to walk-outs and sit-ins /
Human rights for everybody, there is no difference
Macklemore – Same Love feat. Mary Lambert


We want what we can’t have, commodity makes us want it /
So expensive, d—, I just got to flaunt it /
Got to show ’em, so exclusive, this that new s— /
A hundred dollars for a pair of shoes I would never hoop in
Macklemore – Wing$

Racial Strife and White Privilege

“Why you out here talkin race, tryin’ to save the f—— globe?” /
Don’t get involved if the cause isn’t mine /
White privilege, white guilt, at the same d— time /
So we just party like it’s 1999 /
Celebrate the ignorance while these kids keep dying
Macklemore – A Wake feat. Evan Roman

…and on, and on.

So why do we care?

Macklemore is using the talents he has to send a message and make a stand.  He’s not your average activist, but he’s trying. And isn’t that what we want from our men? Not that they are perfect, but that they are eager. That they are earnest. There is no one solution to the myriad issues men face – each man defines masculinity in profoundly different ways. But as student affairs personnel, and more importantly as educators, we must strive to make better men.

So is Macklemore the ideal role model? Of course not. He still uses many of the tropes we’ve come to associate with the rap genre: objectification of women, violence, and alcohol. But what’s really important about Macklemore is his ability to bridge the gap – he is someone who, outwardly, appears to subscribe to societal expectations of masculinity. But once you dig past that, you find a man who is willing to have difficult conversations about his relationship with his father, about relapse and recovery, and about pressing social justice issues.

Macklemore is the middle-ground role model.

If we’re going to break through to our male students’ vulnerabilities and have meaningful discussions, we as educators have to be willing to meet them on their playing field. We have to find men like Macklemore who are putting aside their imperfection and trying to make a difference anyway.  By injecting positive, constructive discussions into a place where men are already comfortable, we can begin to address the issues that plague college males and work towards a more tolerant, more productive future.


1 O’Neil, J. M. & Crapser, B. (2011). Using the psychology of men and gender role conflict theory to promote comprehensive service delivery for college men. In J. A. Laker & T. Davis (Eds.), Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and practical considerations (pp. 16-49). New York, NY: Routledge.

2 Kimmel, M. S. & Davis, T. (2011). Mapping guyland in college. In J.A. Laker & T. Davis (Eds.), Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and practical considerations (pp. 3-15). New York, NY: Routledge.

Special thanks to Osvaldo del Valle (@0svaldini) and James Lorello (@jlorello) for support and feedback.

11 thoughts on “If I Can Be an Example: Macklemore and the Search for Real Male Role Models

  1. Thanks, Becca and Kari. I think that, when you get outside of mainstream music, there’s a lot of this out there. It takes some rooting around, for sure, but once you find it, it’s gold.

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  3. When you say that Macklemore raps about alcohol and drugs in his songs, you are definitely right. But it is not a bad thing that he talks about these subjects because he doesn’t glamorize them, he actually talks about how they almost ruined his life. Also, he doesn’t objectify women in any song except possibly “Gold feat. Eightyfly”, but I’m not sure if that is considered objectification. I believe that he is the best role model we have in the hip hop/rap music industry and he and Ryan deserve all the fame that they are getting lately. They also are a great example for people who want to get the work done themselves. They don’t allow themselves to be pampered when they are making their music video, they take turns driving the Uhaul with the equipment to the video shoot. Also, they have made it mainstream without a record label and that is very admirable because record labels can destroy what an artist wants to become just to earn money for the label. Macklemore truly depicts why he doesn’t want to have a record label in his song “Jimmy Iovine” feat. Ab Soul. This is why I believe that Macklemore is a good role model, even though he uses explicit language.

    • I actually was talking about “Gold” – good catch on that one. I think you could also argue that Jimmy Lovine (in which he brings a gun in a paint can) is that sort of violence trope.

      But I think you did a good job of rephrasing some of what I was trying to say, as well. There is a LOT of good about what Macklemore does.

      Thanks for the response!

  4. Interesting post, so thanks. I’m in the midst of writing a blog post about the seeming lack of articles about the importance of healthy role models for boys. So many focus on girls, and boys appear to be forgotten. You’ve brought up some very interesting points that I’d like to incorporate into my post, particularly those three “cultures.”

  5. Pingback: Boys Need Good Role Models, Too | Feisty Red Hair

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