Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Macklemore (whose real name is Ben Haggerty) has been making music since 2000, but sprang into popularity in 2012 with his catchy song “Thrift Shop” and went on to win four Grammys in 2014. But Macklemore is more than just a funky white rapper from Seattle—he’s a recovering addict who is passionate about educating the public and ending the stigmas associated with substance abuse. Here are three videos that showcase just what a bad ass recovery icon he is.
As the story goes, after struggling with opiate addiction, Macklemore went to rehab in 2008 and stayed clean until 2011, when he relapsed at the height of his meteoric rise to fame. The exhaustion of touring, the stress of dealing with the media, being away from his support system and his recovery routine—apparently, it all became too much and the weight of his new life pushed him off the wagon (don’t cringe at the “quality problem” of it all; this shit’s real). His song “Starting Over” bares his humiliation and devastation over the relapse and details his struggle to get back on track. Even those of us who aren’t famous rappers can relate to feeling some level of responsibility to be a role model in recovery. If I can be an example of getting sober, he sings, then I can be an example of starting over.
Call it a fight song for anybody who has ever felt the freedom of recovery, thrown it away and then had to battle their way back.
In case you’ve been to too sidelined by Trump news to notice, Macklemore’s new single “Drug Dealer” has made headlines the last few weeks. I gotta admit, the song is super catchy and hummable (even if you aren’t usually into hip-hop) with a lovely, if haunting, chorus sung by his fellow-Seattleite Ariana DeBoo. But I have to imagine that what’s making it resonate with everyone isn’t the melody (or the doe eyes of DeBoo peaking out throughout the video); this song’s real power is that it’s a truth bomb. The razor-sharp lyrics neatly summarize the rapper’s position on the opioid crisis that’s killing more people than ever before—78 Americans every damn day, according to the CDC.
Consider this the world’s most effective anthem against Big Pharma. Macklemore breaks it like this: Americans are dying in record numbers as a result of addictive painkillers that doctors get away with over-prescribing because everyone (including Congress) is in the pocket of big pharmaceutical companies. He starts the song by calling out “subs” or Suboxone (They said it wasn’t a gateway drug. My homie was takin’ subs and he ain’t wake up) which is often used for withdrawal but many doctors keep addicts on after treatment—a move which, to say the least, is hotly debated.
The song goes on to list a disturbing number of celebrities whose deaths have been linked to prescription drug and alcohol use (That’s Prince, Michael and Whitney, that’s Amy, Ledger and Pimp C) in recent years. But even more troubling are the names that aren’t on this list: the people we grew up with, sat in meetings with and and shared meals with. That’s why this song is such a fucking gut-punch. Now it’s getting attention ‘cause Sara, Katey and Billy, he sings, But this shit’s been going on from Seattle out to South Philly/It just moved about the city/And spread out to the ‘burbs/Now it’s everybody’s problem, got a nation on the verge.
Macklemore’s message here is clear—that opioid addiction doesn’t discriminate. It will take a celeb on a private jet just as quickly as a young mom in a dollar store in Massachusetts. Not surprisingly, Macklemore is on the same page as the Obama administration and the public health community here. Which brings me to…
In May of 2016, Macklemore joined President Obama for his weekly address to the nation. The topic was (surprise, surprise) America’s opiate epidemic and the event inspired an hour-long documentary special, which aired in early October. Made in conjunction with MTV’s college channel MTV-U and therefore broadcast to college campuses and communities nationwide., the doc bounces from coast to coast as Macklemore hangs out with Obama in Washington DC and goes to a recovery meeting back home in Washington State.
Although this video is clearly targeting the under-25 set, there are still some great nuggets. First, how badass do you have to be to talk frankly about your addiction with the president? He even had the balls to ask Obama if he’s ever been addicted to anything (smokes, of course). Just the thought of that convo makes my palms sweat. Second, it shows (albeit a bit theatrically) a famous artist dealing with a very real, very ugly issue. He talks, instead of raps, about the desperation and isolation of addiction and how hard it is to get clean and to stay that way. We see him sitting in a meeting, identifying simply as “Ben, an addict.” He’s listening to a girl share about how she can’t stay clean and he’s relating. He gives her a hug—he’s doing the damn thing!
The bottom line is that this video captures Macklemore at the height of his popularity, talking about addiction to the fucking President of the United States. Further, he had the good sense to use Obama’s invitation as an opportunity to reach a demographic that is likely to actually listen to what he has to say about recovery and the stigma of addiction. In my mind, all of this means that Macklemore’s doing more than his part as a person in recovery to carry the message, as an artist making good music and as a high-profile figure accepting responsibility for the power that comes with fame. Plus, he’s still enough of a hustler to know this documentary would be a great jumping-off point for marketing “Drug Dealer.”
Oh yeah, I see you Macklemore. It takes one to know one.
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