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The Age of the Progressive Rapper

09/01/2013 12:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 01, 2013

This week witnessed two monumental historical events: The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington... and the MTV Video Music Awards. While many have written about the bizarre show that was Miley Cyrus, perhaps the significant moment of the night came from Seattle rapper Macklemore and his performance of "Same Love."

When he burst onto the national scene, few would have taken Macklemore for anything but a gimmick. With a lead single (the ubiquitous bargain hunting ode, "Thrift Shop") regarded by Spin Magazine as nothing more than "a party track for privileged dweebs" that "stinks of privilege," Macklemore appeared to be approaching his expiration date.

Yet, his latest single "Same Love" may be the most significant pop song since Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Or at least "We Are the World." Currently #14 on Spotify's Top Lists and the winner of "Best Video with a Social Message" at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards, "Same Love" captures pop music's potential to be catchy while simultaneously persuasive and meaningful.

While nobody will ever mistake Macklemore as the next Dylan, he enters the mainstream at a precarious time for both hip hop and gay rights. After nearly three decades of gangsta rap, mainstream hip hop needed to move beyond immature machismo if it wanted to remain a cultural staple. As 2013's grunge rock-influenced Yeezus and ASAP Ferg demonstrate, today's rap is forcing itself to experiment for the sake of self-preservation. Underground rap has seen the emergence of more openly gay artists, such as F. Virtue, than ever before. The results have been cathartic for the genre, although many still question whether rap has nonetheless been supplanted as the foremost movement in popular music.

At the same time, despite its in-roads in many parts of the country, gay marriage remains a foreign concept to many Americans. Macklemore's response is clever: he fuses the two challenges.

Currently, 43 percent of Americans, or more than 130 million people, live in a state with gay marriage or same-sex civil unions. On the heels of a not-antagonistic Supreme Court ruling, the forces behind gay marriage have mounted a furious state-by-state strategy. They are like Sherman and his march toward the sea, having first implemented shrewd and vigorous grassroots campaigns in New England and on the West Coast, and now the Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West. But troubles remain. With many states still deadlocked, the battle over gay rights underscores the limited ability politicians have to lead on issues driven by attitude and heart. Instead, pop culture and musicians are the ones with the opportunity to take up the baton.

Macklemore has described himself as "David Bowie meets Kanye." Maybe. What he shares with both artists is a great ear for the moment. "Same Love" begins with the hushed purr of a church organ, followed by a gentle piano and, finally, wind chimes. His lyrics tell a personal story which begins with a younger Macklemore questioning his own sexuality, a great insight into the confusing power of stereotypes. He then bravely invokes God, while also questioning organized religion's sometimes skewed concept of acceptance. It is perhaps the most straightforward discussion of religion in popular music since Kanye's own "Jesus Walks."

Gone are the typical boasts of manhood found throughout much of rap's lyrical history. Indeed, Macklemore's second verse directly indicts rap's complicity in demonizing gay people. To Macklemore, it is not only wrong but antithetical to the very origins of hip hop. Moreover, gay marriage is the latest movement in previous historical battles for equality:

It's the same hate that's caused wars from religion/
Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment/
The same fight that led people to walk outs and sit ins

There is more. By condemning "a world so hateful some would rather die than be who they are," Macklemore evokes the It Gets Better movement and the tragic stories about gay teenagers who committed suicide as the result of bullying. His delivery is laced with quiet anger, demanding the hip hop community reconcile that they too were once oppressed.

It is a strong call to action, eventually leaving listeners with the sweet simplicity of the song's final moments. Again, alluding to the universal power of faith and love, Macklemore collaborator Mary Lambert trails off cooing 1 Corinthians 13:4-8: "Love is patient/love is kind."

Here the song reaches out not simply to hip hop heads, but the many religious pockets across America. This is a song not intent on only preaching to the choir, but is imploring others to reconsider their opposition to gay marriage.

By breaking new creative ground, and in daring to reach a fresh demographic, "Same Love" is reminiscent of Dylan when he introduced civil rights to a generation of white listeners who might not have otherwise considered what Jim Crow actually meant.

Originally conceived during Washington State's debate over gay marriage, Macklemore's point of view is explicit: "Damn right I support it." It one of those 'important' moments that we may look back on in the coming decades when re-examining today's push for marriage equality. Anthems from the civil rights movement like James Brown's "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" contain the same resonance. These hits not only capture and reflect cultural trends, they have the ability to change minds. Few singles today even dare try (City High's "What Would You Do?" the lackluster "Where is the Love?" by the Black Eyed Peas being exceptions).

So while Macklemore may not be the first rapper, or the best, to speak on progressive issues (conscious rappers such as Talib Kweli come to mind), few have ever had his wide opportunity to galvanize and play to people's hearts. In a period of momentum for gay marriage, his "Same Love" might just emerge as the song to help flame social change. For hip hop to survive, it will need more spokespeople like him.