Macklemore Releases a New Song About White Privilege And It’s a Powder Keg (Audio)
Recent events have made it exceptionally clear that we are living in a modern-day Civil Rights Era. Despite all the progress American society has made in many ways – a Black President, LGBTQ rights, allowing women to serve in the military, and so forth – there is still an untenable lack of progress made in racial politics in this country. While our first African-American president enjoys his final months in office, Black and Brown Americans are dying at alarming rates, not only at the hands of police but also from diseases resulting from a lack of access to healthy foods and healthcare. There is no longer room for the argument that we live in a “post-racial” world, and the disproportionate rates of death, disease, and incarceration across different racial groups should be enough to prove it. One of the many markers of a well-defined social movement is music inspired by the struggle, and just as the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, the current generation has a beautifully diverse group of artists moving conversations forward by penning both triumphant and mournful reflections of the racial climate. Just as Sam Cooke did with “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964, Kendrick Lamar did with “Alright” in 2015, and they are by no means the only ones. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are the latest artists to release a song directly inspired by Black Lives Matter and similar movements, but his call to action is ruffling many feathers representing a host of differing opinions.
“White Privilege II” is arguably one of the most important songs in the duo’s career and serves as a follow-up of sorts to “White Privilege,” a deep cut from Macklemore’s early solo career. Already known for calling attention to civil rights issues for LGBTQ people in 2012’s “Same Love,” their latest release is a call to attention about a topic which makes many uncomfortable. White privilege is the concept that White people are born with certain benefits both tangible and abstract which allow them more freedom, justice, and acceptance as they move about the world. It’s generally considered to be a birthright taken for granted, and one that paints (and potentially taints) victims’ abilities to empathize with people of color. In terms of today’s conversation about police brutality, it is commonplace to hear arguments that White people who are pulled over, arrested, or just approached by police officers don’t have to worry for their lives in the same regard as Black and Brown people do. In his lyrics, Macklemore discusses with blunt honestly his own White privilege, something he was confronted by directly when critics called foul at his Grammy win for Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar in 2014. As a White artist in Hip-Hop, he has likely dealt with the issue at great length, but never more frankly as he is in this particular song. For many, there is an irony in his being so heavily criticized for his Whiteness, as the lead single for the duo’s February 26 album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made “Downtown” features Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee, and Melle Mel, certainly some of the most overlooked and far too infrequently celebrated Black artists of their generation.
One of the many conundrums in the conversation revolving around the song and what it represents is precisely the fact that Macklemore is White, most specifically the fact that the song be discussed and listened to more widely than a song by an artist of color. In many respects, this presents what many feel is just another example of a White artist receiving credit for something created by or inspired by African-American perspectives and is effectively removing the voice of the oppressed and replacing it with the voice of someone who can’t ever quite know what it’s like to be Black in America. This particular conundrum, of silencing the contributions of the victim in a concerted effort to make things better for them happens in other strata of life. For example, many feel that misogyny can be effectively combated by men in male-dominated venues like barbershops, where a man can speak up on behalf of women in front of other men. That, of course, leaves no place fort the woman’s voice, and in many ways, “White Privilege II” is similarly mired in potentially offensive packaging, regardless of whatever good intentions lie within.
In other respects, the high visibility this particular song has due to Macklemore’s past success is making the room necessary to have an open and direct dialogue about what responsibilities White Americans have in protesting acts of racism, which can objectively be called an inherently “good” thing. Deray McKesson, one of the most vocal and well-known activists in the modern era, took to Twitter yesterday to discuss the song. “I think that Macklemore’s latest song, “White Privilege II,” is powerful, important, & necessary. It, like all art, is also open to critique,” he began. “Macklemore is not a hero, a savior, or a prophet for discussing white privilege. And he is not saying he is. And you shouldn’t either,” he argued. McKesson credits Macklemore for his inclusion of Black voices in the song itself, not only in the form of the guest appearance from Chicago singer Jamila Woods, but also in voice overs in interludes, which interpolate both Black and White perspectives into the fabric of the song.
Just this week, McKesson was a guest on The Late Show, where he and host Stephen Colbert spoke frankly about the notion of White privilege, and so it’s evident that Macklemore is not initiating a conversation that isn’t already being had; the distinction here is that Macklemore represents an identity already enmeshed with great racial implications – that of the White rapper. While certainly not the only artist in the same predicament (he mentions Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus in the song), he is the only one to recite words like “I’m aware of my privilege and do nothing at all, I don’t know / Hip-hop has always been political, yes, it’s the reason why this music connects / So what the fuck has happened to my voice if I stay silent when Black people are dying, then I’m trying to be politically correct?,” which bridges his privilege through the microcosm of the music industry but also the larger society in which it exists. “Your silence is a luxury, Hip-Hop is not a luxury,” Woods responds. The song is several conversations rolled into one, but it is telling that it ends on a note about Hip-Hop, as if to say that culture is a perfect example of White privilege in action. He is indirectly talking to the millions of White Hip-Hop fans who appreciate and consume the music made by those suffering at the hands of systemic and cultural racism, perhaps in hopes of initiating a discourse about whether that kind of support is really enough.
Is it? What should White people be doing to really make a change? What would Macklemore have to do for his critics to feel he has actually contributed to the cause? The song has its own website, which includes the bios of its collaborators, but also a statement from the artists, who say “we are committed to a long-term investment of our time, resources, finances and creative capacities towards supporting Black-led organizing and anti-racist education & discourse.” Is that enough? Is writing about this enough? At what point do we know we’ve made a difference?