Macklemore & Sway Have an Incredibly Deep & Important Conversation About White Supremacy (Video)
Since releasing “White Privilege II” on January 22, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have re-ignited a generations-old discussion about race that has become a maelstrom surrounding the notion of the White versus Black experience in the United States as it exists today. Against the current backdrop of affairs, the conversation is often framed within the context of police brutality, but the concepts at large reflect a longstanding history of what for many can only be described as racial warfare committed by White Americans since the days of slavery. Naturally, the subject is touchy, as those engaged in the dialogue struggle to agree on what responsibility White people have in the ongoing fight for racial justice, how society at large should point out instances of White privilege, whether members of different races can truly empathize with the difficulties faced in one another’s quests for identity within the contemporary civil rights movement, and all of the other micro-conversations which arise when talking about race in America. In the ongoing promotional tour for their upcoming album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, Macklemore, Lewis, and a few of their guests visited “Sway in the Morning” and took part in a profoundly important conversation about Whiteness, Blackness, and the sometimes messy relations between the two.
At the top of the interview, Sway calls his two guests “disrupters” and “people who make change in the status quo,” referencing the recent kerfuffle regarding “White Privilege II.” After introducing their guests as Chicago activist and singer Jamila Woods – featured on the track – as well as Hollis Wang-Wear and Dustin Washington, two community advocates involved in the creation of the song and the movement behind its message. Around the 5:09 mark, the conversation about the song and the reception it received begins, and all involved speak their minds with powerful eloquence. “In my opinion,” Sway remarks, “one of the most powerful songs, impactful songs, honest songs, uncomfortable songs, that I’ve heard in an extremely long time. After calling it an “extremely brave song,” he asks the duo why they felt the need to make the song. “My art has always been a means of trying to dig into some sort of truth,” says Macklemore (7:07). “This was a record that was difficult,” he begins. After providing some backstory behind a song he wrote a decade ago, “White Privilege” – in which he examines the changing landscape of underground Rap and the success of White rappers like Eminem from the perspective of an outsider – he begins to frame his mindset going into the song’s sequel. “Fast forward ten years, and here I am at the center of a conversation about race within Hip-Hop, cultural appropriation, the Grammys, the process of who gets on the radio, who doesn’t…and it felt necessary to and very important for us to address that. Again. And to not shy away from that topic, and to step into the conversation and all of its inherent flaws.”
Macklemore and Lewis’ whiteness is focused on shortly thereafter, prompted by Sway’s comment that the conversation had within “White Privilege II” is one that often has “fallen on deaf ears,” which Sway says is often “because of the messengers.” For example, he mentions artists like Jasiri X, Kendrick Lamar, and others who have brought similar topics to light. “A lot of White people aren’t listening to them say it. This coming from you is making White people listen,” he argues. Sway takes the “ignorance about White privilege” to task, asking his (White) guests to comment on what a conversation about White privilege sounds like when it’s had without any Black people around. “I think this song was a way for us to address the…White silence that we’ve been comfortable in,” responds Lewis (10:50). Macklemore echoes that sentiment and explains forcing such a White-on-White conversation was his main impetus for creating the record in the first place. “We can be silent. We can sit back behind the veil of White supremacy and still be comfortable. But that’s never going to change anything. We had to step up.” That particular thread in the conversation extends into several poignant, self-effacing minutes that are arguably some of the most important minutes in the careers of two artists who – let’s face it – are often chastised for being undeserving, unappreciative, and too White to earn the accolades they’ve received.
At the 19:20 mark, the conversation is externalized to include the contributions of the community, with whom Macklemore says the record never would have happened. It is in this chapter of the interview where Woods, Wang-Wear, and Washington can be heard dropping serious knowledge. Ms. Woods’ extensive work with Chicago youth is touched upon, and her background in community activism adds an important hue to the interview. What did you think when these two White boys came up to you and said ‘we wanna do this song’?,” Sway asks her. “What really made me curious was that it felt like it was tackling a lot of different issues,” she says. It’s then Mr. Washington’s turn, and he’s asked what his response would be to those who question his involvement in the record, particularly because of the inherent intricacies involved with being a Black man working on a record by two White guys about White privilege. He responds by saying that he truly feels neither Macklemore nor Lewis view themselves as “the messengers,” and champions their usage of their platform to initiate a conversation that needs to be hard, regardless of who begins it. He begins to discuss the comments he’s come across from other Black people, saying “just because we suffer the brunt of racism doesn’t mean we really understand racism. In many ways, racism is about the bias built into our systems for those who have come to be called ‘White.’ So we tend to think that we’re the only ones who should have authority in terms of speaking about racism, but racism, if we understand how it was historically constructed, there’s absolutely a place for White people to not only speak about racism and educate other White people about racism, but also in how I view this song in many ways, issuing a call to organize against racism” (24:29).
The many layers of racism are unpeeled throughout the entire interview, and Heads are strongly encouraged to give the whole thing an uninterrupted listening. Other topics discussed include Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Downtown,” the new album’s lead single which features legends Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee, and Melle Mel. Sway celebrates the duo for the song, which he says helped to “breathe life into some of our Hip-Hop pioneers” (2:30). When asked why he chose to do that, Macklemore says that the collaboration arose out of a suggestion of Lewis to incorporate the phrases and inflections of some of these iconic forefathers. After writing some raps in an attempt to embody the ’80s sound, the two realized they were foregoing inviting their inspirations to join in. “If we just take it without at least asking if they wanted to be a part of the record,” Macklemore explains, it wouldn’t “feel authentic,” at which point the parties involved linked up. Towards the end of the conversation, the three guests are all heard from extensively on topics ranging from direct actions those who want to help can take, what to say to people who have awakened to their White privilege, and some history about Black liberation movements in the U.S. Do not sleep on this conversation. Do not.