Macklemore and White Privilege

Wait — is this just another procrastinator’s unwanted opinion on Macklemore? (Yes.) What does this have to do with my 2016 blogging goal of cultivating kindness? Bear with me until the end, and I think it will be clear. Kindness is not just compliments and favors; kindness is being active in trying to improve the lives of others. Kindness is learning, improving, and sharing. Kindness is playing your part. ALSO, if you are unfamiliar with any terminology or don’t care about Macklemore, I’ve put some perhaps helpful or related resources at the end of this post.)

Alright, I’m jumping in the seemingly never-ending Macklemore debate. Not because I have strong opinions on Macklemore (first of all — is Macklemore his first name? What kind of name is that?), but because I listened to his new song “White Privilege II” and I, a white woman whose ideals strongly align with that of #BlackLivesMatter and with intersectional feminism, was moved. I was not moved because Macklemore is the first to discuss white privilege (please, please believe me when I say he is not), or because the lyrics are particularly profound. In fact, none of these concepts are new, and people of color have been SCREAMING the truths of white privilege and systemic racism for decades. Still, Macklemore, the favorite rapper of a slew of white people, has a role here.

Macklemore as an artist is problematic in that he is a young, presumably heterosexual white man profiting in a musical industry largely created by young African American men, and participating in and benefiting from the cultural appropriation of less privileged communities. Before listening to White Privilege II, it’s important to recognize that Macklemore is essentially capitalizing on the struggle of black people, and he is receiving attention, financial gain, and perhaps public respect for this decision which, in the end, benefits himself. Though the song is currently available for free download, as far as I am aware, Macklemore does not have plans to donate future proceeds to #BlackLivesMatter or other social justice organizations; he is, in a sense, selling his white privilege. Knowing these things, can we still deconstruct the song for what it is — a culturally relevant and seemingly impactful performance?

Yes, I will go ahead and say it: having these conversations is hard. Don’t get me wrong — facilitating dialogues about institutional racism, oppression, and prejudice is a necessity. It is a person’s duty to make themselves and others aware of their privileged role, to listen, and to learn. Still, it is not easy or particularly fun to admit that you’re a participant in white supremacy, that your actions that uphold the patriarchy, or that much of your success has depended upon the oppression of others. The notion of “privilege” in itself leads to eye-rolls and denial. So how can we have productive dialogues about racism, privilege, and everything in between? Well, for starters, I see White Privilege II as a way to further (or maybe even initiate) the conversation among whites.

Macklemore has faced public scrutiny for issues relating to racism, classism, and colonialism in the past — this is nothing new. He has (rightfully) faced critique for much of his music, his performances, and his image. The fact that, with the release of White Privilege II, he turned those criticisms into a new, honest, and (I would argue) educational piece of music for his largely white audience is worthy of some form of praise. At least a head nod in his general direction. Is he participating in the conversation to gain more popularity, or for the benefit of others? I don’t know, and neither do you. But I do know that White Privilege II addresses issues that white culture largely ignores.

Unsurprisingly, White Privilege II was preceded by Macklemore’s “White Privilege,” which was, in my opinion, a lackluster beg for attention from a white rapper who wants to be taken seriously in hip hop. There is a lot of “I was,” “I didn’t,” “I don’t know.” White Privilege seems to function as a way for Macklemore to try to distance himself from the reality of his own privilege. (It’s not my fault! I didn’t ask for this!) This song seemed less of a statement than a claim for space as a white guy in hip hop.

White Privilege II is messy. Its artistic value is questionable. But it is honest. And there is less of a “look at me, the poor white rapper that gets made fun of” vibe, and more of a “hey, I think I as a person with privilege must play a part in anti-racist movements” vibe. I would argue that the song does illuminate, for white audiences, the significance of white privilege not only in Macklemore’s career as a rapper, but in a racist society.

There are a few points “White Privilege II” hits on that — while far from original ideas — are otherwise unknown or ignored by mainstream white popular culture and, in that case, noteworthy:

  • #BlackLivesMatter is powerful, significant, and necessary.
  • The song includes spoken quotes by non-Macklemores who simply but effectively relay the problems with #AllLivesMatter. “If a house is on fire, the fire department wouldn’t show up and put water on all the houses because ‘all houses matter.’ They would show up and turn their water on the house that was burning, because that’s the house that needs help the most.”
  • White supremacy gives white people an automatic advantage over people of color; any level hard work or personal success does not dismiss this fact.
  • “The one thing that American Dream fails to mention, is that I was many steps ahead to begin with. … White supremacy is our country’s lineage, designed for us to be indifferent. My success is the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson.”
  • It is the responsibility of people with privilege and power to become involved, to listen, and to act.
  • “What’s happened to my voice if I stay silent when black people are dying and I’m trying to be politically correct? … We want to dress like, walk like, talk like, dance like, yet we just stand by. We take all we want from Black culture, but will we show up for Black lives?”

Yes, I was a bit put off by the verse celebrating Macklemore’s achievements as a social justice advocate. (I have done good things, though, I swear! Remember that gay song?!) But his monologue follows with the chant “Black Lives Matter” drowning out the defensive voices of offended white people. “Blood in the streets; no justice, no peace,” repeats as the chorus, turning the focus back to the fact that Black lives do matter rather than the fact that Macklemore is a confused white guy.

So why is this significant? It’s a pop song released by a well-known, award-winning artist. It’s going to play on the radio. White people — kids, teenagers — are going to learn the lyrics. Maybe they’ll even do a little research of their own. Maybe.

This song does not dismantle racism. This song does not excuse his past actions, or the negligence of other white people. This song does not take a mighty risk. And, dear God, Macklemore should not be awarded Kindhearted Genius Status for releasing this song. However, on a small scale, I see White Privilege II as a representation of Macklemore’s personal growth and as an attempt to take responsibility for his past actions. On a macro level, I see a newly popularized cultural text that could shift public understanding of racism and, perhaps, drive young white people to take responsibility for their roles as well. My hope is that Macklemore uses this song and its popularity to further the liberation of black lives in a way that is honest and open to critique, and that his audience will be inspired to reach beyond the words of Macklemore in order to further educate themselves.

I know a lot of people are probably going to disagree with me here, and I would love to keep the conversation going! What are your thoughts on the the song?

Related Resources: