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Pop Dialectic: Macklemore and the question of white privilege

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Macklemore’s latest hit, “White Privilege II” gives the outspoken rapper a chance to delve into the serious issues of white privilege and appropriation in Hip Hop, but do his lyrics drive home a powerful point, or are they just an ironic display of the very privilege he’s lambasting against?

“White Privilege II” helps Macklemore properly address the real issues 

– Jasmine Lee

“White Privilege II” by Macklemore, featuring poet and singer Jamila Woods, is a song that has been a long time coming. On his solo album, /he Language of My World (2005), Macklemore debuted “White Privilege,” a song where he considers his role as a white performer in a traditionally black musical culture. He compares the appropriation of Hip Hop to other genres such as rock; calling out Elvis Presley for taking on the title “King of Rock”  based on a musical style that originates from black artists. He also questions his place in the genre as a rapper, which “started off in a block that [he’s] never been to / to counteract a struggle that [he’s] never been through.” From listening to this song, one can tell that Macklemore left the issue open-ended, as he himself doesn’t quite know the answer to the problem of white privilege.

Macklemore has also less prominently addressed white privilege in his Grammy-winning album The Heist (2012). In the last verse of the song “A Wake,” Macklemore questions what he can do (or if he can do anything at all) as a white man who sees new cases of police brutality against black people every week. His subconscious tells him, “Don’t get involved if the cause isn’t mine / so we just party like it’s 1999 / celebrate the ignorance while these kids keep dying.” A common theme of these songs is that Macklemore knows better than to choose ignorance; there has to be a way to accept the responsibility of white privilege while respecting black voices, who need to be heard the most.

The amount of time, thought, and effort that has gone into the production of ”White Privilege II” is evident when you listen to the song all the way through. On the song’s website, a brief description says, “This song is the outcome of an ongoing dialogue with musicians, activists, and teachers within our community in Seattle and beyond. Their work and engagement was essential to the creative process.” This short paragraph is followed with profiles of the many people involved in the making of the tack, plus a corporate statement regarding  Macklemore & Ryan Lewis LLC’s involvement in supporting black-led organizations. As for the song itself, Macklemore confronts the same issues that he does in “A Wake,” questioning where he stands and how he should speak (if at all) in the black activist movement. Like in the original “White Privilege,” he calls out white artists, now including Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus, for appropriating black culture but contributing nothing to the anti-oppression movement. He also bluntly states that his success is built on the very foundation of white supremacy, the same system that simultaneously supports police brutality and praises the appropriation of black culture. He also criticizes the people who praise his rap as “true poetry” and say that his rap is “the only hip-hop that I let my kids listen to,” as many of these people are the same people who condone systematic violence against black people saying, “If a cop pulls you over, it’s your fault if you run.”

There are numerous layers to Macklemore’s piece, and perhaps the most important message is that Macklemore is no hero or saviour. He is simply relaying the same message that has been said by numerous black activists for so many years, and so many of these activists have gone unheard. It is a nine minute polemic that was not made to be a mainstream radio hit, but for his fans to listen to and learn from. Whether or not you are a fan of Macklemore, take some time to not only listen to “White Privilege II,” but to also consider how to respectfully contribute to anti-oppression movements in America.

Macklemore flexing his white, celebrity privilege does nothing to address the real issues

– Christopher Lutes

Macklemore is at it again. The grammy-winning self-appointed poet laureate of /how we live now/ has released an 8:43 minute long opus about how he relates to the Black Lives Matter movement. In typical Macklemore fashion, it manages to be simultaneously condescending and ignorant, spending four lengthy verses rapping in a questionable cadence (he’s a white guy from Seattle, not Method Man) about his take on race relations in America; as if anybody while watching the protests across the US thought to themselves, “Hmmm, I wonder what the guy who wrote ‘Thrift Shop’ has to say about all of this.”

The track examines different facets of the movement, starting with his first person perspective at a Black Lives Matter rally. He expresses his trepidations about being there, torn between the idea that he would feel out of place at a predominately black protest versus not wanting to feel like a bystander. Beneath the bombastic, gaudy layers of production, courtesy of Ryan Lewis, and the embarrassingly lazy slant rhymes delivered by Macklemore, there’s a germ of a good idea here. Feeling unsure of whether or not to speak up on black issues as a white man is a legitimate line of questioning, but the matter is pretty much settled by his subsequent writing, recording, mastering, and releasing the song. Also, it somehow never comes up that the problem might not just be that he’s white—he’s also a celebrity. Like Sean Penn going to post-HurricaneKatrina New Orleans or John Travolta personally airlifting groceries to Haiti, Macklemore’s intentions may be good, but he must have known that his celebrity status would invariably take some of the focus away from the evening’s protest, especially when he takes the time to pose for photos.

The second verse shifts to the perspective of a hip-hop fan who chastises Macklemore for being a hypocrite by appearing to care about civil rights while basing his career on an appropriation of black culture. It’s interesting that the sole criticism Macklemore perceives hip-hop fans have of him is that he’s white, and not the fact that he’s a mediocre songwriter. The fact that he doesn’t include any nuanced self-criticism in this verse—instead, he opts to make the exact point Eminem did 14 years ago in “Without Me”—is understandable given his seeming yearn to be treated as a serious artist who raps about ‘the issues.’ But it’s frustrating that he fails to address any real gripes beyond the surface level. For instance, he never brings up that feeling the need to weigh in on every issue is also acting as part of the white power structure that he wants to rail against.

Wading deeper into the semiotic minefield, his third verse switches perspectives yet again to that of an unhip soccer mom archetype who happens to be a fan of Macklemore and a casual racist. The verse perfectly crystallizes the insidious middle-distance empathy that exists in his music, purporting to be open-minded and honest in one moment, then delivering a lazy stereotype in the next. There’s a lot of potential in talking about the complex unconscious racism that exists in some white hip-hop fans, but Macklemore instead goes after the easiest target imaginable.

The final verse comes full circle, going back to Macklemore who seems to be trying really hard to tie a nice ribbon on a complicated issue with lines that amount to “Boy, the world sure seems to have a lot of opinions, eh?” The verse is a culmination of everything wrong with the song, serving up a mountain of recycled platitudes and interpolated civil rights chants. It is delivered with Macklemore’s trademark faux-profound affectation, as if he were taking dictation from god. He’s so clearly looking for an ‘attaboy’ from the black community by continuing to lob softball criticisms at himself and repenting for being a white rapper.

Ultimately, the only thing admirable about “White Privilege II” are Macklemore’s intentions, and even those are dubious. His yearning to be taken seriously trumps any political message he’s trying to get across, and the result is a gigantic mess that almost anyone could take offense with. There are many important conversations around the modern civil rights movement that other rappers have already been having with much more first-hand knowledge and nuance. In this context, Macklemore comes off as just another white voice in a sea of white voices, making reductive, redundant arguments because he feels like he has to.

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