There is an ongoing dialogue about the place of white people within hip-hop, and Macklemore isn’t afraid to address the issue (again) on “White Privilege II.” This is the follow-up to his 2005 release, “White Privilege.” It touches upon race relations, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the role of white supremacy throughout America’s history. It draws upon sounds that are undeniably rebellious, but the narrative itself is unsure at times, as it seeks resolution.
The song starts from the perspective of Macklemore, a 32 year old white man from Seattle, pondering his place within a ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest, as he wrestles with his outsider status as an ally of the movement, and attempts to find his place. The second verse takes to task white artists such as Elvis, Miley Cyrus, and Iggy Azalea, all of whom have undeniably taken cues from black culture and profited from it without standing up for the black people who created the culture.
“We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?”
The third verse recants a conversation that Macklemore has probably had a thousand times in some way, shape, or form; as a white woman praises him for making positive hip-hop; “the only hip-hop [she] lets her kids listen to.” The fourth verse ties everything together, as he states blatantly, “my success is the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson, guilty.”
As a black man who lives in America, immersed in hip-hop culture, well versed in sociology, and acutely aware of the system we are living within, I didn’t hear anything unfamiliar in “White Privilege II.” We’ve been through this. As someone who lives with the undeniably weighty label of being a black man in this country, I didn’t necessarily get anything of value from this song, at all. The concepts themself aren’t eye opening. In fact, this record could be seen as opportunistic. This is the same man who publicly showed the world his “apology text” to Kendrick Lamar for winning the 2014’s Best Rap Album Grammy, instead of recognizing him publicly during the ceremony itself.
That text seemed like a major play for attention to many. It’s also relevant to how we evaluate “White Privilege II” today. Fact is, there are way too many people of all colors attempting to capitalize off of the black struggle without taking the cause itself to heart. It’s tempting to listen to Macklemore’s song and think, “congratulations, you can see the obvious. Now, hush up and let us speak for ourselves.”
I don’t think that this is the right approach, though, in the grand scheme of things. This song is not intended for black audiences. Not directly, at least. This is a song by a white man, to white people. Macklemore is white. As hell. He’s also successful. As hell. As a white rapper. So, he chooses to address it head on. He doesn’t pretend to be oblivious to the privilege that he holds, unlike a lot of our coworkers, neighbors, and acquaintances. He challenges himself in this song in ways that could force others to reexamine themselves. He admits that he needs to do more, in his position.
Many of us complain when white entertainers such as Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and many others steal from black culture. Here we have a man actually making an attempt, after taking part in dialogue with musicians, activists, and teachers in and out of Seattle. He asks himself what would happen if he “actually read an article, actually had a dialogue, actually looked at myself, actually got involved?”
People will overly praise Macklemore for this song. It’s already happening. Words like “hero,” “savior,” etc will be inevitably given to him due to his white skin. So, yes. It is a huge issue that white people coming out to decry white privilege will get exponentially more attention from a number of people than the words of black people who actually live through it. It’s problematic that this song addresses a “hot issue” in America that black people have lived through since America’s inception during a time when Macklemore is starting to build up buzz for his album. This song might make Macklemore and Ryan Lewis a lot of money, directly or indirectly.
Is the song “White Privilege II” itself problematic? No, it’s the reaction. The fact that it’s seen as “exceptional” for a white rapper to make a song like this is the problem. If it was the norm for white entertainers to be culturally and socially self-aware, this would be interpreted as simply another sign of support from an ally. I hope that Macklemore isn’t the last white entertainer to make a song like this. Will we ever know Macklemore’s true intentions? Well, no. It’s impossible. There is no way to tap into this man’s head and gauge his true intentions. Like any person who’s ever advocated for a cause bigger than them self, the most we can hope for is that Macklemore’s actions and words continue to line up, as we continue to ask the same of ourselves.