Macklemore 22

Why Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II” Is Merely An Exercise In White Privilege

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have released their new single, White Privilege II. The track, which clocks in at just under nine minutes, is a sequel to Macklemore’s 2005 song, White Privilege.

Released early Thursday night, it quickly made waves with anyone and everyone putting in their two cents about what the song means – both for Macklemore as an artist, and more importantly for the conversation surrounding cultural appropriation, the Black Lives Matter movement, and just plain old racism.

The song is a messy and ham-fisted attempt to address how Macklemore feels about racism. It’s definitely important, everyone seems to agree on that, but there has not been a single official critic who has just straight out claimed that the song is “bullshit.” The question really comes down to why.

In a time of racial tensions and double standards reaching fever pitch in America, it’s perhaps understandable why Macklemore and his buddy decided to approach this song like a ticking time bomb. The problem with this direction is that no one was forcing them to record it. The fact that it’s so careful and safe makes it seem orchestrated and disingenuous.

The song kicks off with Macklemore attending a Black Lives Matter rally, where he seems to be just so fucking painfully out of place that he might as well be on another planet. He feels “awkward” and can’t figure out what he can and can’t do,

Is it my place to give my two cents?
Or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth
“No justice, no peace,” okay, I’m saying that
They’re chanting out, “Black Lives Matter,” but I don’t say it back
Is it okay for me to say? I don’t know, so I watch and stand

Macklemore Ferguson

The irony, of course, is that Macklemore is literally giving his two cents (and then some) in his explanation of his behaviour. In talking about his white privilege, Macklemore is simultaneously exercising his white privilege. Macklemore speaks not at the rally, when his solidarity might have been welcomed, but on a recording made in a studio, completely removed from the day-to-day realities of racism in America.

After the first hook (which honestly reminded me of a ballad from a home production of Les Misérables) we get to an Interlude. Macklemore is addressing himself and trying to keep his cool, while being harassed by Black Lives Matter protestors.

What is this? I assume that these aren’t real sound bites that he recorded while being at the protest, so what does this mode of expression achieve? The listener is supposed to sympathise with Macklemore, to really feel how difficult it is to be a white guy trying to show support for Black Lives when all these Black people look at him like some kind of snake in the grass.

This version of events makes me imagine Macklemore tentatively reaching out his hand, not unlike a person signifying to a vicious dog that he’s not a threat. Or, not unlike Chris Pratt and some dinosaurs.
In the second verse Macklemore scolds himself for appropriating black culture (again, literally through the medium of black culture he has appropriated,) becoming increasingly self-aware and angry. Yet he chooses to also allow Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea to shoulder some of that burden, because hey, what’s white guilt if you can’t share it around? Elvis is also mentioned as an appropriator of black culture, but everyone already sort of knows that, and Elvis is dead so won’t be giving Macklemore any headlines.

Iggy Azalea isn’t though, and she took the bait hook, line and sinker, getting onto Twitter and complaining about being dissed in the song. She then simultaneously managed to get into a heated argument with Talib Kweli and crashing and burning as only she knows how on Twitter.

If it wasn’t for Iggy going on the defensive, I personally don’t think that the song would have garnered as much attention from your average Joe who doesn’t follow Macklemore or breaking news centred around racial issues. But there’s no way that Macklemore could have known that she would give him all of the free publicity. After all, it’s not like the Australian rapper has a history of getting into Twitter arguments when accused of appropriating black culture…

Verse three: Macklemore is approached by a middle-aged mum whose kids love listening to his songs. Mum is waxing lyrical about how her kids are so into his music and how positive of a role model he is. But boy oh boy, is Macklemore disappointed when the star-struck parent dramatically reveals that she is actually a racist in fan-clothing.

You’re the only hip-hop that I let my kids listen to
Cause you get it, all that negative stuff isn’t cool”
“Yeah, like, all the guns and the drugs
The bitches and the hoes and the gangs and the thugs
Even the protest outside, so sad, and so dumb
If a cop pulls you over, it’s your fault if you run”

GASP! What an unexpected turn of events. It’s nice that Macklemore understands that his music is seen as a safe way for parents to let their kids listen to hip-hop, but we all already knew that. Good on you Macklemore, for your “safe rap” – thank goodness we have you as an alternative to the “thugs”.

The fourth and last verse extends the theme of Macklemore’s artistry allowing America to feel “safe” with rap music, and goes on to articulate the issue which has pretty much been directly or indirectly posed to all artists that are seen as appropriators of black culture:

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?

I want to make something very clear. I’m not saying that the conversations that Macklemore brings up in this track aren’t important – they are. It’s just that black artists have been bringing this up for decades. And they’ve been doing it without making themselves the focus of a nine-and-a-half-minute song, while simultaneously casting themselves as the antihero of the narrative.

In other words, in trying to ‘combat white privilege,’ Macklemore has only succeeded at exercising it. What are some of the other things Macklemore could do to highlight the issues facing Americas black population without making himself the centre of attention? Pretty much anything other than whine about how hard it is to be a ‘White Nice Guy’ against a shoddy backing track.

Having said all this, the clunky opus is finished off with an outro by Jamila Woods, which is beautiful, and my favourite part of the song. I would recommend listening to the song just for the ending (you know, the part where the black person actually talks about white privilege).

This is not the first time that Macklemore has jumped onto a topical social issue and created a song about it. His song Same Love deals with gay rights and homophobia and, compared to White Privilege II, is a more composed and well thought-out song. White Privilege II on the other hand has a frantic and erratic pace, which ultimately makes the message that it’s trying to convey come across as disorganised. It’s essentially an apologetic letter to the black community in which Macklemore becomes Oliver Twist, holding out his bowl of pop-rap and asking the black community if he can have some more.

Oliver Twist
In a song which is geared towards shedding light onto racial issues and focusing on a black movement, it doesn’t really do that at all. Instead, what we are treated to is Macklemore wrestling with his own guilt and, perhaps unintentionally, turning a critical microscope onto himself while asking the tough questions about who he is as an artist and what he owes to a culture that he feels he has stolen from, yet turning it into something that only benefits his image and pocket. But we already know this.

This song doesn’t answer any questions, it just asks them, and perhaps somewhere out there, there’s a bunch of white teenage kids that will listen to this song while expecting to hear another Thrift Shop or Uptown and be moved. For them, this might be the song that forces them to rethink how they have been perceiving black culture; the song which makes them focus how they relate to genre of music which they’ve come to associate with funky beats and PG raps about buying second hand clothing.

The question is why Macklemore is the one pointing all of this out. In a genre of music where there are only a handful of successful white artist, why can’t the message instead be to focus on what the other 90% are saying? This isn’t about Black Lives, it’s Macklemore’s plea for sympathy and a reminder that he’s a Very Nice White Guy. It’s the racial equivalent of #NotAllMen, a weak attempt at saying that no not all men abuse women. You’re right, Macklemore, not all white people are racist, but all black people have felt racism at some point in their lives. If you want to move people to the point of change, this is so not the way to do it.

Here’s a song by some white rapper which actually criticises white privilege: