Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ White Privilege

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released a new song on Friday called “White Privilege II” along with a new album. It’s less pop radio friendly that his hits, and is a 9 minute reflection by Macklemore on white privilege, white supremacy, the way he benefits from it and how he is somewhat complicit in it. I think Macklemore’s strongest work is when he uses his signature flow for critical self-reflection. This is one of those songs. He wonders how he can engage in Black Lives Matter protests as a privileged white male:

You can join the march, protest, scream and shout
Get on Twitter, hashtag and seem like you’re down
But they see through it all, people believe you now?
You said publicly, “Rest in peace, Mike Brown”
You speak about equality, but do you really mean it?
Are you marching for freedom, or when it’s convenient?  

Similar to his other self-interrogating, ally-privilege song “One Love,” this is an okay track that will now be overrated. Nothing he says is radically new. At the same time, I think there is some value in eloquently talking about white privilege as a privilege white male (something I strive to do myself, something I need to get better at.)

The song is also an example of how white privilege works. As mentioned, the song is about 9 minutes long, with 4 long verses about different aspects of white supremacy. Yet, in most posts I’ve seen since the song was released, the discussion mainly  revolves around whether or not he dissed fellow white person Iggy Azalea. He does, but not in the way many think he does. He criticizes white appropriation of Black cultural forms, and uses Elvis, Miley, and Iggy as examples, but includes himself in that critique. I think the narrator’s “you” in this passage needs to be read as referring to himself:

You’ve exploited and stolen the music, the moment
The magic, the passion, the fashion, you toy with
The culture was never yours to make better
You’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azalea
Fake and so plastic, you’ve heisted the magic
You’ve taken the drums and the accent you rapped in
You’re branded hip-hop, it’s so fascist and backwards
That Grandmaster Flash’d go slap it, you bastard

In this reflection about his own problematic position within culture and society, and this pondering over the contradictions included in that, this song is similar to Kendrick Lamar’s great “Blacker the Berry.

As was the case with One Love, the song has some issues, and as a standalone is terribly presumptuous and self-indulgent (which can’t really be avoided – self-reflection usually is, and that is Macklemore’s style) but could be an introduction for many white people to the concept of white privilege and hopefully influence public conversation. Or it might be just another song by Macklemore that white people love uncritically and that puts him on an undeserved pedestal. (Something he also addresses in verse 3.)

What the outcome and half life of the track will be depends on what Macklemore (and Ryan Lewis) now do with the attention, with the success; who they support now, how they share the limelight. They had the same chance with the success of One Love and The Heist, and I’m rather disappointed what they did with it. They mainly basked in their own glow- One Love did help the great (gay) singer Mary Lambert to a greater audience. I think hite Privilege II is already a better, reflective song than One Love, that makes better arguments. I hope the song helps bring more attention to the great Chicago-based singer and poet Jamlia Woods, who contributes White Privilege II’s coda:

Your silence is a luxury, hip-hop is not a luxury
Your silence is a luxury, hip-hop is not a luxury
What I got for me, it is for me
What we made, we made to set us free

Jamila Woods already released the great song “blck girl soldier” earlier this week – and you should listen to it more often that White Privilege II. It’s better and more important. The Muse also  has a really interesting interview with Jamila Woods and Seattle musician Hollis Wong-Wear about the way they were involved in the production of the song and how Macklemore reached out to them to find out how he can help with his voice.

However, I do think there is some value to this new Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song – greatly depending on what happens with it now that it’s out. A good sign is that they launched a website for the song, that includes credits for people involved in making the song,includes links to other groups involved in anti-racism and anti-blackness, and most importantly a promise and suggestion  to support Black led organizations, so check that out. I want to additionally suggest TWIB Media, a Black-led and -owned podcast and media network by Elon James White covering all the issues mentioned here – from problematic allies, Black Lives Matter, and Iggy Azalea

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