Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” Is a Noble, if Not Futile Attempt at Ingratiation

Macklemore’s calls himself a “fascist” creator of “pop bullshit” in his new song.  The porcelain-skinned rapper tries desperately to show listeners that by way of acknowledging that he can’t possibly “get it” he “gets it”.

Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” (featuring Jamila Woods) has a run-time of nearly nine minutes and—as with other Macklemore songs— it leans more towards the frame of spoken word or slam poetry than straight forward hip hop.  The song begins with Macklemore’s experience taking part in a Black Lives Matter protest:

“Zipped up my parka, joined the procession of marchers.  In my head like, is this awkward, should I even be here marching?’ Thinking if they can’t, how can I breathe?  Thinking that they chant, what do I sing? I want to take a stance cause we are not free, and then I thought about it, we are not we.  Am I on the outside looking in, am I in the inside looking out?”

The entire song is the expression of a white man recognizing his own privilege, and how he battles with that privilege in relation to his thoughts and feelings about the injustices perpetrated against the black community.  The second verse -which is self-directed- is when things really get interesting:

“You’ve exploited and stolen the music, the moment, the magic the possession 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 rap in. You’ve branded ‘hip hop’ it’s so fascist and backwards, that Grandmaster Flash’d go slap it you bastard.  All the money you made, all the watered-down pop bullshit version of the culture, pal…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?”

Macklemore uses this verse to cover and align himself with many of his detractors that claim he has hijacked and bastardized hip hop culture.  The thesis of the track boils down to Macklemore acknowledging the differences between himself and much of the community he yearns to be a part of.  He knows he’s different, he knows he’s white, and he knows that has helped him.  The third verse ends with a fan speaking to Macklemore after she approaches him for an autograph:

“Look at what you’re accomplishing, even an old Mom like me likes it cause it’s positive.  You’re the only hip hop that I let me 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.  Huh?”

He is essentially stating that -even though he is a white man- his allegiance is to the black community, not to the white, pop music fans that have made him a millionaire.  As a white rapper who purports to respect and worship hip hop culture, breaching a topic like white privilege is difficult.  It’s not difficult to construct, and the topic is rife with intrigue, but it’s difficult for a white artist to pen a song about white privilege and have it not come across as pandering.  But, to his credit, Macklemore does seem to get the fact that everything he does is seen through a different lens.  He pulls out all of the stops on this track.  The song was released via it’s own website and provides links to an array of black led, social organizations.  Moreover, the song itself features an array of local educators, community activists, and organizers speaking on racial injustice in the U.S. as well as the remarkably talented vocalist and poet Jamila Woods who caps off the track beautifully.

Despite Macklemore going to great lengths to show that he is a white artist who inadvertently circumvented a path to success within hip hop, and benefitted from the color of his skin, one wonders if a track like this simply tries too hard.  And, one can’t help but ponder whether a track like this is really about uplifting the black community or if it’s just another example of a white man gaining fame and adulation from black culture.

Macklemore’s motives definitely seem pure, and he clearly put a lot of work into coming across as empathetic and woke as he possibly could.  The question is, as a white artist in hip hop is it better to just ignore the topic of race within the songs themselves?  Eminem surely didn’t do this, but he came up battling in Detroit, with his debut album produced by Dr.Dre – so he has been respected in hip hop from the jump, even though his music was often as pop-friendly and decidedly a-typical as Macklemore’s.  Eminem had/has an edge; he’s been a controversial figure from the beginning and this outsider attitude fits in well within hip hop.  Macklemore, on the other hand, has made a fortune off of incredibly catchy, friendly-to-all, buttery pop songs.  And the massive success of songs like, “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love” catapulted him over nearly every other artist in the genre in terms of sales and radio play. And while this is not his fault, he realizes that he has benefited greatly from a culture that does not see him as one of their own.   Towards the end of the fourth verse he recognizes that the same mechanism that led to his success has led to social injustices stating,

“My success is the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson.  Guilty.” 

It is not lost on me that as a white male writing on this subject I may be guilty of a similar brand of appropriation.  Am I any less guilty that he is?  I am writing an article -that I hope a large amount of people will read- about the subject of white privilege.  I am writing it from an empathetic point of view, but I too was/am a beneficiary of this privilege.  And I suppose I too am capitalizing upon this topic from a safe and possibly hypocritical hill somewhere on the horizon.  So, should I not write about it?  Should Macklemore not write about it?  Our situations only differ in semantics and background, in a vacuum, we are in the same vehicle.

Regardless of its merit or lack thereof, this track is bound to provoke conversation, which is, in itself a good thing.  Although it is sad that it takes a white male speaking about these issues for many of them to hit the mainstream with force.


by Jesse Mechanic

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