Macklemore, the rap music star who grew to fame for a song about shopping at thrift stores, made headlines this week for a new song about racism and white privilege.
“White Privilege II” was released last week by Ben Haggerty (Macklemore’s real name) and Ryan Lewis and features the poet and singer Jamila Woods. The song is almost 9 minutes long and moves between rap verses, snippets of news and conversations and singing, ultimately questioning the role of a white person in the struggle for black justice. “White Privilege II” is the sequel to a song Macklemore released in 2006 and is quickly attracting opinions of all varieties.
“Macklemore and Lewis’s ambitions don’t quite live up to the scale of the track,” Alyssa Rosenberg wrote for The Washington Post. She went on to say that it “is not a particularly listenable song,” and that the Seattle-based hip-hop duo have sharper taste in politics than in music. The song is “a perfect illustration of an emerging pop culture market, one where political compliance is valued more highly than artistic transcendence.”
The track starts with Macklemore describing his uncertainty while attending a Black Lives Matter protest march in Seattle. "It was the night of Darren Wilson's non-indictment, and I remember streaming it, watching the non-indictment, and feeling sick, physically sick, frustrated and angry,” Macklemore told Rolling Stonefor an upcoming feature. “I was like, 'What is my place here? What am I doing? I feel this overwhelming sense of injustice in my bones and I don't know what to do about it, and I feel compelled to do something. How do I show up in an authentic way and be in solidarity?'”
Though it’s recently been brought to the front of a national conversation about race in America, white privilege is not a new idea. The term first showed up in 1988 when a women’s-studies scholar named Peggy McIntosh wrote a paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” where she lined up 46 one-liner examples of white privilege. A few examples include, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” And “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”
White privilege is the social advantage that comes from your race being seen as the standard in society. “It smooths out life, but in a way that’s barely noticeable — unless it doesn’t apply to you,” Christina Emba explained in The Washington Post last week.
“Obviously not all white people are wealthy, and obviously many minorities are rich and powerful. It's the fact that simply by virtue of being a white person, of whatever socioeconomic status, you get the benefit of the doubt,” Emba said. “Pointing out that white privilege exists isn't the same as accusing every white person of being a racist. And acknowledging that you might benefit from such privilege doesn't mean that you're apologizing for being white."
Throughout his career comedian, Louis CK, has used his comedy to bring attention to the generally unspoken benefits of being white.
Another place white privilege was also brought into the national conversation last week was when DeRay Mckesson, a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, appeared on Stephen Colbert's talk show.
Later in the song, Macklemore brings up the subject of cultural reappropriation by questioning the motives of white musicians. "You've exploited and stolen, the music, the moment, the magic, the passion, the fashion, you toyed with, the culture was never, yours to make better. You're Miley, you're Elvis, you're Iggy Azalea,” Macklemore sings.
Talking with Rolling Stone, Macklemore acknowledged that, as a white rapper, he has benefited from the appropriation of rap music. "I think that, as a white person stepping into doing any sort of anti-systematic-racism type of work, asking yourself, 'What is your intention?' needs to happen on a consistent basis. Check yourself,” he said. “You call out yourself. And you talk about cultural appropriation. But at the same time, you're benefitting from the same thing you're calling out.”
Jamilah King, writing for Mic this week, joined a chorus of other black writers who say, regardless of his message, Macklemore’s music just isn’t that good. But, she said, the topic of white privilege is part of “a conversation that's long overdue.” Jamil Smith expressed a similar sentiment in the New Republic, “Macklemore has a new song about white privilege that you should listen to. Especially if you’re white.”