White people don't like to talk about race. White people especially don't like to talk about white privilege — that is, if they even acknowledge it exists in the first place. But white people really love Macklemore, the radio-friendly white rapper most famous for his Grammy-winning "Thrift Shop," which has sold over 10 million copies and is one of the most-watched music videos of all time.
So what happens when Macklemore addresses racism and white privilege in his music?
While it was only released Thursday night, Macklemore's "White Privilege II," a nearly nine-minute-long song featuring Jamila Woods, will — hopefully — open more than a few white eyes to the widespread problem of racism. We can debate whether or not Macklemore's song is actually any good, but the message he's trying to communicate with it should be acknowledged and appreciated. Which is not to say he's some sort of White Savior or hero, either.
Honest and self-aware to an almost awkward extent, Macklemore's "White Privilege II" begins with the rapper attending a protest responding to Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson's killing of Michael Brown in 2014. He wants to help the movement, he wants to help the cause, but he's not sure if it's his place to do so. He wonders, "Is this awkward? Should I even be here marching?" noting that he might look more like the cop that killed Michael Brown than most of the protesters. (Later in the song, after unpacking white supremacy, he acknowledges that his "success is the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson.") He wonders if it's "my place to give my two cents or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth for justice?"
In the second verse, Macklemore addresses how white people (specifically namedropping Miley Cyrus, Elvis Presley and Iggy Azalea) have "exploited and stolen the music." He even recites one of the main criticisms of his music, admitting its reputation as a "watered-down pop bullshit version of the culture." He goes on to explain that, yeah, sure, he tries to join marches and tweet out support, but knows people still wonder, "'You speak about equality, but do you really mean it? Are you marching for freedom, or when it's convenient?'"
In the third verse, Macklemore raps from the perspective of a white parent who explains how much her kids love his "Thrift Shop" and "One Love" (the actual name of the song is "Same Love") and how "even an old mom like me likes it cause it's positive." But then the white parent complains about a Black Lives Matter protest, saying, "If a cop pulls you over, it's your fault if you run," exposing the disconnect between many of Macklemore's fans and hip-hop culture.
Macklemore admits that, "It seems like we're more concerned with being called racist than we actually are with racism." In arguably the song's best line, Macklemore, a white rapper who's become famous in a historically black culture, asks, "We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?"
Macklemore isn't the first person to address racism and white privilege, and it's unquestionably unfair that so many people of color have made the exact same points (and often in a more sincere and elegant way) for years and years without receiving anything close to the praise that Macklemore has gotten for it in the past.
Macklemore is not a hero, a savior, or a prophet for discussing white privilege. & he is not saying he is. & you shouldn't either.— deray mckesson (@deray) January 22, 2016
In a thought-provoking column for the Daily Dot, Alexandra Samuels, a black female writer, notes, "On the one hand, if he doesn’t say anything about #BlackLivesMatter, police brutality and white privilege, he’s seen as just another white person appropriating black culture when it’s convenient." However, she also notes that when Macklemore does speak out, it can be "tiring that white people have to learn about their privilege through a white man, but they won’t listen to black people telling them their first-hand experiences."
Talib Kweli, a legend to many hip-hop fans, has also defended Macklemore as "an artist who realizes his position in this culture and is doing everything in his power that he can do." Kweli added, "He can’t not be white.” Even long before he became an international star and before he "stole" Kendrick Lamar's Grammy (for which he, controversially, apologized), Macklemore acknowledged and addressed his "White Privilege" in 2005 on The Language of My World.
Recognizing that she's not the target audience, Samuels compliments Macklemore for "leveraging his platform and privilege to send a message to his audience, which is predominantly composed of other white folks, that there’s an issue within our society and we need to address it. As ironic as it is, he’s using his white privilege to address that it’s there." Too often, Samuels writes, while black people are "portrayed as 'angry' or 'bitter' for voicing our opinions, Macklemore is not and he knows that."
In the song, after voiceovers of white people dismissing the idea that they're privileged, Macklemore notes that there are "a lot of opinions, a lot of confusion, a lot of resentment. Some of us scared, some of us defensive — and most of us aren't even paying attention." And that's exactly why Macklemore's new song is so important: Most white people aren't even paying attention.
That's part of the problem with white privilege: One of the key privileges is the ability to act like racism isn't really an issue. White people can choose to ignore racism and their privilege, despite living in a society built upon white supremacy. As Macklemore has said before, "Racism is uncomfortable to talk about. White people, we can just turn off the TV when we’re sick of talking about race." Too many of us think that as long as we aren't yelling racial slurs, white people are off the hook. Without having to confront our privilege, we can act like it doesn't exist.
In an ideal situation, white people wouldn't need a white rapper to explain the idea of white privilege and racism — we would actually listen to those who are discriminated against. But, then again, in an ideal world, white privilege and racism wouldn't be an issue to address in the first place.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
If one white kid downloaded that song and had their mind changed about things, this Twitter chatter ain't holding a candle to it.— Craig Jenkins (@CraigSJ) January 22, 2016
And that's why I think this song is special: Macklemore has the ability to reach white people who can far too easily and far too often avoid these types of discussions altogether.
Of course, listening to Macklemore isn't going to fix racism, but it might get more white people to face the music. And, as James Baldwin wrote, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."
Music is not meant to change everything, but if it changes anything it has done something.— Alex Medina (@mrmedina) January 22, 2016