I’ll be the first to admit it: I’ve never been much of a Macklemore fan. To prepare for this post, I looked back at a series of email exchanges I had with my friend Casey in early 2013. In summation, let’s just say that I did not have a whole lot of praiseworthy accolades for Macklemore’s work. Apart from calling him “Mackledick” repeatedly, here was the thrust of my disdain for the Seattle emcee:
“Macklemore is neither Eminem nor Atmosphere. I would actually venture to say that Atmosphere and Eminem are more alike than Macklemore is to either of them in terms of content, production and style. I also think that Atmosphere and Eminem have more realism in their pinkies than Macklemore has in his entire body. I first listened to Macklemore when my friend Jeff played me his ever popular, feel good song about gay relationships, ‘Same Love’. With such a sweet and semi-melancholy chorus, the song basically makes you feel good about being a white, progressive and highlights the struggles of being bullied as a gay kid. It’s both complex and yet incredibly simplistic. It falls short for me because struggle in hip hop has always been about economic marginalization, violence in America’s ghettos, and an incredibly deep emotional connection to one’s identity and situation. Those are the guts of the music and if you’re not coming from that place, then it probably isn’t really hip-hop…His music is pop. I don’t think he intended to be this huge mainstream emcee, but he’s also a feel-good rapper that achieves a relatively accessible and at the end of the day, poppy sound that easily appeals to the masses. Instead of using his own fucked up situation to tell a subtle/deep story about the American experience, Macklemore is simply writing predictable verses that comes from a comfortable, middle class lifestyle. He’s reading news stories and then writing about these issues in a not-so-genuine way. It just comes off sounding quasi-smart, kind of obvious, and not really as poetic as it could be. Not sure if that makes sense, but that’s what I see with Macklemore.”
So when Macklemore dropped “White Privilege II” last month, I readied myself for a predictable journey through the brain of gentrified hip-hop’s most prominent spokesperson. I’ve listened to the track now four times on SoundCloud, and I can only say that I continue to be both impressed and perplexed. It’s a piece that provoked and continues to provoke a great deal of personal introspection; introspection about Macklemore’s role in hip-hop, introspection about the role white people play in America, introspection about conflict and social struggle, and introspection about the ebb and flow of hip-hop culture in the larger context of mainstream American culture. I began asking a lot of questions of myself: Who am I as a white person in America? How do I square my own passion for hip-hop culture with the reality of struggle and black culture?
There seems to be a critical consensus that musically, “White Privilege II” is forgettable at best and at worst, complete garbage. I can’t dispute this critique. Not only does the song not live up to his much more head-nodding original, “White Privilege“, released in 2005, but Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ dissonant array of beats, flows, and singing doesn’t make for the most fluid of listening experiences. Pitchfork, predictably, tears down the song for being a musical disaster, and magazines like Complex and Fader have lambasted the track for being both the whitest song ever recorded and failing to spark even the faintest of flames in our revolutionary spirits. After all, artists that command that much musical and social capital drop catchy songs like “Formation“(Beyoncé) which showcase the resilience and beauty of Bama culture following Hurricane Katrina, or craft performance art like “For Sale?” (Kendrick Lamar) where Kendrick’s conscience wrestles with the pressures of wealth and fame. The songs are amazingly well-produced and composed, and like any clueless white boy, I am left awed by the roots of their conflict and sense of identity. Well, that, and it’s Beyoncé.
After posting a short tirade about “White Privilege II” on Facebook, a friend delivered the same searing musical critique as the aforementioned articles. Fuck Ryan Lewis & Macklemore’s shitty rendition of hip-hop, and let a black emcee with real pain and conflict speak on this subject. In a twist of irony, it dawned on me that the song’s musical failings are the bandwagon everyone’s piling onto while Macklemore’s lyrics have been nothing short of a passing afterthought. Is Ryan Lewis the world’s greatest producer? Far from it. Is what Macklemore saying totally worth ignoring? Absolutely not. Picking apart the song’s composition or lack of hip-hop street cred inadvertently misses the forest for the trees. No, we can’t neatly place Macklemore’s lyrics within the broader canon of hip-hop music (read my original email above comparing him to Atmosphere, Eminem or the laundry list of other reputable white emcees). But that’s not the point. Macklemore has created a song about white privilege, and he already knows who is target audience is: the sea of white listeners that co-opt hip-hop culture when it’s convenient.
I think that’s why I gravitated towards Nathan Slavik’s amazing editorial piece in DJBooth entitled “Forget Macklemore, This Is My White Privilege.” Slavik dissects Macklemore’s song from the disarming perspective of vulnerability and intense honesty; he makes it clear from the get-go that he’s not out to critique Macklemore musically or dismantle him from the comfort of digital anonymity. He’s more intent to share his own anxiety and sadness as a white hip-hop commentator, which is the same sadness pervasive throughout Macklemore’s nine minute opus. Slavik speaks plainly from his own experience as a white person in America, sharing anecdotes about the benefits bestowed upon him by virtue of his skin color. He also notes poignantly, that this acknowledgment of bias is particularly lacking in the above-mentioned critiques of “White Privilege II”. He’s sadly on the money there. Of all of the articles and musical reviews, virtually none of the journalists out themselves as white people writing about hip-hop music.
And at the crux of my dilemma, much like Slavik, is that I too am a white person living in America, and am moved by the spirit of hip-hop. Over the years, I’ve embraced hip-hop fervently to fortify my identity as the white boy who grew up in an urban area and attended an inner-city public school. Never mind that I grew up in a middle class family, excelled academically due to parental support, went to a four year university and have the benefits of a salaried full time job. Somehow hip-hop grants me validation and access into a world that feels far from my current reality. But it doesn’t change the concrete fact that I am far from that reality, and far from that conversation. On a daily basis I still grapple with the pangs of uncertainty about my role in the broader conversation. I listen to music and podcasts, I keep a hip-hop blog, I go to live shows, I try to support artists, I attend scholarly panels, I read literature and hip-hop comic books. In short, I attempt to sponge up and digest all that exists. Somehow I convince myself that through this intellectual engagement with the the hip-hop world that I’ve elevated myself towards understanding the source of its pain. I’ve seen DJ Kool Herc discuss the origins of breakbeats in the Bronx as neighborhoods were razed to the ground, and read about postcolonial liberation embedded in the lyrics of struggle rap. I deem these experiences as justification for my status as a hip-hop insider. I attempt to reassure myself that I don’t operate in a bubble of ignorant bliss at the outskirts of the culture.
Yet, paradoxically, all of this emanates from a sense of profound privilege; that I am allowed to examine conflict from the comfort of stability, that I am financially capable to support artists monetarily, that I have been afforded the education to draw parallels from hip-hop culture to structural forces that have destroyed black communities. These are the luxuries of the outsider, and not the insider. And from there I am forced to ask myself: at what level am I an observer, and at what level am I a participant?
This is the juncture where Macklemore enters the conversation: at the crossroads of observation and participation as a white person living in American society. He marches uneasily during Black Lives Matter, fails to reconcile his music with the music of turmoil and poverty, and squirms uncomfortably as a white mother condescendingly uplifts Macklemore as the progressive voice in a version of hip-hop culture defined by violence, misogyny and drugs. Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” is his coming out as the tormented soul of a deeply conflicted white person. We are not seeing Macklemore the artist, Macklemore the grammy winner or Macklemore the commercial icon; we see Macklemore the anxious white man bouncing between protests and coffee shops. His discordant song of rambling internal dialogues and clashing commentaries speak to the scores of suburban white folk that consume his music and would rather not reflect on their role in race and racism. Macklemore participates by strategically deploying his musical capital to leave white audiences out to dry; to leave them stewing in the discomfort of their own opinions, their voices, and their beliefs. He leads by example, hoping that his vulnerability will push them towards the path of dialogue and understanding.
Apart from this message to white audiences, I was also left impressed with Macklemore’s self-deprecation. He very openly pulls back the curtain of his conscience to reveal that he is exactly who I had always assumed him to be. On his second verse, Macklemore raps:
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
Your brand of hip-hop, it’s so fascist and backwards
That Grandmaster Flash’d go slap it, you bastard
Macklemore hasn’t been putting one over on us: he’s been in on the joke the entire time. Sure, he attempts to redeem himself towards the end of the song, bringing in Jamila Woods who soulfully reminds us that our silence is a luxury, which is of course true. But in his heart of hearts, Macklemore’s song struck a chord with me because he admits that he’s going to fall short. He can’t even the score or fully champion the conflict of hip-hop as many black emcees might. However, in describing his white privilege ten years later, after winning multiple grammies and attaining a commanding presence among the liberal white masses, he can at least let his listeners in on the secret. He’s not the beacon of social justice or paragon of hip-hop progressiveness that many believe him to be. Macklemore wants all of us to think deeply about how white people use hip-hop music, engage with social conflict, and attempt to square our identities and privileges within a musical culture that finds its core foundation in the spirit of struggle and black empowerment. Macklemore wants white people to stop acting like everything’s fine. Because it’s not.
At the end of the day, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This rambling exaltation of Macklemore’s song may fall on deaf ears if you can’t get past the music or your opinion Macklemore as an artist. Irregardless of what we may think about Macklemore, perception is reality. He is still very much a part of hip-hop culture in the eyes of many, and his messages continue to serve a purpose in the raging conversation that is Race in America. He has cemented himself as the safe and approachable liaison between white culture and a music that comes from the neighborhoods where white people nervously lock their car doors. As I noted on a Facebook response back to my friend, Pitchfork mistakenly asserts that Macklemore’s packaging of nitroglycerin into a juice box is a bad thing when it’s precisely the opposite. Macklemore is effective because his music is potent but digestible. We all listen, process his lyrics and know that Macklemore is beckoning us. From segregated suburbia to gentrified city center, “White Privilege II” demands a response from all of us who take solace behind a facade of openness, but cannot make peace with our inner conflicts.
As white people, we are in many ways all outsiders looking in, at both hip-hop music and ourselves. From the hip-hop commentator to the liberal blogger to the corporate worker bee, we will never know the pain of being black in America. That’s a harsh but necesssary reality to confront. On one hand, we can easily rush through life and avoid those difficult conversations, as I certainly have been guilty of and Macklemore has too. We can pointedly scapegoat Macklemore as a musically inept messenger, muddling the message beyond recognition and justifying our privilege of silence. On the other hand, we can pause and recognize that this topic is so much bigger than Macklemore. We’d be doing ourselves a monumental disservice if we didn’t seize on this opportunity to have an honest and serious conversation about white privilege, hip-hop and American culture. It’s time to confront our pain, our discomfort and our responsibility. It’s time to confront our white privilege.