The Craft And Controversy of Macklemore’s “White Privilege II”
When we talk about what is required to shift social paradigms all too often we are overly optimistic. In particular when we talk about race issues in America often the expectation is that White Americans will have some divine revelation and see the error of their ways after another life is taken or atrocity is committed against a Black American. The reality is that this may not be how it actually works.
The release of “White Privilege II” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis highlights an especially complex social condition that entangled by hip hop,capitalism, social justice, and white supremacy and privilege in ways that are all woven into the American cultural tapestry.
As an artist Macklemore could hardly be compared to the greatest emcees of the genre. What he lacks in rhythmic dexterity, originality, vocabulary and wordplay, he compounds with an absence of deep thought, robust perspective, and perceived authenticity when addressing meaningful topics, which is only done on occasion.
In “White Privilege II” White America’s favorite rapper gives more of the same in this regard but attempts to tackle a much more challenging subject than the cost of discount clothing for which he has be hoist to fame. What is obvious about him of being awarded a Grammy for best Rap album in 2014 becomes offensive when outlined in a musical format that he has at best adopted, and at worst completely appropriated. But in terms of sales irrespective of the quality of his music he will be undoubtedly rewarded with more tours, album sales, and radio play.
This however is not new. We know too well that the best rapper is not often the best selling. As Jay-Z put it “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be. Lyrically Talib Kweli” and Kendrick Lamar elaborates “Critics wanna mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’/ Motherf–ker if you did then Killer Mike would be platinum“
In the world of music as a commodity it is about market size and distribution two things of which Macklemore and Ryan Lewis has a great advantage in. They claim a paying market that has high amounts of discretionary income and are part of a loyal fanbase. As an entrepreneur Macklemore has a solid product and a stable pipeline to his core consumer.
This is also a point of contention in the context of this release because even in the attempt at creating something that assumes the position of authenticity it is not as if it didn’t meet all of the product criteria established to be an economically successful product.
It was not released as an underground mixtape to a curated selection of high profile bloggers via a google doc, it is a Spotify release and debuted on none other than the front page of music websites Pitchfork. Logic another white rapper addresses themes of race but he has no where near the platform this duo does. Macklemore, even at seemingly his most heartfelt and is still intentional and business savvy indicative of his perhaps unwillingness to refuse to turn a buck from highlighting a problem that he may very well believe should be address. But of course in capitalism nothing is sacred.
When a member of a minority group takes a stand for their own rights in a system that is imbalanced to oppose them it is an act of courage. They will most certainly be attacked by every facet of the system the way white blood cells attack a foreign entity in the body. Yet, when a member of the majority group takes the same stand they may be attacked by certain portions of society who feel betrayed but will still herald by minority sympathizers, and the minority group itself (albeit with some criticism) as altruistic.
It is not to say that ally voices are not needed, they are in fact critical to the success of any social reform. Problems arise though when the voice of the minority is overridden by the voice of the ally as is often the case. Here Macklemore takes control of the conversation in even while creating space for Jamila Woods the fact that he is principal and not guest in the conversation perfectly illustrates the usurping of the dialogue however well intentioned it maybe.
The tone and perspective of the song is noticeably white. He shares not the perspective of the minority in white supremacy but of the majority. He speaks not on behalf of Black Americans but on behalf of himself to others like him.
WHITE SUPREMACY & PRIVILEGE
Macklemore’s release of “White Privilege II” results in more of a display of white supremacy as opposed to a criticism, analysis, or commentary on it. The saving grace is that analysis of this moment we might all glean some insight as to the unfortunate truth of it all.
In a system founded on the notion of one group’s dominion over another justice is implausible and equality is impossible. This results in isolation as Macklemore states “we are not WE”. But further, Macklemore as we’ve seen try to push against the capitalist white supremacist patriarchy can not shed enough privilege in any way to neutralize the effects of his position in society.
So as he performs the behaviors we might associate with an ally we can not trust that he is not, in some way, motivated by all of the additional incentives he will be rewarded with for behaving them.
It is as if Macklemore is truly doing what he thinks is best. And does so in a language that he knows will be most receptive to his audience, with his audience being other White Americans.
“White Privilege II” would ring as patronizing to most Black Americans to have a glaring display and description of a pain point they experience to frequently to be insensitive to.
The unfortunate truth is that to oppose an unjust system is to not only cause discomfort for the majority group, but perhaps everyone in the system as the paradigm shifts.