Is Macklemore the Nicest Egotist in Hip-Hop?
Macklemore was splashed across headlines today for releasing a new song, “White Privilege II.” Ugh. My first reaction was a heavy dose of eye-rolling and a deep sigh. “Here we go again,” I thought. But then I started listening to the nearly nine-minute epic on the struggle to stay woke, and I realized something: it’s not actually awful.
“White Privilege II” is a thoughtful introspection on one white man’s struggle to overcome the problematic identity of being a “white rapper.” Through spoken word verse, snippets of chants from Black Lives Matter protests, and interviews with people about race and prejudice, Macklemore explores a topic that most white people fail to think about—much less grapple with. So it’s not as horrific as expected. But the problem is that through all of the talk about white privilege, Igloo Australia disses, and his place in the schism of hip-hop’s racial divide, Macklemore falls victim to the same complaint that surfaced in the so-called gay anthem “Same Love,” and the original 2005 “White Privilege” song. Macklemore may care a lot about issues that affect people of color and the LGBTQA community, but his lyrics remain steadfast in their narrow-minded focus on himself.
In 1,300 words of premium struggle, the rapper, born Ben Hegarty, jumps from his experience at a police brutality protest, to a perspective-shifting focus on what critics call him out for, to another perspective shift to what fans think of him. Casual listeners are sure to leave wildly confused, or they’ll be convinced that he’s in the midst of a mental breakdown brought on by the overwhelming weight of privilege. The truth is, his song is important as an essay on the burden of confronting racial prejudice when in a position of incredible power—in the vocal booth and in the streets.
I’m a white person who spent months going to police brutality protests, and years studying the history of racial discrimination in this country, all while grappling to understand my place in the narrative. It’s obviously incomparable to the struggles of those who face racial discrimination, but to a certain extent, I can understand the heaviness that Macklemore is dealing with. He’s absolutely right to grapple with the question of how to be an ally to those who experience prejudice that he’ll never be subjected to. It probably could’ve used some editing to make it easier to follow, but otherwise, “White Privilege II” rises above its unfortunate name. Unlike the “Same Love” mess, the problem isn’t with the song.
The problem is with Macklemore. Even though he’s highlighting important social issues inside and outside of his music career, his lyrics are in service of his own struggles—and no song is guiltier than this new epic. Hegarty can spend as many bars as he wants wondering about his place in police brutality protests or within the fabric of mainstream hip-hop, but that’s simply not enough anymore. No matter how badly he may feel about his privilege, the fact is he’s still a white rapper whose long-winded narratives about himself take away from the stories of people of color or LGBTQA people, all of whom aren’t given the same opportunities to talk about their very real struggles. No matter how badly he may feel, his music and identity as a white rapper have still allowed him enough privilege to beat out socially conscious rappers of color like Kendrick Lamar for Grammy awards. In the final few seconds of the song, Macklemore brings out singer and poet Jamila Woods to end with these lines:
“Your silence is a luxury.
Hip-hop is not a luxury.
What I got for me, it is for me?
What we made, we made to set us free.”
It’s a strange ending, given that the other eight and a half minutes focuses entirely on Macklemore’s own issues. By the time the words faded to silence, I was left with the impression this was just a poorly tied ribbon, trying desperately to wrap up the song on a positive note. It’s a tokenized deep thought by a person of color meant to reign in sprawling egocentrism, and it’s made all the more confusing by Woods’ words on the song’s official website.”You can’t just have a good intention and run with it,” she explains. “You have to listen to the needs of Black people in your community and in organizing spaces.”
The struggle between staying woke and taking action is a necessary point, yet it’s one that seemingly fell on deaf ears once again. Macklemore may feel bad for his white privilege and spend nearly nine minutes rapping about it, but by the time the song ends, he just sounds like a victim of whiteness. If he really wants to live up to the socially conscious image he’s built up over the years, he needs to step down from his soapbox. He needs to realize that by making it solely about him and his internal struggle, he’s nothing more than an obstacle to real honest change.
Stay tuned to Milk for more white privilege.
Image by Kathryn Chadason.