Before I listened to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II,” at no point in my life had a Grammy winner put the words “white supremacy” in my ear. Never had I been indicted into a system of structural racism by a platinum-selling rapper. Nor had I chosen to absorb a nine-minute sound collage that burrows into the cracks of America’s broken social contract.
Actually, that last statement isn’t entirely true. I’ve listened to Charles Mingus’ “Freedom,” from 1963, Les McCann & Eddie Harris’ “Compared to What,” from 1969, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Blacknuss,” from 1972. Each of those songs blows past the five-minute mark, incorporating spoken word, music and field recording in an extended, potent miscegenation of form. Each makes a point of saying something difficult in a voice arising from personal experience. Each was a dispatch from a black person staring down the barrel of American racism.
This sprawling style of musical activism is the artistic tradition “White Privilege II” comes from, a generations-old expression of black struggle from black voices. White listeners like me often embrace these voices, from Charles Mingus to Chuck D, as prophets and truth-tellers. We recognize the cultural value of their songs, cherry-picking the bits that suit our sensitivities, overlooking their origins in historic social inequities. We figure Civil Rights succeeded, dismissing our own complicity in ongoing inequity—the epitome of white privilege. The irony behind two white musicians tackling the issue head-on is geologically thick, especially after generations of effort by black artists bring white America face to face with its flaming hypocrisy.
Compared to Macklemore and Lewis’ previous work, “White Privilege II” is stridently avant-garde. It opens with a group chant over a mournful saxophone riff before Macklemore describes joining the Black Lives Matter march that erupted in Seattle the night of Nov. 24, 2014, in the wake of a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s death. In the next verse, Macklemore implicates himself in appropriation of black culture (“Fake and so plastic, you’ve heisted the magic”); the “you” throughout the verse is his image in the mirror, his celebrity peers and white hip-hop fans in general. A mid-song vignette puts Macklemore at the receiving end of a white parent’s clueless adulation—“you’re the only hip-hop that I let my kids listen to”—as part of a litany of counterarguments to Black Lives Matter. It closes with singer Jamila Woods caressing the lines “Your silence is a luxury/Hip-hop is not a luxury” over a minimalist beat and elegant piano chords—the song’s most poignant, melodic moment. No easy artistic tropes here, no children’s choruses or goofball metaphors or hummable hooks. It’s not a singalong, it’s a seminar. Imagine trying to sell this music to a record label.
For once, Macklemore is a cypher, simultaneously central to the narrative but also removed. Using the second person throughout the second verse, he implicates all white people into the appropriation he’s guilty of. He’s sharing the load, not carrying it alone. The lyrics resonate with my own experiences of racism, privilege, activism and appropriation. I’ve asked the same questions of myself, doubted the appropriateness and effectiveness of my participation during rallies and lectures and even conversations among white friends. White people need to admit to each other that white privilege is real. We need to see it in ourselves before we can act to dismantle it. For us, the song is equal parts solidarity and summons.
Macklemore’s first “White Privilege” rumination came out more than a decade ago. As its sequel, “White Privilege II” is the product of a 30-something white performer whose entire career in a black idiom is fraught with questions of privilege. It’s a forward trajectory: The success of “Thrift Shop” bought Macklemore and Lewis the opportunity for “White Privilege II.” They’re gambling their social currency on a better future. Who bets on a song like this? Its anger, guilt and frustration come from a need to grapple with a problem that’s as hard to identify as it is to explain. There’s no easy win.
Discerning listeners are supposed to be embarrassed by Macklemore—his perceived earnestness, his entry-level social statements, his relentless striving. Dismissing him for that stuff is easy but the message he’s shouting transcends aesthetic peccadillos. Cynicism is a weapon in the effort to maintain the status quo and there’s something clear and crucial for white people to learn here. “White Privilege II” should be measured as a statement, not a song. It’s bigger than hip-hop.
White supremacy isn’t just a white dude in Idaho
White supremacy protects the privilege I hold
White supremacy is the soil, the foundation, the cement and the flag that flies outside of my home
White supremacy is our country’s lineage, designed for us to be indifferent
These words echo those of trained and educated activists, poeticized into Macklemore’s brand of unimpeachable language. The conceptualization of racism and white supremacy have shifted in the wake of modern black activism and here Macklemore accepts the terms. His fans around the world will have to reckon. As a recent endorsement of the song on the Black Lives Matter website reads, “most of us are swayed to think differently or change our behavior by people who look like us and with whom we are most aligned.”
The website for “White Privilege II” is given almost entirely to profiles of the eight primary collaborators—musicians, thinkers, activists, mostly people of color—who worked on the song. These people are spotlighted in text the same way the song spotlights voices that are not Macklemore’s, including several activists who speak very plainly: “The best thing white people can do is talk to each other, having those very difficult conversations with your parents, family members.” And: “I think one of the questions for white people in this society is, What are you willing to sacrifice to create a more just society?”
Back in in July 2012, when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released the song “Same Love,” same-sex marriage was years away from legalization by Supreme Court decision. Referendum 74 was on the ballot in Washington State, and that November, after years of similar bills failing elsewhere, marriage equality passed by popular vote for the first time ever. Organizers behind Music for Marriage Equality, a nonprofit that rallied for Ref. 74, agree that Macklemore and Lewis’ support—the tens of thousands of dollars they gave and the awareness they raised in the far corners of the state—was instrumental. Doubt it if you like, but their pop-activism effectively changed the course of history.
The problems surrounding white privilege are far more entrenched than a ballot referendum can solve. “White Privilege II” is not “Same Love.” Creatively, financially, politically, the song is a risk—a stand that no other white artist in the entire pop landscape has been willing to take. It challenges the policing of decorum and white indifference and the longstanding inequities America was founded on.
For white people, it’s an appeal to our better nature, in intellect and empathy. It’s an open door for us to step through, bringing us a little closer to bridging this country’s racial divide. Since it was released online, for free, two weeks ago, it’s been streamed on YouTube more than two million times.
Macklemore and Lewis are doing their part. White America: Black lives matter.