Last night, noted Thriftshop enthusiast Macklemore dropped a new track from his upcoming album, This Unruly Mess I've Made, titled White Privilege II.
The song's a sequel to his 2005 single of the same name, but this time around, the Seattle-based rapper stepped up to the mic with the express intention of speaking in conversation with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
"I want to take a stance cause we are not free," he muses in one verse. "And then I thought about it, we are not we."
The song features additional vocals from Chicago-based singer and poet Jamila Woods as well as an atmospheric melange of voices, both black and white, sharing their perspectives on the current state of race, violence, and policing in the U.S.
"This song is the outcome of an ongoing dialogue with musicians, activists, and teachers within our community in Seattle and beyond," the White Privilege II website explains. "Their work and engagement was essential to the creative process."
Though Macklemore and Producer Ryan Lewis describe how their shared LLC is committed to "supporting black-led organizing" initiatives, criticism for the song came quickly. Chief among peoples' concerns was the idea that Macklemore, a white man, felt the need to whitesplain white privilege to an audience already all-too familiar with the concept.
This new Macklemore song is like if you turned Matt McGorry tweets into an Off-Broadway Hamilton knockoff
— Ira Madison III (@ira) January 22, 2016
Conversely, there were also those who gave Macklemore credit for explicitly addressing his own (and other white artists') privilege. In particular, he namechecks Elvis, Miley Cyrus, and Iggy Azalea as three examples of modern white performers who built names for themselves by co-opting elements of black culture. Azalea took to Twitter to share her feelings on being called out for what some have described as verbal blackface:
At the core of White Privilege II, activist Deray McKessen tweeted out, was an important and powerful conversation that needed to be had. Macklemore's race, McKessen continued, shouldn't be use against him in the context of that conversation.
McKessen makes a valid point. At no point in White Privilege II does Macklemore position himself as being immune to or having overcome his white privilege. He repeatedly highlights the ways in which his being a white man has afforded him success, access, and and a degree of immunity from the critiques commonly leveled at rappers.
The problem with White Privilege II becomes clear when you think about who this song is for: white people. There's nothing revelatory about White Privilege II. It's a song about a white man admitting that his whiteness has been a boon to his success—which comes at the expense of black access to that same success. As Twitter user Indigo Jane pointed out, none of these ideas are new to black people.
If the song really is for white listeners, though, what exactly is the end goal?
Black Lives Matter, People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, Youth Undoing Institutional Racism & Freedom School, and Black Youth Project 100 are listed as organizations that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis LLC wants to elevate, but the song itself features no call to action to support them.
Best case scenario, young white kids take the song's lyrics to heart, internalize them, and begin to think critically about their own privilege. Worst (and perhaps most likely) case scenario: white people listen to the song, consider sufficiently themselves woke, and then move on to listen to something else.
While the latter may seem pessimistic, it's difficult to imagine a world in which the importance of black activism is made clear to and understood by white people, when prominent black voices have been expressing those very same ideas for decades only to be largely ignored by the white mainstream.
While Macklemore may not be posturing himself as the tipping-point of peak white wokeness, there's an implicit understanding that this song is supposed to different. For all of its good intentions and connections to black performers and black-led groups, though, White Privilege II is a Macklemore song.
White Privilege II is eight minutes and forty two seconds of a white man critiquing other white people for their problematic whiteness. Macklemore quite literally commits the same kind of cultural appropriation he accuses Miley, Elvis and Iggy of by rapping his lyrics. Can a white man critique white performativity while performing?
Had the ideas laid out in the song been crafted into an op-ed or open letter to White People, it'd be much easier to conceive of it as a piece of work meant to "start a conversation."
But it's not.
Towards the end of the song, Macklemore questions what would happen if he didn't speak about these issues. He's right to think that that would be a bad look. But instead of
humblebragging rapping about how aware of his privilege he is, or pointing the finger at his peers, he could just as easily use his platform to amplify the voices of others.
He's already snatched himself a Grammy. Perhaps now it's time to pay it forward.