There has been what can only be described as a shitstorm surrounding Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ latest single, “White Privilege II”. The reason for this lies in the fact that Macklemore, a white rapper, discusses the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the issue of, you’ve guessed it, white privilege.
There has been a lot of criticism around the song as people have been arguing that it’s self-indulgent, offers no solutions or that it is simply a commercial move in anticipation of the release of his new album, “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made”.
So what does the song actually contain? Well, running just under 9 minutes, the song covers a lot of ground and different perspectives.
The first verse is Macklemore speaking from his own perspective about the protests that were held for Black Lives Matter. It’s an inner debate about his emotional dilemma as to whether he should protest or remain on the side-lines as he realises that he may be seen as fighting for a cause that is not his to fight for.
“I want to take a stance cause we are not free
And then I thought about it, we are not “we””
This feeling of uneasiness is then amplified when he realises that he looks just like the policemen trying to stop the protest.
“Is it okay for me to say? I don’t know, so I watch and stand
In front of a line of police that look the same as me
Only separated by a badge, a baton, a can of Mace, a mask…”
There’s then an interlude where you hear several different voices criticising the rapper for speaking up
“”Probably shouldn’t be here, you have white supremacy, don’t fuckin’ come here. — You don’t give a shit about us”
“Why the fuck would you do that? — You always react. Just let it go, man. — White racist.”
Already at this point it’s easy to see that he’s carefully thought about the controversy not only of the song but about him speaking up about racial issues.
The next verse is the one most people have been talking about in the media, due to its references to Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea and this is due to it being largely misunderstood. It goes:
“Ben, think about it.
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”
The problem has been that people separated that first line from the rest, leading people to believe that the “you” is accusatory and meant as a diss towards those named. In reality, Macklemore is referring to himself as well as those named and saying that he is no different, as he has benefitted from hip-hop as much as they have for his success. What is admirable though is he doesn’t hold back in his criticism.
“All the money that you made
All the watered down pop-bullshit version of the culture, pal”
“You said publicly, “Rest in peace, Mike Brown”
You speak about equality, but do you really mean it?
Are you marching for freedom, or when it’s convenient?
Want people to like you, want to be accepted
That’s probably why you are out here protesting
Don’t think for a second you don’t have incentive
Is this about you, well, then what’s your intention?”
Although he believes in his work and is proud of his success, it is clear his self-reflection holds no boundaries. He doubts himself and his morals and in doing so recognises why his authenticity may be questioned by the public. At this point of the song, he could have become defensive and gone on a Kanye-style rant about how his words are genuine and he is different to those aforementioned, but he does not. By doing this, the song stays grounded and simply demonstrates different opinions and arguments.
There’s then a short interlude of people chanting the famous line “hands up, don’t shoot” which has been used at police brutality protests since Mike Brown’s death.
The next verse then comes as a surprise to the listener. It’s a conversation between Macklemore and a fan in a café where the this fan praises Macklemore for his music, explaining that “thrift shop” and “same love” inspired her children to go thrift shopping and be proud of their gay aunt. Till this point it’s not clear why this is part of the song as the dialogue seems to have nothing to do with race. But suddenly it takes a turn as she says
“You’re the only hip-hop that I let my kids listen to
Cause you get it, all that negative stuff it isn’t cool”
An intrigued “Yeah?” is then heard from Macklemore’s point of view, intrigued as to why she would say this, as he has his fair share of dark and political songs.
“Yeah, like, all the guns and the drugs
The bitches and the hoes and the gangs and the thugs”
At this point, it’s obvious she has not listened to many other hip-hop artists or even all of Macklemore’s songs. Macklemore has several upbeat, silly songs where he refers to women as “hoes” (“Gold” for example), and as he has said himself, the reason he has not had to sing about guns and gangs is because he didn’t grow up in an environment where he was exposed to such violence.
The reason behind this verse, however can only be understood at the end of it when she says:
“Even the protest outside, so sad, and so dumb
If a cop pulls you over, it’s your fault if you run”
Boom. It hits and your eyebrows find themselves raised instinctively. Macklemore eloquently voices our confusion as to how someone could truly think this with a simple:
The purpose of this verse to show the ignorance of some of Macklemore’s white fans and their lack of understanding and sympathy is the issue of police brutality. Following this, there’s another interlude which consists of recorded conversations which reinforce the previous verse in demonstrating how white privilege is misunderstood:
“ I have an advantage? Why? Cause I’m white? (laughs) What? (laughs) No. — See, more people nowadays are just pussies. Like, this is the generation to be offended by everything.”
In the final verse, the perspective switches back over to Macklemore who tries to explain white privilege, cultural appropriation and why they’re such complicated issues (which is quite a feat to do in 2 minutes!). Throughout this verse he uses himself as an example and offers the only perspective he can when expressing these problems- his own. It’s filled with poignant lyrics such as:
“It seems like we’re more concerned with being called racist
Than we actually are with racism
I’ve heard that silences are action and God knows that I’ve been passive”
“So what the fuck has happened to my voice if I stay silent when black people are dying”
“If I’m only in this for my own self-interest, not the culture that gave me a voice to begin with
Then this isn’t authentic, it is just a gimmick
The DIY underdog, so independent
But the one thing the American dream fails to mention
Is I was many steps ahead to begin with”
“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
My success is the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson – guilty”
Finally, the last line is one that stays with you and sums up the entire point of the song.
“We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?”
The final interlude is a recording of a man speaking about Black Lives Matter, giving it an analogy.
“Black Lives Matter, to use an analogy, is like if… if there was a subdivision and a house was on fire. The fire department wouldn’t show up and start putting water on all the houses because all houses matter. They would show up and they would turn their water on the house that was burning because that’s the house that needs the help the most.”
He also offers advice as to what white people can do to help with Black Lives matter and the racial issues in America.
“The best thing white people can do is talk to each other, having those very difficult, very painful conversations with your parents, with your family members. — I think one of the critical questions for white people in this society is, ‘What are you willing to risk? What are you willing to sacrifice to create a more just society?’“
The last part of the song is an outro sung by the guest vocalist Jamila Woods, who is the Associate Artistic Director of non-profit youth organization Young Chicago Authors, where she helps organize Louder Than A Bomb (the largest poetry festival in the world).
She repeats the two following 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”.
Now that we’ve broken down the structure of the song, it’s time to look at the controversy around the song.
First and foremost it has to be said that a big reason why Macklemore has been criticised, not only for this song but in general, is because of his success in the mainstream music industry. Due to this he is often seen as another big artist just trying to sell hits to make money. Not only is this far from the truth – it’s an unfair and misinformed opinion. Before “Thrift shop”, “Can’t Hold Us” and “Same Love”, Macklemore had a previous album that was not nearly as popular as “The Heist”, called “The Language of My World”. On this album he also used his voice to talk about big issues such as American politics, sexism and of course the reason why this was white privilege 2, because he had a song eleven years ago called “White Privilege”.
It sounds very different to the current song as it’s only told from his perspective but covers a lot of the same issues and shows the same self-reflection (and totally worth a listen to). Just to give you a taster, here’s the chorus:
“Hiphop started off in a block that I’ve never been to
To counter act a struggle that I’ve never even been through
If I think I understand just because I flow too
That means I’m not keeping it true, nope”
From this it is clear that he did not write this song to gain popularity in light of the current situation in America, as he had previously written about the issue before the Black Lives Matter movement and has written about equally controversial issues as well. In fact, he has probably lost some of his fan base due to it and any claims about its release being a commercial move are ridiculous- if he simply wanted popularity he could have just released another track as catchy as “Downtown”.
Critics have also targeted the song because of its reference to Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea, which unfortunately was one of the only aspects of the song featured in the media. As previously explained, these were not meant as digs towards either artists but as Macklemore has explained himself in interviews, “the conversation around cultural appropriation —I was at the forefront of that, rightfully so. And that conversation also included Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea, and that’s why their names are on the record.”
On a similar note, people also got angered about the fact that “#Macklemore” was trending more than “#whiteprivilege” but surely this point says more about social media than it does the artist who cannot control what people hashtag their tweets with.
The song also angered a lot of black listeners. They criticised Macklemore for speaking up about an issue that they felt was not his to talk about as he had not experienced its consequences. However, youtuber Charlamagne tha God summed up this issue quite well, saying he initially did not like the song because he felt it was just Macklemore explaining and feeling bad for “winning as a white rapper”. However, once it was pointed out to him that Macklemore was aiming the song at white people, he understood he was talking to his audience, “who may not understand white privilege and how we, as black people, feel about systematic oppression”.
Despite this criticism, many have applauded and praised Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for releasing “white privilege ii”, including the civil rights activist and member of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Deray McKesson. This is because they have used their platform and their success to speak up about an issue that is not only very relevant at the moment but very difficult to examine. Dustin Washington, who helped make the song, said “if we’re to understand how it was historically constructed, there’s absolutely a place for white people to not only speak about racism, educate other white people about racism but also, in many ways how I see this song, issuing a call to organise against racism”. Though it perhaps does not offer concrete solutions, its main purpose was to open a dialogue about these racial issues among those whom they do not affect. Without these discussions nothing can change.
Macklemore has said that it was the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Mike Brown to his death, that really pushed him to write the song and made him think, “How do I want to use my platform? Do I want to be safe, under the umbrella of my white privilege? Or do I want to push back and resist?”
Clearly he made the right call and thought about how he would do this very carefully, as the song took over a year to be completed. His braveness should be celebrated and in light of Beyonce’s recent superbowl performance and latest hit “Formation”, both artists should be seen as equals in their attempts to bring racial injustice into the mainstream. It is not everyday an artist puts their career at risk and makes a public display of their vulnerability in the name of a cause that is seen by many as not their own. Overall “White Privilege II” should have had the same popularity as “Same Love” for its boldness, message and good nature. Well done Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and thank you for using your voices for those who are not being listened to.
(If you are interested in knowing more about the song or those involved in the making of it, there is an hour long interview available on YouTube on the channel SwaysUniverse.)