The title of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s forthcoming album is This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. His latest single, “White Privilege II,” could make things real messy really fast. With the recent controversies of #OscarsSoWhite still making headlines, this track’s subject matter is destined (certainly even intended) to ruffle some feathers. But it could also be used to spark some more dialogue about who has the right to convey the message of #BlackLivesMatter, and why more prominent artists—Black and White—aren’t making similar statements.
“White Privilege II,” the sequel to a song from a 2005 Macklemore mixtape, speaks of the appropriation of Black culture by White agents (he even calls out Elvis Presley, Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea specifically), documenting his own angst as a White man who champions Black struggles. “Is it my place to give my two cents/Or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth/For justice?”
Many will scoff at the title of song alone, dismissing it as mere click bait. And after one listen, we may ask, “Is he sincere or pandering for Black acceptance, recognizing that the aforementioned artists have been criticized?” Black listeners have a right to be skeptical about Macklemore’s proclamation on wax.
Over the years, we’ve had to deal with the blurred lines of two types of White artists. Some genuinely incorporate elements of Black culture into their own individuality, earning the respect and financial support of African-American record buyers: The Bee Gees, George Michael, Teena Marie, Eminem, Justin Timberlake, et al. Others have straight up stolen from Black music: Elvis, Pat Boone, Vanilla Ice, Snow, Kenny G, and countless artists of the disco era.
Today, we take our White artists doing Black music with a grain of salt due to our skepticism: Adam Levine, John Mayer, Robin Thicke. In hip-hop, this is an especially volatile issue, with street cred a major component of being taken seriously. Macklemore has always tried to assert his authenticity in hip-hop culture, but his case certainly wasn’t helped when his major label debut—fatefully titled The Heist—swept Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city album out at the Grammys three years ago.
Last year, he recruited Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel for his grand return, “Downtown.” This drove a wedge between old school and new school MCs. Figures like Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane and Ed Lover criticized Black artists for letting Macklemore beat them to the punch. “It shouldn’t have taken a White artist to do that,” Lover said on his SiriusXM show, Backspin. “There’s no reason A$AP Rocky couldn’t have done that.”
This raises the true question: Why aren’t Black artists doing more of this? Outside of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, D’Angelo, John Legend and Janelle Monáe, most mainstream artists haven’t expressed any socio-political outrage through their music. Are they worried they’ll lose fans who may not want to be preached too? Are record labels advising against it, to perpetuate cultural caricatures and misogyny? Should we feel bad that Macklemore has articulated a concept we’ve been thinking and feeling for what seems like forever: White privilege?
Macklemore may indeed be sincere in his assertions about wanting equality, but sympathy is hardly empathy. It’s just a fact that he can never truly be a spokesperson for Black struggle, because he isn’t Black. It’s just that simple. But remember, empathy isn’t necessarily the intention of “White Privilege II.” The track reeks of another notion that’s well known amongst both races: White guilt.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.