Macklemore is not cool. Of all the critiques that have been tossed his way, this is ultimately what the argument boils down to. He’s an “easy joke piñata.” Suburban parents like his music “because it’s positive.” He knows this. He’s also an immensely popular and successful recording artist and entrepreneur. He built his empire grassroots style, but now he’s sitting on top, wondering, “Well WTF do I do now?” This is the climate in which he released “White Privilege II,” a nine-minute-plus hot mess of a lead single from his upcoming album with Ryan Lewis, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, due out February 26.
In the song’s second verse, he walks a mile in his critics’ shoes: the ones who claim he steals black music, the ones who compare him to Miley and Iggy Azalea and Elvis, the ones who think his music is “watered-down pop bullshit,” the ones who dismiss him as a hashtag activist, the ones who say he just wants people to like him. If Macklemore is a herb, it’s mostly because he just really cares. If you doubt his earnestness, just listen to one of his collaborators on the track, Jamila Woods, who admits her own initial skepticism: “I participated in this record because I believe strongly in the mission behind it,” she said on the song’s website. “I was honestly wary at first because of what it sounds like: ‘Macklemore doing a song about Black Lives Matter…’ When you hear that for the first time, it’s only natural to give it a side eye.”
With that in mind, it’s worth asking: Who exactly is this for? If you’re an urban-dwelling, overeducated, creative professional, you probably knew most of the truths that Macklemore spouts in this song. It’s not for you. But if you don’t spend your days reading and/or writing thinkpieces, this could be the first time that you’re hearing these arguments. In her essay, Woods further elaborates on why she believes in its mission: “I think white people who want to take positive action should start to asset map. Rather than being frozen in guilt and thinking about what you ‘can’t do’ or how daunting actions may seem, think of all the skills you have and all the communities and spaces you have access to. How can you utilize your assets to create real impact for Black liberation?”
The key asset in Macklemore’s portfolio is his platform. His audience reaches much farther, much wider into the heart of the American consciousness than any high-minded takedown essay. It’s one of the most beautiful things about pop music in the 21st century — in an age where people can curate the news they consume to the point that they no longer have to read or hear things they disagree with, pop music is one of the last places where a message or sentiment can be ubiquitous, blowing past cultural dividers to reach as many people as possible. On the Internet, information silos mean that a platform like Twitter can harbor communities in which the acceptance of white privilege is a given, while also giving a voice to the white people who think white privilege can’t exist because bad things happen to them.
These information silos also create a space in which critics are blinded to the fact that Macklemore is an educated white dude who likes to read thinkpieces online about social injustices and nod along thoughtfully… just like them. The harsh truth is that even the most fire piece of criticism is never going to reach anywhere near as many people as the new Macklemore single. And with “White Privilege II,” he exposes the internal conflict he’s experiencing in real time, expressing earnest feelings of guilt, shame, regret, and a desire to contribute. He’s not sad because his old girl is having fun without him, he’s sad because systemic white supremacy is oppressing millions, and he knows he benefits from it. Why are these feelings considered disingenuous, but Drake’s tales of woe, Uber cars, and multiple mortgages considered deep and emotional?
Progress is relative, so it’s easy for the cognoscenti to forget that in order to really listen to the message, some people need the messenger to look like them. Because when that messenger doesn’t, they don’t listen. Lots of white people listen to Macklemore. And lots of white people — people who consider themselves “good people” — still don’t get what white privilege is. These are the people who “White Privilege II” is for. The fact that mainstream outlets have erroneously reported on the song as a Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea “diss” proves that even when your audience doesn’t flee at the mention of racial injustice, they might just need you to spell it out for them.
As a song, “White Privilege II” is too unwieldy to be a calculating chess move by a surreptitious white messiah. As a single from one of the country’s biggest pop stars, it’s both confusing and subversive. But as a thinkpiece, it’s a laptop-burner. This song’s sentiment, an audio-only Schoolhouse Rock episode on “How to Not Be a ‘Basic’ Bro,” will ring louder than the most-retweeted hot take, or any special issue of The Atlantic. It’s moving the discourse from the intellectual ivory tower and into the suburban homes of pop music fans. Is it a bit basic? Well, yeah. But so is America.