Last night, white rapping man Macklemore released a song called “White Privilege II.” The song, which is accompanied by a website, is earnest and ostensibly aims to acknowledge and condemn the very white privilege from which Macklemore profits. It is a bad song. To examine how we got to this point, let’s start in the middle.
Two years ago, Macklemore, then perhaps the most famous rapper in the world, went to the 2014 Grammys and left with awards for Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance, and Best Rap Album, winning out over artists like Jay Z, Kanye West, Drake, and, most conspicuously, Kendrick Lamar. This was and still is an outrage (so far as anything that happens at an awards show can be an outrage), because all those rappers, others nominated but not mentioned, and still others who weren’t nominated at all were and are all nigh-objectively better rappers than Macklemore, who was and is bad.
Because there were many better rappers with better songs, performances, and albums than Macklemore up for the same awards as Macklemore, onlookers interrogated how it came to pass that Macklemore won. It was easy to draw a line between the makeup of an old group of largely white record-industry insiders utterly disinterested in rap music and the safe, bland records that appealed to fans utterly disinterested in rap music (and make up the entirety of Macklemore’s catalogue) and conclude that even though Macklemore was a bad rapper, he was successful because he was a white man making (bad) music that appealed to white people.
Rap critics and rap fans have long known and commented on this, and it’s clear that Macklemore is aware of it as well. There’s a stark self-consciousness to his music that has led him to acknowledge the various privileges he enjoys. As the title “White Privilege II” suggests, there is an original “White Privilege,” in which the bad rapper acknowledges that he is white while aligning himself with minorities. It came out in 2005:
In 2012, Macklemore dropped “Same Love,” acknowledging he was heterosexual while aligning himself with the the LGBTQ community:
Last year, Macklemore dropped “Downtown,” acknowledging he was a manufactured pop sensation while aligning himself with early hip-hop greats:
These are all earnest songs in which Macklemore takes laudable if performative steps towards making the world a better place by acknowledging that he, as someone who actively benefits from being a white, heterosexual male at the expense of other people, is part of the problem. He is signaling that he Gets It, and that he is willing to Dialogue. He is apologizing.
On its own terms, this is quite good shit. But this years-long siege of acknowledgement and apology falls flat, because the conceit upon which it is built is false. Macklemore hears the critics and haters saying that it is tragic and/or enraging that he, a white man, has a successful career within a black space. This is wrong. Macklemore’s career is tragic and/or enraging not because he is a white man, but because he is a bad rapper who makes bad songs and yet has, because he’s white, achieved more success than black rappers who make better songs.
There is no greater avatar of the power of white privilege in all of music than Macklemore. This is not because he is white, but because he is white and bad. By merely acknowledging his privilege and apologizing for his existence, he’s failing to change the parameters at play here. There are, by my count, two ways to change these parameters: become a good rapper who makes good songs, or get out of the way to make space for someone who will.
There are white people who rap well and make good songs, and even if there’s grumbling, these rappers are all embraced, because there’s nothing wrong with talented musicians enjoying success. Macklemore isn’t embraced by rap fans because he is bad. When he makes these songs attributing the criticism of his success to his race or his sexuality, he is insinuating that he is a good rapper who, all else equal, would be embraced if he were black, when he is actually bad, and would be laughed at if he were black. He is cloaking himself here, dismissing criticism by acknowledging it. One could even call it an appropriation.