Before he was basically the biggest rapper in the country, with back-to-back No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 (“Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us“), and another Top 20 track (the treacly gay-equality anthem “Same Love”), rapper Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty wrote a song called “White Privilege.” (Sample lyrics: “Where’s my place in a music that’s been taken by my race / Culturally appropriated by the white face.”)
You see, Macklemore is the kind of rapper that those in the know would describe as a “white rapper,” and he has a lot more to say on the subject in Rolling Stone‘s recent cover story profile of him:
“If you’re going to be a white dude and do this shit, I think you have to take some level of accountability,” Haggerty says. “You have to acknowledge where the art came from, where it is today, how you’re benefiting from it. At the very least, just bringing up those points and acknowledging that, yes, I understand my privilege, I understand how it works for me in society, and how it works for me in 2013 with the success that The Heist has had.”
“We made a great album,” he continues, “but I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing on to something. A song like ‘Thrift Shop’ was safe enough for the kids. It was like, ‘This is music that my mom likes and that I can like as a teenager,’ and even though I’m cussing my ass off in the song, the fact that I’m a white guy, parents feel safe. They let their six-year-olds listen to it. I mean it’s just…it’s different. And would that success have been the same if I would have been a black dude? I think the answer is no.”
I think first congratulations are due to Macklemore for self-congratulating so articulately.
Furthermore, to me this quote exposes the practical uselessness of so much of the privilege discourse you see on the Internet and very rarely elsewhere. If one checks his privilege, as he is often encouraged to do by seemingly concerned and arguably condescending individuals, while continuing to go about his business and do the things he would be doing anyway, doesn’t his behavior become flagrantly imperialistic? I mean, you can do all sorts of shitty things like robbing old people or rhyming “change us” with “change us,” and just because you are aware that it’s a shitty thing to do doesn’t make it less shitty. In fact, that awareness makes it shittier: “I’m taking advantage of the unfairness of the world, and what?” It seems like in this case, ignorance would make the shittiness more forgivable, if we are agreeing that it’s shitty for a white man to be rapping. I don’t know that it is, in principle, though if this specific white man quit rapping, I wouldn’t complain.
But shouldn’t a white man who has hip-hop in his heart and awareness in his brain (of his privilege and of injustice and of how white audiences will gravitate to him just cuz) stop rapping? Shouldn’t he convince his listeners that to balance out systematic power, they would be doing a much better thing for the world by turning him off and listening to Kendrick Lamar?
(Race matters aside, you would, by the way, be doing a better thing for the world and your brain if you listened to Kendrick Lamar instead of Macklemore.)
But maybe Macklemore is no model for putting big ideas into practice. Early on in Brian Hiatt’s piece, the writer notices that Macklemore is wearing Nikes, which would seem to contradict his anti-consumerist song “Wings” (“These Nikes help me define me / But I’m trying to take mine off”). In response, Macklemore says:
“Am I being a hypocrite? Absolutely. But that’s OK. I’m a fucking human being and I don’t need to be perfect. I can make a song like ‘Wings’ and wear Nikes.”
You can shrug everything off by saying, “I’m a fucking human being,” or you can actually be a fucking human being and use your fucking human being brain so that you become the change you say you wish for the world. I don’t know if the above quote signals more privilege or just laziness. Maybe sometimes they’re one and the same.