The presence of white privilege is a topic that seems to be on everyone’s minds lately—and Macklemore is no exception.
The events surrounding the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury rulings have focused the national discussion squarely on the role white privilege played in the decisions to not indict the white officers who killed those unarmed African-American men. But this isn’t just a police issue—it’s also a growing concern in the world of hip-hop.
For years, the idea of white privilege in hip-hop and rap music was almost unheard of. On the contrary, a rapper being white was seen as a disadvantage. Artists like the Beastie Boys and Eminem had to earn the acceptance of hip-hop fans and even then, the narrative was often, “Yeah, he’s pretty good—for a white guy.” Until recently, no matter how “down” they were, white rappers seemed to represent the opposite of what fans wanted from their listening experience. But following Macklemore’s sweep of rap-category wins at the 2014 Grammy’s and Iggy Azalea’s subsequent rise to rap mega-stardom, people are beginning to question how much whiteness contributes to their success.
On Monday, Macklemore stopped by Hot 97’s morning show, where hosts Ebro and Rosenberg asked him about just that.
The hosts asked him, “Do you believe that your music got embraced by— let’s call it, for lack of a better term—white radio because you’re white and you rap?”
“Yes,” Macklemore replied.
He went on to explain, “I’ve thought about it and these are some things that have come up. Why am I safe? Why can I cuss on a record, have a parental advisory sticker on the cover of my album, and yet parents are like ‘you’re the only rapper I let my kids listen to.’ Why can I wear a hoodie and not be labeled a thug? Why can I sag my pants and not be a gang banger? Why am I on Ellen’s couch? Why am I on Good Morning America? If I was black, what would my drug addiction look like?”
The questions Macklemore raises are similar to those many have been asking in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Why, when the dead person is black, is the conversation about what he or she wore, who they knew, or whether or not they were good students? Why isn’t the only question that matters, “were his or her rights violated?”
Many believe the reason for this, quite simply, is white privilege—a term for societal benefits granted to whites that are not afforded to non-whites living in similar social and economic situations. White privilege can simply be the presumption of innocence and a more-reliable guarantee of certain unalienable rights. Or, as some rappers are starting to learn, the presumption that your art isn’t the product of illicit activity.
Many minorities feel they live in a system that constantly reminds them that they can’t exist the same as their white counterparts. At some point, black parents must have conversations with their children that the privileged majority don’t have to. It goes something like this: “Even though they sell them there, don’t hold a BB-gun you picked off a shelf in Walmart, or you could be mistaken for a criminal and shot. If your car breaks down, don’t knock on a neighbor’s door for help, or you could be mistaken for a criminal and shot. Even if it’s cold outside, don’t wear a hooded sweatshirt, because… well you get the idea.” Minorities must constantly make a cost-benefit analysis of everyday activities, like driving through certain neighborhoods or deciding whether to apply for a loan, always factoring in—consciously, or subconsciously—“well, I’m not white.”
A benefit of white privilege is the freedom to not have to think about that. White privilege gives its bearer the luxury of assuming that he or she, like everyone else, is judged as an individual and solely on his or her own merits. It also lets you deny that white privilege even exists, and if someone insists to you that it does, you never really have to talk about it. Compare this to the debate over affirmative action, or to the way the topics of white privilege and appropriation are handled in rap music.
Azealia explained passionately, “I feel just like in this country whenever it comes to our things—like black issues or black politics or black music or whatever—there’s always this undercurrent of kinda like a ‘fuck you.’ There’s always like a ‘Fuck y’all n****s, y’all don’t really own shit, y’all don’t have shit.’ And, that Macklemore album wasn’t better than the Drake record. That Iggy Azalea shit is not better than any fucking black girl that’s rapping today. And, when they give those awards out—because the Grammy’s are supposed to be, like, accolades for artistic excellence—Iggy Azalea is not excellent.” She goes on to point out the similarities between Iggy naming the reissue of her album Reclassified after Nicki Minaj named the reissue of her’s Reloaded. Azealia calls this “cultural smudging” or, in other words, appropriation.
“When they give these Grammy’s out,” Banks continues, “all it says to white kids is ‘Oh, yeah, you’re great. You’re amazing. You can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to black kids, ‘You don’t have shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.’ And it makes me upset.”
Azealia doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that Iggy’s rap name is also a very close approximation of her own. Later in the interview, after touching on the history of America’s exploitation of blacks through slave labor, Azealia tearfully exclaims, “at the very least y’all owe me the right to my fucking identity and to not exploit that shit. That’s all we’re holding on to, like, hip-hop and rap.” Iggy’s response on Twitter to the interview was dismissive of the issues of white privilege and cultural appropriation that Banks raised.
Macklemore, for his part, agrees with Banks.
“There’s a lot of truth in that [Azealia Banks] interview,” Macklemore said. “With white appropriation, absolutely.”
In one of her tweets, Iggy suggests that her success, and conversely Azealia Banks’s relative lack of success to this point, is solely the results of each person’s decisions and not related to race or politics. Macklemore disagrees and believes that appropriation has played a large role in his career. “Just because there’s been more successful white rappers, you cannot disregard where this culture came from and our place in it as white people,” the rapper said. “This is not a culture that white people started. I do believe that as much as I have honed my craft and put in years of dedication into the music that I love, I need to know my place.”
Macklemore has been accused of racial insensitivity in the past, but at the very least, this interview shows he has grown more thoughtful and reflective on issues of race and culture. Whereas Iggy Azalea doesn’t want to hear the suggestion that race plays a major role in her award nominations and doesn’t want to be part of a discussion on white privilege, Macklemore embraced the conversation, insisting on its importance.
“White people can turn off the TV when we’re sick of talking about race. White, liberal people want to be nice. We don’t want to be racist. We want to be, ‘Oh we’re post-racial. We don’t want to talk about white privilege and it’s all good, right?’ It’s not the case,” he said. “We have to get past that awkward stage of the race conversation. As a white person, we have to listen.”
White privilege doesn’t suggest that Macklemore skipped hard work. Any one who knows his story knows that Macklemore works as hard as any rapper you’ll meet. There is no doubt that Macklemore, like Iggy Azalea, has benefited from the same white privilege that permeates all parts of American society, but it isn’t his fault. He had no control over what skin tone he was born with, and it’s unfair to suggest that he shouldn’t have the right to capitalize on the advantages given to him. Macklemore owes no one guilt or shame for being who he is. What he’s learned, however— and what seems to have evaded Iggy Azalea—is that even though white privilege isn’t his fault, it is his duty to be aware of it and to understand how it affects the people and the world around him.
Screenshot via Hot 97/YouTube