Note: I met Macklemore back in 1999. At the time he was brand new on the scene, hustling to get his music played at local college radio in the Bay Area (I worked at KSZU’s “The Drum” with Kevvy Kev). He was a few years younger than I was, and he was humble. I remember him giving me and my friends his CD. I don’t remember the tracks from that particular project but it had that angsty backpacker sound that Atmosphere and “Anticon” were doing. Several years later, I’d run into him again at a show in Portland. We took a photo together and he remembered me from the station. Fast forward to 2011 and I was pleasantly surprised to see his name on a major festival billing with a guy named “Ryan Lewis.” About a year after that, he would quickly ascend to the top of the charts with his catchy ‘Thrift Shop‘ track and the rest is History. Since then, most people have assumed that he was an overnight success. With his fame and sometimes purposefully corny hooks, many have quipped that he’s not really “hip-hop” and simply another white person appropriating the culture. But, if you listen to the music that he’s written over the years, Macklemore has attempted to remain aware of his place in the culture, as well as the impact of White Supremacy and Privilege.
“This song sucks. It’s all over the place.” – Unexamined trolling comment
If we are arguing over whether this song is sonically pleasing or not, we are misguided in our focus. Perhaps it’s uncomfortable and lengthy layout is actually quite appropriate. That’s because there is nothing structurally pleasing about Systemic Oppression and the History of Racism in America. Certainly, getting White folks to understand “White Privilege” is not something that’s going to magically happen with just a couple 16-bar verses and a catchy hook. We are talking about a very complex topic, that Whites in general have yet to be ready and willing to intellectually process, let alone emotionally deal with the weight of it all. But, we do love us some Black music!
“We want to dress like, walk like, talk like, dance like, yet we just stand by/ We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?” – Macklemore
As a White kid growing up in the 90’s, my experience like many other youth of my generation was that almost everything “cool” seemed to be inspired by Hip-Hop culture. Rap music, Graffiti art, Baggy and Colorful fashions, TV shows like In Living Color, Martin, and Fresh Prince, were all responsible for not only shaping the style and soundtrack of the decade but fundamentally the direction of American culture in the 21st century. However it was more than just coolness. Hip-hop culture and it’s music would literally change my life and help to open my perspective far beyond my White world (“911 is a Joke“).
Of course, this phenomenon did not start with Hip-hop. Before Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock shook the world and before Sugar Hill Gang stole the Rapper’s Delight lyrics from Grandmaster Caz, Black America had already been responsible for creating everything from Disco and Rock N Roll, to Blues and Jazz. Not to mention being on the cutting edge of developing House Music and Techno in the urban neighborhoods of Detroit, New York, and Chicago. Like Hip-Hop, all of these art forms were created by Black Americans amidst the pressures of systemic racism, poverty, and state-sponsored violence. A unique genius and ingenuity that could only be born from such intense pressure to appear like diamonds from coal. In creating these things, Black America would give birth to languages and culture that would become more powerful than any religion.
“Do not ever forget that the biggest exporter in this country is Black culture. Our culture is what they send out to the world… If you go anywhere in the world, they send us through our culture. So, what are we but the greatest thing that America has ever sent out to the world.” – Rahiel Tesfamariam [Video]
The fact that Black Americans were originally brought here as African slaves, stolen from their homes, stripped of their history, language, family, even their names, and would ultimately end up creating the greatest cultural forces that this country has ever produced is very telling. Under the weight of all of that oppression they would also become the greatest athletes the world has ever known. They would become our greatest soldiers for justice and equality. Not to mention many of the greatest poets, entertainers, and actors alike. Meanwhile, fighting bravely for the U.S. in all of the Wars of the 20th and 21st century without ever receiving true equality in their own homeland. The hypocrisy is boundless, and the denial of its impact is a collective mental illness.
“So, now people want to listen because Macklemore made a song about White Privilege? – Twitter comment
Yes, Black folks and others have been speaking on this for years. What Macklemore is talking about is nothing new. But, the greatest obstacle to racial progress & social justice in the United States, as Martin Luther King once wrote from a Birmingham Jail, is not the most racist Whites or even the Ku Klux Klan, but in fact the average White person that is more concerned with maintaining order than pursuing justice. We see this example today when so many White people decry the ‘direct actions’ of Black Lives Matter groups, while simultaneously claiming that they are “not racist” but that these protestors are “going about it wrong.” We simply don’t get it, yet.
“Fuck Macklemore. Fuck this song. Fuck the narrative of supporting white people who talk about racism while most of them willingly do shit to hurt Black communities.” – Comment on Facebook
In the spirit of the late great Grace Lee Boggs (Black Panther leader & Chinese American woman), CONVERSATION must never be devalued. And what America needs right now more than anything is for White folks to have a very honest conversation about race and privilege. Because up until this point we clearly have not been willing, nor able to listen to what People of Color are saying. So, without this conversation that Macklemore and MANY others before him have been attempting to begin, there will be no LISTENING to People of Color. And it will only come from listening, that we can start learning. And only at that point can we begin to develop greater understanding, empathy, compassion, and support for Black America and their struggle.
Indeed, “BLACK LIVES” will not “MATTER” if White Americans continue to deny that the country was built upon White Supremacy. For “ALL LIVES” to “MATTER”, we must reach a point where the Government no longer wages a “WAR on DRUGS” that disproportionately targets and disparately sentences People of Color (Today, we have more Black bodies in prison for Drug crimes than there were slaves in 1865 #NewJimCrow). We must get to a point where growing up Black in America doesn’t mean that you are more likely to be killed by gang violence or by the Police, than go to a 4-year college. But, not just that. Currently, Black and Brown bodies are being used to traffic the drugs that middle-class and upper-class Whites often use without consequence or concern for where they originated. We must get to a point where being “Black” in America doesn’t mean that you are profiled on a daily basis simply based on your skin color. Because one day we must get to a point where Black skin doesn’t automatically trigger an ominous “alertness” in White people that does not exist when we see people who look like us. That whole “content of character” dream.
For All Lives to Matter, we must begin to recognize ALL of this systemic inequity and then we must begin to listen and learn from Black voices, if we want to start to make changes.
– NATE MEZMER
p.s. – Here’s MY PSA on “White Privilege” (for White people), It’s not what you think.