Late last week, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released a new song called “White Privilege II,” featuring the poet and singer Jamila Woods. In the song, released in advance of the duo’s imminent second album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made (due out February 26th), the Seattle MC reckons with various aspects of contemporary American racism and scrutinizes his position relative to it as a hugely successful white rapper. The song immediately inspired praise, scorn and conversation. Contributing editor Jonah Weiner spent time earlier this month with Macklemore and Lewis for a forthcoming Rolling Stone feature, and they discussed the song. Here are four things Macklemore told us about “White Privilege II.”
1. Macklemore and Lewis anticipated critiques of the song from white listeners and people of color alike.
“This song was a processing-out-loud,” the rapper says. “And it wasn’t, like, ‘How can we beat the critics to the punch? How can we exempt ourselves from this angle, and this angle, and this angle.’ You realize that you’re not going to beat it and you never could. And then it keeps coming back to: It’s not about me. Even though I am the subject, because I’m writing it from my point of view — which I thought was very important — starting the song at a protest, hearing ‘black lives matter’ for the first time, not knowing what to do, moving on to all of this internalized shit in my head that I’m processing, that I’m going through, hearing different people’s perspectives, coming to some sort of conclusion, still asking that question: Will I show up for black lives at the end of this? I had to do all this out loud and come to the conclusion that this is not about me. So if I’m put on blast, critiqued, broken down, questioned — all those things will happen, and they are completely valid. That’s part of the design of the conversation. If there’s a bigger teachable moment through this record, at the expense of me potentially being like, ‘Oh, I should have said this,’ or ‘I shouldn’t have said this,’ or ‘I see where that criticism is coming from,’ that’s OK.
“The question is, What type of human do I want to be? How do I want to use my platform? Do I want to be safe, under the umbrella of my white privilege? Or do I want to push back and resist? There’s not a right or wrong answer for any human out there, it’s just an individual question, and I think that, for a long time, we were safe. It’s easier, as a white person, to be silent about racial injustice. It’s easier. On paper. But it’s not easier on the whole, because injustice affects all of us, whether we know it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. At a certain point, this song might affect sales, this might affect touring, but it doesn’t matter if I’m not speaking up – if I’m not pushing myself to speak truth.”
2. In mentioning Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea in the song, Macklemore didn’t intend it as a diss of either artist — though he knew that using their names might sound that way.
“For me, that second verse is unpacking. It’s an unpacking moment of internalized criticism and self-doubt, and ‘What have I done,’ and letting the criticism infiltrate who I am. ‘Why am I insecure at a protest?’ And I think that people get put into boxes, and the conversation around cultural appropriation — I was at the forefront of that, rightfully so. And that conversation also included Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea, and that’s why their names are on the record.”
3. The song – which follows up a 2005 song called “White Privilege” – has its origins in a late-2014 Seattle protest that Macklemore stumbled upon, and a hip-hop icon who encouraged him to speak out.
“It was the night of Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, and I remember streaming it, watching the non-indictment, and feeling sick, physically sick, frustrated and angry. I got in my car, and I drove by these people assembled outside of the police precinct. I parked my car as the march was coming down the street, we proceeded to march all over Seattle, and we ended up shutting down the freeway. I was like, ‘What is my place here? What am I doing? I feel this overwhelming sense of injustice in my bones and I don’t know what to do about it, and I feel compelled to do something. How do I show up in an authentic way and be in solidarity?’
“It was a long night. And that ended up getting news coverage. Then I got on the phone with an O.G., whose name I want to keep off the record. A hip-hop artist I’d never talked to before. He sent me a DM on Twitter and then he called me, and he said, ‘I see you, I see what you’re doing.’ He was very complimentary about the music we’ve made, and it led into him saying, ‘You have a platform, but silence is an action, and right now, you’re being silent. You’re not saying anything about what’s going on, and because you’re a white rapper you have perspective and an insight onto these issues that you need to be speaking about. It’s very important that you engage your audience.’
“It was a defining moment. ‘Silence is an action’ was a perfect representation of where I had been. So it was like, I can continue to be safe, and to rest in my privilege, and to not speak up, and the system perpetuates itself – or I can try to engage in the conversation, knowing that I don’t have all the answers, knowing that I have so much to learn. And my level of discomfort, and the risk of me fucking up an interview, or saying the wrong thing – regardless of that, the system still lives on, and I still benefit from that system. And if we’re really out here trying to seek truth, and justice, that means that I need to try to engage not only myself in this conversation, but also the people that are listening to our music. Now, at this point, I had no fucking idea how to do that. But I knew that that was the next step.”
4. The song went through several rewrites, as Macklemore and Lewis solicited outside opinions from activists, academics, intellectuals and fellow artists, revising along the way.
“I think that, as a white person stepping into doing any sort of anti-systematic-racism type of work, asking yourself, ‘What is your intention?’ needs to happen on a consistent basis. Check yourself. Check yourself. Check yourself, like, constantly. ‘Why am I making this song? Why am I making this song? Why am I making this song?’ Because through all the variations of this record, we lost perspective. As you do on a lot of records. I remember a very pivotal point. The song was like halfway done and Ryan asked me, ‘Where do you go from here, now? You make this song. You call out yourself. And you talk about cultural appropriation. But at the same time, you’re benefitting from the same thing you’re calling out. And there’s no way not to, and there’s no way to make this record and exempt yourself from still benefitting in a certain capacity.’ And I think that I had to continue to come back to, ‘Is this record, with all of the inherent flaws in it, is it better in the world, or not?’ And I couldn’t answer that just by myself. Ryan couldn’t answer that just by himself. We had to work with other people in the community, we had to play it for other people in the community. We had to play it for people that have been at the forefront of this work, have been at the front lines, have committed their lives to changing the systems.”