'This Song Is Uncomfortable': Macklemore On The Contradictions Of 'White Privilege'
Macklemore knows what you think of him. The Seattle rapper born Ben Haggerty told me that he spent the first few days following the release of his new song, "White Privilege II," reading the thinkpieces that greeted — or bemoaned — its arrival. And then he had to take a break, take Twitter off his phone.
Not a surprise given the subject matter — or the fact that the song landed on the Internet exactly as a snowstorm bore down on the East Coast, giving "White Privilege II" the feel of a storm of its own, to be handled with equal parts hype and snark. Before Macklemore arrived at NPR's Washington, D.C., headquarters, we chose a smaller studio than we normally would for this conversation, because it felt like one we didn't want to conduct across a large table.
He introduced himself as Ben. He and Jamila Woods, a poet and singer from Chicago who sings the song's final lines, each took their place at a microphone. We spent the next hour getting into how the song came to be, what it was like writing it, what they think of the response, how Macklemore has internalized some of the criticism he has earned in the years since his breakthrough album, The Heist, made him a pop star and how that affects his work.
What aired on All Things Considered was a sliver of that discussion — so much so that we are posting this transcript of the longer conversation. It's been edited for clarity and gets more deeply into many of the questions that have been raised by and about the song since its release — but also the concept of white privilege as it's understood by Macklemore, who has been thinking, and rapping, about it for a decade.
Audie Cornish: Ben, this is your second song on this subject. The first time you did a song called "White Privilege," in 2005, it was really from the position from within hip-hop as a fan, right? Talk a little bit about that.
Ben Haggerty/Macklemore: Yeah. It was, at the time, an observation: I was observing the cultural shift of hip-hop music in terms of who was going to the shows, who was making the music, who was kind of at the forefront in terms of sales and in terms of touring. And I was observing it from a place of, "This is very different from when I first started to attend hip-hop shows. This is very different than the music that I grew up listening to. It has changed drastically." And I wrote the song from that perspective.
And since then, we have seen the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the incidents that sparked it. "White Privilege II" actually starts with someone joining a procession of marches, at what I assume is a Black Lives Matter protest. I don't know if this is something you actually experienced?
Haggerty: Yeah, it was. It was the night of the Darren Wilson non-indictment. We were in the office huddled around the computer screen, and I remember feeling extremely frustrated and angered, that feeling of "How is this happening again?" and not really knowing what to do. I ended up driving to a meeting, [but] I sat down in the meeting and immediately felt this restless, "I need to do something. I should go back." I left the studio and drove by the police precinct, and there were people assembled outside.
And where were you?
Haggerty: I was in Seattle. And it starts there. It starts with that moment of observing police brutality happening, again, with no accountability — and me stepping into a protest with a lot of baggage, feeling out of protest shape, when there's this moment of injustice and I am feeling so compelled that I need to do something, yet also stepping into that space in my own head of, "Should be here? Is there something that I'm going to get called out for, being here? Am I going to distract more than actually do any good by being present here?" And all of these questions that I had.
Jamila, you were nodding there. I don't know if you've been a part of these protests, where you are in Chicago. But is this an idea that you've ever considered — like, for a white person coming to this protest, how do they participate? What would be constructive?
Jamila Woods: Yeah, I think hearing that verse was one of the most intriguing parts of the song to me. The protests I've attended, I've seen and experienced some tension between white activists, or even [just] white people attending protests, who don't necessarily have a moment of introspection — who maybe are just taking up airtime, you know, destroying things or just doing things that are distracting from what the protest is actually for. To me, I feel like it's an important thing not to just consider yourself an ally by showing up, but to really investigate what your role can be in a productive way. And that comes from authentically engaging with the people — the black people — who are leading the protest.
Now, you guys didn't really know each other before this, and having any kind of cross-racial discussion is hard for most people in their regular life. Jamila, when you were first invited to collaborate, what were your initial concerns?
Woods: One of my initial concerns was understanding that the song was intended to reach the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis fan base — majority white audience. I don't typically think about addressing a white audience with my work, and so, trying to think about an authentic way to engage in that and not have it come off as always people of color having the burden to explain issues of race to white people — I really kind of struggled with that at first.
Ben, for you, what were some of your trepidations in jumping into a song like this and bringing in another voice?
Haggerty: I don't think I had any trepidations about bringing in another voice. I think it was imperative to have a sense of community, in terms of creating this song.
But just to — I want to pull it away from this language, because I feel like we're very academic right now. Jamila said something interesting here: She's thinking of your fan base, which she's describing as white. For you, was there a concern of, "How do I talk about this? How do I bring in a person of color without turning them into a mascot? What am I doing here?"
Haggerty: Absolutely. Well, I think it was ... to start the song, I'm just going to start talking. It started with being silent, for a long time, around these issues — in a social setting, not wanting to mess up. And realizing that I can do a tweet, I can do an interview, but the greatest tool that I have as an artist is to make a song. That is where my platform extends the longest. So, in making a song about race, or about police brutality, or about white privilege or white supremacy or cultural appropriation, where do you start? And I wanted to start with me showing up at a protest in a place of fear, thinking about myself too much, not knowing if it was OK to say "Black Lives Matter" at that exact moment. That's where this record came from: "How can I engage in this discussion knowing that I will benefit, knowing that this is co-opting, but [that] I still want to say something?"
Inherently, the system in which the song operates is flawed. Inherently, my place in talking about this is going to have contradictions. How do I do this from an authentic place, knowing that it should be called out, knowing that it is never going to be perfect, but knowing that, at the end of the day, it's more important for me to say something than to remain silent?
OK, so you sit down to start to write. And from the opening of the song, people know they're getting something different: slow saxophone, moaning in the background — you kind of took it there right away.
There are critics of the song who are like, "This song is not fun." Was there ever a moment when you thought, "I need a little sugar to make this medicine go down. I need to make this a 'Thrift Shop' in order to sell this particular message"? Or was it more a sense of, "You know what? Here we are."
Haggerty: No, no — purposefully, this song is uncomfortable. The music is uncomfortable. We approached this record like a play. I don't think it was our intention to make it uncomfortable — I just don't think that there was a space to start from where we were like, "Yo, we're trying to make this appeal to the masses. Let's make this a 3-minute-and-30-second song and try to get it on the radio." That was never the point. We wanted to make a play. We wanted to show different perspectives through the music, and have almost different acts.
But if you're trying to reach the widest audience, could that have been the call? There's a part in the song where you describe a mother approaching you and saying, "You're the only hip-hop that I let my kids listen to." Did you feel like you needed to reach that crowd?
Haggerty: I don't think that this subject matter is built for easy listening. Or accessibility, in terms of playback value. I think that that would be disingenuous to the content of the record; if we tried to make some sparkly pop record out of a song about police brutality, that would have been off-base.
Halfway through the song, Ben, you note the often-used argument that white pop stars borrow heavily from black artists — and you mention Elvis, Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea by name. I know that there has been a lot of back-and-forth about that online; do you regret using names? Has that distracted from the message?
Haggerty: I think it has distracted from the message. We live in a world where things move very quickly on the Internet, and I watched the conversation shift from white privilege to, "Did he dis Iggy Azalea?" I think it's a lot easier and a lot more comfortable for mass media to grab onto something like a potential dis or someone calling somebody out, versus the issues that I was trying to get at in this record. And it's a deflection. It's a distraction.
We should say, Iggy Azalea tweeted over the weekend that rap is global, that she makes pop-rap. And she was kind of dismissive of this argument that she had to essentially be an activist to work in the genre. What's your response to that? I think there are probably rappers, black and white, who feel that way, to some extent — that they make pop.
Woods: Yeah, I don't think it's necessary to call yourself an activist or to go to protests in order to be considered a part of hip-hop. But participating in hip-hop culture, you have to understand the history of hip-hop and how it was created as a way for people of color who were living in a disenfranchised community to have a voice and to really empower themselves. And so there's a way in which, as a white artist in hip-hop, in the system that's created to have white people feel comfortable or relatable, there's erasure of the history of what comes with hip-hop. So it's not necessarily that you have to be an activist, but just to be mindful of the broader culture that hip-hop is and how to remain authentically engaged in that. Hip-hop is also about talking about where you come from, and kind of being authentically you, and so I think that's the most important thing.
Ben, what's your response to that idea?
Haggerty: I think that Iggy Azalea, like myself, has used hip-hop to her benefit. And that is her right, and that is my right, to be able to make art that speaks to us. But it is important, as Jamila said, to understand the history, and to come from a point of view that is true to who you are. You don't need to be an activist, but I do think that it is important to realize how whiteness operates in terms of pop culture: the immediate platform that we are given as white artists, whether it be on the radio, or with program directors, or people that are buying our music, or people that are coming to our shows. It is important to realize that we immediately have privilege in those spaces that people of color don't have access to immediately, and to educate oneself about the systemic, the systemic reasons behind that. And that's not to say that Iggy Azaela shouldn't rap, or that I shouldn't rap, but there's a certain amount of accountability that I think is important if you are going to participate in the culture.
You guys are very calm in this room, but the creative process is a journey. What were the moments of the song that you clashed, that you had to push back and say, well, look, I really want to get this particular phrase or message out?
Woods: [The song is] kind of set up as a journey: It starts out with a lot of introspection and a lot about Ben, and kind of moves towards community and asking bigger questions about white supremacy and white privilege. In terms of the question of where would I sing, where would I write something and also what parts of the song were necessary, I had to kind of push back at points, wondering, "Is it necessary to go through all of the internal thinking?" And I think what I came to understand through talking with Ben and Ryan was that there was a goal of not alienating listeners — so, trying to kind of be vulnerable and trying speak to feelings of discomfort or being unsure what white people might feel, and kind of using that as a way to get people. So you don't just start out by saying "white supremacy," laying it all out, and then maybe losing people.
But I think it's funny, the question you're asking is almost like a literal moment of a very meta-question, which is: "Is this about you, Ben Haggerty? Like, where do I, the black voice, fall in this song about white privilege?" Were there moments where you really weren't on the same page?
Haggerty: I mean, it's the creative process. I don't think that there was one definitive [conflict], like, "Oh we really beefed over this bar," or something like that. I think that what we strived to do with this song is workshop it — have conversations around each bar, and everyone had a pen. I'd write stuff that would get scratched out. We would keep working until we felt good about where the piece was at.
What's the intention of the song, at the end of the day?
Haggerty: The intention of the song, at the end of the day, is to start a conversation. And to utilize the platform that we have as artists, the reach that we have, to engage our audience in a conversation about race. One that can be uncomfortable, that comes with a lot of fear of not wanting to mess up, of not wanting to say the wrong thing, but just stepping into the space and learning.
Woods: I think, for me, the intention was for listeners of the song to feel something, to feel moved by the end. That's something I feel like you can't really get all the time from reading an article or watching a video. At least for myself, looking at what's happening, it's a constant state of emotional distress and trauma and almost like a saturation, to the point where, in order to act, you have to kind of stop engaging. So, just trying to use that as an entry point to motivate people to action through an emotional sphere, versus a cerebral one.
Haggerty: Can I say something? I'm just kind of having this thought and I don't know if it's fully formed; it's probably not.
That's the best kind.
Haggerty: You know, in terms of the white rapper conversation — I think that there is this want or desire, as a white rapper, to just be classified as a rapper. Like, "I don't want to be a 'white rapper' — I'm a good rapper, period." And this perspective from certain people of, like, "Race shouldn't matter; I should just be judged on my raps and that should be the end of it." And I think that that's not the world that we live in. The fan base that I have access to, the resources, having equipment to record with in the first place — all of these things go back to the inherent privilege that I had because of the color of my skin.
It's really easy for white people in society to be like, "We're post-racial, we're past that, we have a black president," or, "I have black friends," or, you know, "I'm a good rapper" — whatever it is, to discard the fact that race is a factor in my career, or in somebody else's career. That's a conversation that I see often, that race shouldn't matter in this, but it completely does. And I think that it's negligent for a white artist participating in this culture to say that their race doesn't give them a certain set of advantages.
I guess the question would be, then, is the best way to use your platform to do a song like this — which at the end of the day, people could interpret as more being about you — than to do something with your platform? Which would be to, say, have a label and bring on more artists of color, whom you think should be given a chance? Have you created another scenario where people can basically say, "It's all about you"?
Haggerty: Right. Maybe. Maybe. I think that what is going to determine if this was all about me, or if this is bigger, is the conversations that come next, and highlighting other artists and using our resources and our fan base to shed light on not only people in the movement that are active and engaging in this anti-racist work, but also artists that might not have the same opportunities that I had. This song is a very preliminary step in what I am hoping will be lifelong work. And that's personal accountability, and accountability to the community. That, to me, is what is going to determine whether or not this song is inevitably about me or something bigger.
But, that's one that I have to keep coming back to. And we were talking last night about not wanting to make this, like, a press run. Like the minute that this becomes, "Oh, now I am the expert, and now I'm talking about Black Lives Matter," or "Now I'm the expert on white privilege." ... I am the complete opposite. I'm stepping into the conversation, I'm learning, I'm trying to read, I'm trying to engage. I'm going to make mistakes along the way, and I don't want to be like, "Let me hog up as much space as possible now that I've made this song." That would be counterproductive. I think it's speaking about the song, getting some of the intentions out, and then going back and creating a curriculum, figuring out how to get into a room with young people to have a discourse. The action is the next piece of this song.