a racist song about white privilege? macklemore and his critics

macklemoreWPII-1024x1024Macklemore’s hiphop career has a reputation for artistic independence. So his lyrical commentary on the politics of American racism is no surprise. White Privilege II (yes, part of a series on the subject) is the artist’s internal struggle to fit himself into the Black Lives Matter movement. He is a white artist in an industry rooted in black musical culture, and the songs reflect on this tension.

Not surprisingly, the white rapper’s commentary on race has drawn some criticism. One particularly energetic youtube contributor had some rather sharp remarks. They are worth a listen:

One of a number of critical perspectives swelling with participatory media, Gazi has a personality for Youtube. Vibrant. Passionate. He brings a sharp and direct message about racial belonging and what it means to be a part of a community. In the process, he makes some strong claims about the abusive cultural power that is whiteness, material exploitation and  reparations.

The youtube critic makes the cleverish point that Macklemore’s song turns BLM protests into a stage for Macklemore to talk about his personal struggle. Gazi uses “whiteface” to explain the point, always bordering on an offensive treatment of his white colleague. The contrast of BLM’s purpose and the artists inward struggle is awkward, to say the least. Macklemore struggles with how to relate to the movement when black men are under a virtual siege by state power to incarcerate and kill. Routine shootings of unarmed men with little legal consequences make Macklemore’s song about fitting in seem tone deaf.


The song is about the artist’s struggle to understand what role he can play as a white sympathizer. He is self-aware of the music’s cultural roots and expresses obvious sympathy for the movement. But, for popular critics like Gazi, it is tough to overlook how Macklemore’s message comes in a genre forged by black American culture. And the white rapper’s popular success puts him on a Forbes list of best paid. Forbes put Macklemore at 32m, calling the Seattle musician a Hip Hop king. Familiar black figures also dominate Forbes’s wealth rankings. Jay Z pulls in a cool $60m; Dr. Dre is the moneymaker at $620m.

So, a white performer is among the most well paid musicians in a genre culturally rooted in black and Hispanic American culture. He writes a song discussing his feelings toward the movement for racial justice rather than problems of racial justice. At both the level of lyrics and genre level, the song seems ripe for accusations of appropriation.

Macklemore is profiting from white privilege. He knows it. He acknowledges it. But that is not enough. With a mixture of outrage and contempt, Gazi underlines how Macklemore has taken another people’s movement and profited from it. Reparations is as simple as giving back a phone, he says.

This kind of criticism is valuable but needs careful qualification. It challenges common sense [read: white], though I’m still not convinced by this line of reasoning. I say this as a supporter of both socialist and racial justice values. I appreciate the radical stand, but such commentary here seems more heat than light. These critics make me wonder how, as a white person, I would “give back the phone.” Maybe that analogy is just too shallow to get at the true importance of this issue.

And I may have to disagree with Seems like Macklemore’s internal struggle is fair game for lyrics. I suppose I would focus less on how the artist is profiting from talking about black oppression and more on him reflecting on white discomfort in seeking to remedy injustice. Potentially, he is giving white fans a language to overcome reluctance to stand up for others . . . even while risking your own social wealth (that is white privilege).

It is nice to see a radical critique that goes further than I would. Still, I’d find it more convincing if

1. the analogies were less mindlessly reductive (“let’s just give the phone back”)
2. the presenters here would recognize that they are complaining about some of the same things M is thinking through

Why is such a reductionist demonstration of white privilege bad? Poor analogies hurt understanding. Reducing white privilege to the exchange of material object allows white culture to reject remedies out of hand.

This poster’s core point is still valid, though: Macklemore’s lyrics are about his response to racial tension rather than the racial issues themselves. What this duo do not seem to recognize in their critical fervor is the potential value having this white-minded (and sympathetic, in my reading) reflection on the struggle for justice.

A part of me would love to talk to those with this radical perspective to see if they care for complexity (the larger question of how well youtube conduct public discussion begged). For instance, the question of reparations for exploitation of material resources (including the history of black labor). But how do we quantify how much money goes to Indigenous Americans? Can we suggest that any success (derivation of wealth from use of these lands) in America should be seen as on the backs of dead and eradicated native populations? If so, should a portion of black wealth be considered owed to the native population who died to give the land and resources that provided for both black and white wealth?

My more radical friends would (and should) object. Not only did whites clearly benefit more from the forcible removal of natives, but Africans were forcibly imported. They did not choose to oppress natives. Therefore, black Americans cannot be held responsible. Makes sense. But here is the problem: this is the same logic a white person uses to absolve themselves of guilt for the history of slavery and current oppression of black communities: “I was not born and had no choice in President Jackson’s homicidal Westward expansion/midcentury Japanese internment/shooting of Michael Brown. Why should I pay? It is not my debt.”

A modern white person might say they cannot be held responsible for native oppression two centuries past but they might also say that, just as black folks should not have to pay reparation to natives despite profiting to some degree from “their” land, “as a white person, I didn’t even exist when today’s black oppression began.”

This is a tired logic I hear too often in racial discussions with my white peers.

But the question remains: Should highly energetic youtube commentators be paying some Indigenous trust fund every time she plugs in her phone? Will it not use coal from the ground? How should we compensate for the use of land stolen from indigenous peoples?

I think anyone wrestling with these questions of but I have trouble disentangling

Should we, rather, assume that the original white sin of slavery somehow absolves black Americans from responsibility for participating in a system that is founded on the backs of a genocide?

My point is that it’s both complicated and risky to assign historical debts to races. But beating up Macklemore for being a white artist thinking about his role in racial injustice is the left eating itself. Claiming M is racist in his personal reflection on his white role in the modern civil rights era is a bit of a luxury when I think about having to deal with types like my southern relatives at Thanksgiving:

“We needed to move out of that neighborhood,” says the older white man chewing his turkey enthusiastically.
“Oh really?”
“It got too dark.”
“City not fixing the lights?”

He just looks at me and grins as if I’m in on the joke.

Racism. These are the experiences many whites get to have. Undiluted pleas for racial solidarity in a wink over a beer. The best of us push back at these moments of division, but this perspective on racism in America, the kind of safe access white people have to racial animosity, makes people like Macklemore appear saintly. Flawed, but a happy relief from an often ignorant if not racist white culture.

Cloistered away in the academy or in any like-minded thinking group allows us to see enemies in potential partners. That means coalitions fall apart in a competition to be more attuned and more right in such struggles. Do racists attack one another for not being racist enough or are they too busy being unified by a common fear?

Change only comes with a political critical mass. Critical mass does not come when factionalism trumps goal-minded unity. But a real change does not come from the mainstream. Radical voices keep us honest. I just hope they keep us honest with better analogies. Otherwise, they just become fodder for more reactionary hot air.

But, I’m not a black man.

Al Jazeera Abandons Cable’s Sinking Ship

Al Jazeera America (AJAM) has stepped away from its bid to develop a presence on American cable systems. The network’s retraction may be a good sign for the award-winning news channel. The story of AJAM’s withdrawal is more than another anecdote about Americans’ waning interest in news or the troubles for news in a new media environment. It is a sign that points to the future of media in a networked and global environment that mixes government and commercial aspirations.

AJAM sprang from a sense on the part of Qatari officials that AJ needed a presence on American cable (legacy broadcasting) to accomplish its goals. The goals, however, were not entirely clear. AJAM’s objectives appeared to be split between a public diplomacy mission and quasi-commercial aspirations. If nothing else, the public diplomacy mission was forced to funnel its efforts through the commercial jungle of US distribution industries and, thus, behaved as a commercial operation despite funding from Qatar.

Operating under such split motivations created an incoherent mission, further compounded by the logistics of channel operation in the United States. Imagine, for a moment, a government agency with national-interest motivations employing hundreds of professionals culled from commercial operations like CNN and MSNBC. Journalists, chief editors, media industry lobbyists, all more familiar with commercially motivated media operations, redirected the AJ media network toward profit-minded methods and operations.

Fast-forward to 2015, two years into the venture. AJAM’s directors, despite advice from Washington DC tech/law consultants (one of which I interviewed) had pushed cable carriage at great expense (cue purchase of Gore’s Current TV). Around 2011, AJ’s executives plotting their American entry strategy ignored future-minded advice that went something like this.

“Forget cable. It is a dying industry watched by an aging population. Invest in the best app technology and get that app on a variety of 21st century platforms: mobile tech like phones and tablets, the Xboxes, Playstations, etc. Buttress your website to cater to a new generation of opinion makers. In essence, position yourself for tomorrow rather than 1990.”
It was a gamble. Just like the investment in cable, the network could expect considerable losses in its first several years of operations. But, the thinking goes, being 20th in a younger new media world presented better prospects (both diplomatic and commercial) than 4th in broadcasting/cablecasting where total subscribers was shrinking almost every quarterly report.
Longterm survival as a media company wasn’t guaranteed by a new media strategy. Online news is a diffused and less centralized world than the diplomacy-minded faction of AJ’s network developers would like, but it was a forward-thinking strategy. We can see this strategy in James Murdoch’s push for News Corp to invest in Vice News. A younger, male demographic courted by Vice’s hardboiled and aggressive image was appealing to any company interested in attracting future advertising revenue.
I might add another risk attached to this “good” advice. Circumventing US cable companies is also a risk. Corporate distributors like Comcast and Time-Warner Cable are notorious for stifling new means of distribution. Going the cable route locked AJ into legacy business relationships, relationships that would limit online business strategies. It is not coincidence that cable carriage deals forced AJ to cease offering Al Jazeera English’s content to American Youtube users.
Still, AJ’s directors split their efforts, creating online presences as well as going for the cable gambit. AJ+ and fairly robust news offerings online showed a dual strategy, however limited by the restriction imposed on AJ’s content distribution foisted by major US cable players.
AJ’s retraction from cable is also likely a reinvestment in the new media environment. AJ may have understood the cost of pushing for traditional distribution, but this move signals how the channel is reassessing its initial strategy and the near irrational sense of legacy media’s power in the modern American media mediascape. Add to the total cost a couple of lawsuits filed by Goreaggrieved employees and the American affluent they cover . . . certainly the cost of doing business in America began to outstrip Qatar’s subsidy to the channel, all while Qatar’s natural gas prices plummet.
We are left to wonder how many millions may have been saved by heeding the advice of new media advocates in the 2010s. $500 million for a tanking cable channel could have made one slick app and positioned Al Jazeera at the top of app offerings across platforms.