In 2014, the rapper known as Macklemore took the stage at a concert in Seattle wearing a large, hooked prosthetic nose and performed “Thrift Shop,” a song about the perks of being frugal. Needless to say, many Jews wondered why the rapper’s get-up – which also happened to include a long artificial beard – resembled something from a Goebbels poster. Macklemore was mortified. He vehemently denied the charge of anti-Semitism and claimed that the fact the costume cleaved closely to Jewish stereotype was completely accidental – which, understandably, many people found hard to believe. Fast forward two years and the rapper is once again embroiled in a scandal involving intolerance. Now, though, he isn’t the alleged perpetrator of prejudice. He’s the voice crusading against it.
The offending song this time is “White Privilege II,” the rapper’s new nine-minute opus about his struggle recognizing and “checking” his privilege as a white artist in a fundamentally black genre: “Where’s my place in a music that’s been taken by my race/culturally appropriated by the white face.” The new soliloquy – or apologia, as some have dubbed it – has garnered plenty of positive reactions, most notably from record producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri, who is pleased to see a white rapper wrestling with systemic racism. But in other corners of the Internet people have reacted to “White Privilege II” the same way they reacted to the “Thrift Shop” prosthetic nose faux pas. Despite Macklemore’s apparent good intentions and heartfelt apologies, many simply don’t trust him. As someone put it on Twitter recently: “It shouldn’t be lost on people that Macklemore decided to ‘check his privilege’ the month before his album drops.”
Essentially, the charge is this: Macklemore is an opportunist with a history of cultural and racial insensitivity, who exploits social justice movements for financial gain. For example, his mega hit, “Same Love,” is a gay rights anthem. But he is not gay, (or black). So who does he think he is, running around appropriating other peoples’ problems?
From where I stand, though, it doesn’t matter who he is. I’m a Jew and was not thrilled to see Macklemore impersonating Fagin from Oliver Twist onstage. But I am also gay. And I have concluded, since the release of “Same Love,” that the purity of an artist’s intentions are virtually irrelevant. Why? At just about the time “Same Love” was skyrocketing to success, I happened to visit a high school for a speaking engagement; and what I saw there was nothing short of remarkable – especially for someone who graduated in 2007, when nobody was “out” at school. Teenage boys, a lot of them the burly, surly variety, were listening to “Same Love” on their iPods — and they knew the words. They liked the song and they felt comfortable expressing that they liked it, because it was sung by a straight man in the mainstream. Macklemore, corny and opportunistic though he may have been, was preaching the merits of a social justice cause to an audience otherwise embarrassed by and prejudiced against it. And he has done the same thing this time around with “White Privilege II.” The appropriation, repackaging and possible dilution of grassroots social causes for mass consumption may be a galling for activists on the ground who have been preaching the truth for decades. But it’s good for progress at large.
In fact, Macklemore could be a closet Sarah Palin supporter, or even Jerry Falwell incarnate, and I still wouldn’t wish him gone. Because his music — though painfully earnest and in many cases, pretty bad — has had a significant positive effect on the world. Sure, it would be nice if it didn’t take a white, straight guy to create social change on a mass scale; it would be far better, if let’s say Kendrick Lamar’s ruminations about white privilege were more resonant with white teenage boys than Macklemore’s. But by and large, that isn’t the world we live in. It’s the world we hope to live in.
It is all so easy for adult progressives to forget that not everybody exists in a bubble of tolerance, or subsists on a daily diet of Salon.com, Upworthy, and the New York Times. The average white teenage boy at a Macklemore concert is probably not familiar with critical race theory, and until now was likely just as unfamiliar with the concept of white privilege. Progressives bemoaning the release of “White Privilege II” because its author is an imperfect messenger should ask themselves one question: What’s worse? That white teenage boys are forced to contemplate white supremacy on account of Macklemore? Or that they are never forced to contemplate it at all?Emma Teitel is a national columnist for the Toronto Star in Canada.