'This Song Is Uncomfortable': Macklemore And Jamila Woods On 'White Privilege' The rapper says he knew that releasing a nine-minute song that called out his own privilege would — and should — be seen by some as an unwelcome co-opting of the Black Lives Matter movement.

'This Song Is Uncomfortable': Macklemore And Jamila Woods On 'White Privilege'

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When a multi-platinum-selling rapper releases a song about white privilege, it will inevitably prompt equal parts praise and eye rolls - in this case, not just because that rapper is white, but because the rapper is Macklemore.


CORNISH: He's one half of the Grammy-winning duo behind the ludicrously catchy single "Thrift Shop." Macklemore and his producer, Ryan Lewis, know their way around a hook. But writing a song about racism, about the idea that being white inherently confers advantages, was admittedly a challenge...


CORNISH: ...One that he took up with many collaborators, including Jamila Woods, a Chicago poet and teacher. I spoke to them about the writing of the nine-minute song "White Privilege II" and about its initial inspiration, the Black Lives Matter movement. Woods has participated in protests in Chicago. Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, says the song's opening bars came out of his experience at a protest in Seattle over the Ferguson grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case.


MACKLEMORE: (Singing) Pulled into the parking lot, parked it, zipped-up my parka, joined the procession of marchers, in my head like, this is awkward. Should I even be here marching? Thinking, if they can't, how can I breathe? Thinking, if they chant, what do I say? I want to take a stance 'cause we are not free. And then I thought about it. We are not we. Am I on the outside looking in, or am I on the inside looking out?

MACKLEMORE: It starts with that moment of observing injustice happen again, me stepping into a protest with a lot of baggage when there is this moment of humanity that I'm - and injustice - that I'm feeling so compelled that I need to do something, yet also stepping into that space in my own head of, should I be here? Am I going to distract more than actually do any good by being present here and all of these questions that I had stepping into that space.

JAMILA WOODS: Yeah, I think hearing that verse was one of the most intriguing parts of the song to me because for me, the protests I've attended, I've seen and experienced some tension between, you know, white activists or even just white people attending protests who maybe don't necessarily have a moment of introspection who maybe are just more taking up air time kind of doing things that are distracting from what the protest is actually for. So to me it's an important thing not to just consider yourself an ally by showing up, but to really investigate, like, 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.


MACKLEMORE AND WOODS: (Singing) No justice, no peace, no racist police, no rest till we're free.

CORNISH: So it's a completely different mood you're setting here from some of your other even recent single, like "Downtown." And is there a moment where you thought, I need a little sugar to make this medicine go down, or was there a sense of, like, you know what? Here we are. You know (laughter)? Like, slow saxophone, moaning in the background. I mean, you kind of took it there right away.


CORNISH: And there are critics of the song who are like, this song is not fun, this song is, like, you know, not great.

MACKLEMORE: Purposefully, this song is uncomfortable. The music is uncomfortable. 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, like, we're trying to make this appeal to the masses. 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.

CORNISH: Now, you guys didn't really know each other before this, and having any kind of cross-racial discussion is hard (laughter) for most people in their regular life. Jamila, when you were first invited to collaborate, kind of what were your initial concerns, questions?

WOODS: Yeah. One of my initial concerns was understanding that this song was intended to reach, you know, the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis fan base majority-white audience - was that I don't typically think about addressing, you know, 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, you know, always people of color having the burden to explain issues of race to white people.

CORNISH: And Ben, for you, what were some of your kind of trepidations in bringing in another voice?

MACKLEMORE: I think that it was imperative to have a sense of community, to...

CORNISH: But just to - I want to pull it away from this language 'cause I feel like we're really academic right now. And I just feel like on a very basic level, you know, Jamila has said something interesting here, which is, she's thinking of your fan base, which, you know, she's describing as white (laughter).


CORNISH: And for you as someone, you know, who has talked about this and being in hip-hop...


CORNISH: ...Was there a concern of, like, OK, how do I talk about this...

MACKLEMORE: Yeah, absolutely.

CORNISH: ...How do I bring in a person of color without turning them into a mascot...

MACKLEMORE: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...What am I doing here?

MACKLEMORE: Right, right, right. It started with being silent for a long time around these issues and 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. So how can I participate without co-opting? How can I - knowing that I will benefit, knowing that this is co-opting but I still want to say something, knowing that it is never going to be perfect but knowing that at the end of the day, I think it's more important for me to say something than to remain silent.


WOODS: (Singing) Your silence is a luxury. Hip-hop is not a luxury.

CORNISH: This gets me to the point of the song where, Jamila, I believe we're hearing your voice, which is a kind of, like, choral moment. And, talk about, how did you come to this idea to rest, basically, towards the end of the song?

WOODS: In hip-hop, there's a lot of talk about issues that are affecting black people, but there's also the celebration of black life. And so wanting the ending to also feel like in that way we love black life, you know? So kind of having - wanting the ending to also have space because the whole song is very, very dense, and just the whole - the way that the music kind of shifts at that point was in efforts to do that.


WOODS: (Singing) What I got for me, it is for me. What we made, we made to set us free.

CORNISH: Well, Jamila Woods, poet and teacher, thank you for coming in.

WOODS: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: And Ben Haggerty is Macklemore, of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Thanks so much for coming in.

MACKLEMORE: Thank you for having us.


WOODS: (Singing) Your silence is a luxury.

MACKLEMORE: Can I say something?

CORNISH: Yes, yes.

MACKLEMORE: And I don't really know, like, what - I'm just kind of having this thought and I don't know if it's fully formed. You know, I think 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. I'm a good rapper, period. Why do I have to be a white rapper? And this perspective from certain people of, like, race shouldn't matter, like, I should just be judged on, like, the critique of my raps and that should be the end of it. And that's not the world that we live in. The fan base that I have access to, their resources, all of these things go back to the inherent privilege that I had because of the color of my skin. And it's really easy for white people in society to be like, oh, like, we're post-racial, or we're past that, or we have a black president or whatever it is to discard the fact that race is a factor. 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 while creating in the space of hip-hop.

CORNISH: The conversation with Ben Haggerty, aka Macklemore, and poet Jamila Woods went on for an hour. You can read more online at npr.org.

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