Imagine a scenario in which you are about to run a footrace, for which the prize is a running-themed Grammy. Running is in your blood and you are, arguably, the most talented runner on the track. Your opponent, who happens to be white, just recently started racing and does not understand how much hard work you’ve put into your craft. Before the race begins, the officials let your opponent take a ten-step head start, just because he’s white. The race takes place, and even though the white challenger is not as talented as you, he wins because of his advantage. This scenario may seem unfair, which it is, but it is the harsh reality for people of color across many aspects of life, including the music industry. Through commodification and cultural appropriation, white artists have used their white privilege to surpass their African American counterparts in genres that have historically belonged to black culture.
What is privilege?
In Webster’s Dictionary, privilege is defined as “the right or immunity enjoyed by a person or persons beyond the common advantages of others.” In the context of white privilege, it means that from the beginning of American history, white people have had an invisible, systematic advantage over their black counterparts. These disadvantages were integrated in society with slavery and Jim Crow laws, which trickled down into the cultural world as well (Neville 261-269). Even when the African American community laid the groundwork for their own cultural genres like blues and rock ‘n roll, with hits like “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner, white artists like Elvis were instead credited as pioneers of the genre (Farley n.p.). It was not until hip-hop music hit the scene in the 1980’s that black artists finally able to own a unique, non-appropriated black voice.
What does white privilege have to do with rap music?
Rap is a genre that stems from historically black genres like soul, funk, and jazz. It was not too popular in the ‘80s in mainstream media, but it was very popular with resistance movements like the black power movement, which create a bond among members of the protest groups. The rap genre itself has roots as a voice for excluded, socioeconomic minority groups, specifically African Americans in the 1980’s. Rap music in the 1980’s connected the people of the projects with an empowering voice to stand up to the “man”, to their systematic oppressors. At the time, it was music used as a social expression for black pride as well as a tool used to discuss injustices like police brutality. The politicians at the time had no real regard for the struggles that African Americans faced, so this music provided a sense of escape. It was the perfect form of protest because the style allows for the delivery of a concentrated verbal stream in little time. Many of the influential rap pieces at the time were narratives, so it allowed rappers like Grandmaster Flash to spin tales of struggle while encouraging his listeners to take action against these injustices (Turino 93-121, Reeves 3-19).
As rap music’s popularity swelled and began to reach mainstream culture, it began to become commodified, lose its political meaning, and become nothing more than a ploy to make profit (Reeves 86). Enter: white people. As America’s racial majority, white artists seemed more relatable to a general audience. However, the country’s comfort level with white artists is evident because, as Spin explains, “a black artist has won Album of the Year only three times in this millennium.” This disproportionality has led ultra-talented black artists like Beyoncé to lose non-genre Grammy’s to arguably less talented white artists. Artists like Taylor Swift, Beck, and Adele have all taken the Album of the Year award over Beyoncé, but at the 2017 Grammy Awards, Adele seemed almost angry that she beat Sasha Fierce. “All of us artists here adore you,” Adele added to her acceptance speech. “What the f*ck does [Beyoncé] have to do to win album of the year?” (Josephs n.p.). A similar situation happened at the 2014 Grammy Awards, when white newcomer Macklemore took home best rap album for “The Heist”, beating out Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City”, his story of escaping the “influence” of urban life. Apologetically, Macklemore texted Lamar, saying “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” (Derschowitz n.p.).
Macklemore takes a stand, unlike other white artists.
After “robbing” Kendrick Lamar and later marching in the Ferguson protests, Macklemore released the 9-minute single “White Privilege II (featuring Jamila Woods)”, a follow up to his 2005 song by the same name. He ponders in the song if it was his place to be there, chanting “Black Lives Matter”, when he is not part of the group being marginalized. This sentiment parallels his career, where he puts a “pop” spin on a genre that has been a voice for discriminated-against black people, which some may see as diluting the message. Musically, the piece features saxophones and other brass instruments, which is indexical for jazz music like John Coltrane. At the beginning of the song, there is a chanting chorus in the background, which creates a sense of group unity. However, that chanting and group mentality ends when Macklemore questions if he is really part of the group, saying “We are not we… Is it my place to give my two cents?” The rest of the song features a soft piano and hip-hop beat. Because this song is not a danceable, party rap song, it forces the audience to really listen to the words and testimony of the featured speakers (Haggard n.p.).
Through different points-of-view from interviewed people, he explores what it means to be white in the face of a post-racial society. Jamila Woods’s featured vocals note that “silence is a luxury…hip-hop is not a luxury.” While it’s easy to be silent in the face of racism and bigotry, Macklemore notes that he needs to use his white privilege to better the world, even if the problems he is fixing do not directly affect him. Although Macklemore shows a sense of awareness in his rap music, many other white artists do not have to. Post Malone, for example, said in an interview, “If you’re looking for lyrics, if you’re looking to cry, if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop.” Malone’s ignorance to the history of rap music makes him what Vice author Douglas Greenwood would describe as a racial tourist, which is someone who do a disservice to “the [artists] who use the medium as a way of making sure black voices are still heard and respected in 2017” (Greenwood n.p.). It’s a tough topic to discuss, but majority groups, like white people, cannot stand in silence as racial tourists while fellow rappers face inequalities right in front of them.
Derschowitz, Jessica. “Grammys 2014: Macklemore Apologizes to Kendrick Lamar after Best Rap Album Win.” CBS News, 28 Jan. 2014. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.
Farley, Christopher John. “Elvis Rocks, but He’s Not the First.” TIME, 6 July 2004. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.
Greenwood, Douglas. “Post Malone, White Privilege & Why We Need to Stop Racial Tourism in Rap.” High’s Nobiety, 27 Nov. 2017. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.
Haggard, Ben, et al. “White Privilege II.” Recorded 21 Jan. 2016. This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, MP3 file, 2016.
Jospehs, Brian. “Reevaluating Every Time Beyoncé Lost in a Major Category at the Grammys.” Spin, 13 Feb. 2017. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.
Neville, Helen, et al. “Race, Power, and Multicultural Counseling Psychology.” Research Gate, 4 May 2014. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.
Reeves, Marcus. Somebody Scream!: Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Turino, Thomas. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. U of Chicago P, 2008.
Zambelich, Ariel. Ben Haggerty, A.K.A. Macklemore, and Jamila Woods Collaborated on the Song “White Privilege II.” Digital file, 29 Jan. 2016.