Flobots' Jonny 5 on Macklemore's "White Privilege II" and Black Lives Matter

Editor's Note: Late last week, hip-hop artist Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis released a new track titled "White Privilege II," and debate about its merit, as well as larger conversations about race, began immediately. The pair behind megahit "Thrift Shop" has been the source of controversy before: When Macklemore's album won four Grammys in 2014, many critics argued that it was at the expense of superior records by black artists such as Kendrick Lamar. The 2012 single "Same Love," Macklemore's anti-homophobia anthem, while admittedly another huge hit that expressed views of a more "tolerant" mainstream audience, also garnered criticism as a preachy gloss of complex subjects by an outsider steeped in his own heterosexual, male and — you guessed it — white privilege. We contacted activist and organizer Jamie Laurie, aka Jonny 5 of Flobots, whose NOENEMIES Project brought music in support of #ReclaimMLK efforts at Denver's MLK Day Marade. Jonny 5 is also a white rapper. We asked for his take on "White Privilege II." The following are his thoughts.

Well, first, let’s set aside aesthetics. This song does not seem interested in being assessed musically. It is a song with a mission. That mission, it seems, is to challenge white America to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s a laudable mission, and a heartfelt effort. But there is also something about the song that I find frustrating and incomplete. Namely, it calls us urgently to participate in a process it cannot define. The nine-minute guided tour of Macklemore's wrestling with his white privilege immerses us in “a lot of opinions, a lot of confusion, a lot of resentment” in a way that is heavy on confession but light on direction. When it’s over, the need to “show up” for black lives feels more acute than ever, but as a listener, I'm no closer to knowing what showing up means.

And yet the criticisms levied against the song offer no path forward, either. If anything, they could be the song’s fifth verse.

The issue, I believe, is not a failure on Macklemore’s part, but rather the way in which the paradigm of “white privilege” operates in public dialogue. While intended as a tool to perceive and dismantle injustice, it very easily becomes a standard of measurement by which everyone falls short.

The popular understanding is that acknowledging privilege helps us dismantle structural racism. But the bridge from the former to the latter is difficult to discern, and the easiest thing is just not to try to cross it. Consider how Macklemore’s self-doubt, anxieties and personal experiences of critique manifest in the song — as a barrage of unanswered questions. Should Macklemore have gone to Ferguson? Is it “okay” for white protesters to say “Black Lives Matter”? Is white participation in hip-hop inherently exploitative? What constitutes pure intentions? Should white people even speak?

These sorts of apprehensions about participation are no doubt familiar to anyone who has spent time in multi-racial spaces. This paralyzing white angst is, without a doubt, authentic. But is it productive?

My conclusion, after many years of wrestling with it, is no. It’s good to be reflective. It’s helpful to be humble. It’s valuable to learn to listen. But fixating on questions of one’s own okayness tends to send us spiraling into a vortex. The white quest for validation creates a whirlpool of desperation and narcissism that drains energy from all involved. In moments when we need to take up less space, we end up taking up far more.

Now, perhaps a trip through the vortex is an inevitable rite of passage. But the pool is not the destination. The longer we wallow in the pool, the easier it is to forget the mission. 

The mission is not merely to acknowledge privilege. 
The mission is to dismantle structural racism.
The mission is to show up for black lives.

So why don’t we feel like we’ve gotten any closer? I think the issue lies in how white privilege plays out in our current culture. As Americans, we’re accustomed to processing everything through a lens of individualism. In the digital age, we’re trained to process all information as intellectual capital. In this context, the art of acknowledging privilege serves the quest for okayness and becomes a way to enhance our personal brand. As does the art of critiquing others’ acknowledgement of it. In a vacuum (i.e., the Internet), this process can go on forever.

The opposite of a vacuum, and the way out of this quagmire, is community. Communities are the space in which talking about injustice can lead to action. These actions are the bridge between acknowledging privilege and dismantling white supremacy. Communities can pave a path from “awareness” to genuine opportunities to dismantle structural racism.

The nice thing about communities is, you don’t have to look far to find one.

Last week, at Denver’s Martin Luther King day Marade, 2,000 people wearing black surged forth from Civic Center Park before the designated time. I was one of them. We were responding to a call to #ReclaimMLK, an effort to connect King’s radical vision to today’s movements.We were specifically lifting up the case of Michael Marshall, a homeless black street preacher living with mental illness who was killed by Denver sheriff’s deputies. As the latest outrage in a long period of public reckoning with systemic abuse in the Denver jails, replete with shocking videos and resulting lawsuits, Marshall’s death serves as a reminder of both the difficulty and the necessity of dismantling structural racism.

As we marched that day, we repeated a question: “Why did Michael Marshall die?” This question, like the questions Macklemore's "White Privilege II" asks, does not have a satisfactory response. No answer will be sufficient, because Michael Marshall should not have died.

But there is something about this question that differs fundamentally from the other questions about white participation: It does not send us into a spiral. It moves us forward. Dwelling on this question keeps us focused on systemic oppression and increases the possibility of transforming the system. Marching behind the question is a way of showing up for black lives. 

Marches have a way of answering questions quickly. In this case, the answer was yes. Yes, white people showed up. Yes, white people sang songs from the black tradition. Yes, white people chanted “Black lives matter.” Surely there were questions ricocheting in the minds of the marchers, but there was no time to dwell. Questions resolved quickly because decisions did not happen in a vacuum; they happened within community and at service of a larger question. The question Why did Michael Marshall die? was at the service of a larger question — How can we stop our own paid public servants from taking the lives of the most vulnerable? — which serves a larger question: What actions can we take to dismantle structural racism?

That day, the action was to march. On other days, undoubtedly those actions include talking about white privilege, and talking about “White Privilege II,” too. The isolation of the Internet threads threaten to pull us inward and constrict us. But in community, conversations can spark personal transformation that leads to real change. Ultimately, the decision of listeners to engage in community is outside the purview of any one white rapper or any rapper. Macklemore got the ball rolling. And for that, I am grateful.

Where the conversation leads is up to us. 

— Jonny 5 of Flobots

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