white privilege

I Can Speak For Myself, Homie

"Pass the mic, homie. We don't need a savior. We can speak for ourselves."

These are the words of renown and well-respected author, attorney and speaker Gyasi Ross in his spoken word piece White Privilege 3. Gyasi (a member of the Blackfoot Nation) articulates a well-thought out and powerful response to Macklemore and his White Privilege II from a Native perspective, navigating his feelings and opinions of Macklemore's supposed playing of white savior to people of color with his song. He subsequently requests of him to relinquish his platform in a manner similar to that of Marlon Brando, who refused his Academy Award for his work in The Godfather and instead offered Sacheen Littlefeather a stage to voice the mistreatment of Native Americans in the film industry and the country in general. Native Americans and their ongoing plight and seemingly never-ending struggle are often pushed to the back, and it's great to see strong Native voices such as Gyasi's resonate and shine light on issues too easily pushed into the dark. We can all be well-educated on the struggles of a group we don't belong to and speak out in the name of a cause, but the ethos offered by a member of that group speaking out on their own people's struggles and experiences will forever go unrivaled. This appears to be the motivation of Gyasi's call for Macklemore to pass his mic. To give platform to the voices of those supposedly silenced by Macklemore's existence within the hip-hop realm.

So then why exactly does Gyasi feel the license to speak on behalf of Black people in doing so?

Macklemore has been a magnet for controversy for the past couple of years. Lambasted for the authenticity and pop appeal of his music, criticized for his penchant for dressing in culturally-inspired, sometimes tone deaf costume (none more controversially than his exaggerated wig and mask while on stage at an event at Experience Music Project in Seattle that drew anti-Semitic claims) and generally derided upon winning Grammys that presumably belonged to Kendrick Lamar (or anyone else in that category depending on who you ask), then messily posting their text conversation after the fact on social media. Without question, there have been times where Macklemore hasn't been able to get out of his own way, not through a malicious or malevolent intent, but through an inability to cleanly navigate the many nuances of being a white artist in a Black art form with instantly magnified scrutiny at an expert level.

Photo:  Colorlines

Photo: Colorlines

This leads us to White Privilege II, a sequel to a song released in 2005. The song is a lengthy sonic experience through the mind and encounters of Macklemore with his own struggles of his position, his place within the Black Lives Matters movement, his encounters with his predominantly White fan-base, along with thoughts from Black men and women about the BLM movement before a stirring and moving wrap-up by Jamila Woods. The song borders on being overwrought and is a lot to stomach in a nearly 9 minute sitting, making it an effort to unsuspectingly drop on the presumed intended audience (read: white people) for educational purposes, as was the impossible task offered to my man DJ Swervewon via annoying request at a club gig the other night.

But really, while the artistic merits and quality of the song can be debated, they are essentially irrelevant (although I have to say, you're tripping if you think the flow is off-beat, and you likely thought the same thing of Jay-Z on the remix to Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe). In actuality, the subject matter is the only real point of relevance within this discussion, much how the acquired taste of Gyasi's spoken word approach to White Privilege 3 is not "pop-palatable", nor does it "slap", but still contains valuable content worth conversation.

White privilege is understood to be a by-product of White supremacy (the latter a term still taboo in relation to the former) and that affects us all. It affects Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinxs, Natives, Pacific Islanders, it touches every single person subjected to it, and to be subjected to it in the United States, you need only to reside within it. The definition of these terms is not generally up for debate. However, though the song is entitled White Privilege II, it in fact should really be interpreted as White Privilege As It Affects Black Folks, a title offered by Gyasi himself in an extremely brief back and forth we had about his piece on Facebook (an official sponsor of White supremacy via it's blocking of POCs posting their art discussing and dissecting this topic). According to Gyasi, he believes Macklemore to be addressing all the facets that encompass what we know as White privilege and supremacy within the song, thus opened the conversation to all those subjected to that privilege and supremacy. I agree that Macklemore's desire to illuminate the discussion of White privilege should also include how he factors into the oppression of other minority groups as a white man of success in entertainment business. However, I find it hard to believe that as the context of this now ten-year long discussion has been long established to be what we all should universally recognize -- white hip-hop artists operating within a recognized Black culture and the accusation of appropriation while doing so -- that Gyasi somehow missed the context of the original conversation. To me, it feels like he got hung up on the literal definition of the title and by glossing over the content of the song, does a disservice to the conversation in trying to co-opt it for his own agenda outside the conversation. An action not without it's irony given the criticisms lobbied against Macklemore.

This is not at all to diminish the issues affecting Natives and the long-standing battle against White supremacy, which Gyasi brings to light with his piece, nor does it exempt someone like Macklemore from speaking out on the issue. I fully support being vocal about this country's disgusting and shameful treatment of it's original inhabitants, we frankly don't do enough to keep this relevant and at the front of our society's conscience. But this was a conversation about how a White rapper's actions affected Black people directly. And on the first day of Black History Month, an attempt was made to transform that conversation into something more, and a self-recognized ally of Black people attempted it. Much like aforementioned actions by Macklemore, Gyasi's appeared extremely well intentioned, but still just didn't sit all the way right with me. Thing is, this is a more common occurrence than acknowledged when minority groups overlap, because sometimes we forget that the idea of misguided or problematic allyship isn't reserved only for white people. Whether it's Black people enduring other groups freely embracing the use of "nigga" as a term of endearment, Trans-folk suffering exclusion from Black Lives Matter, Latinxs spiting their own African roots to the point of skin-bleaching or forced deportation of Black inhabitants of its country, the conversation of how minority groups can potentially oppress one another is highly nuanced and requires a real dedication to the issue to develop actionable solutions.

Concurrently on February 1st, in Sacramento, CA, the hometown Kings and Milwaukee Bucks prepared to face each other in an otherwise normal regular season NBA game. DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins is the young center for the Kings and the current face of the franchise. He is arguably the most elite player at his position in the league, and as such was recently recognized as an all-star. Although injured, he was in attendance at the game. That night, two separate promotions honoring two separate cultures were to take place. Players on the court began a month-long campaign of donning attire recognizing Black History Month and the Kings planned to recognize the upcoming Chinese New Year that starts on February 8th. The NBA mandates commemoration of the Chinese Lunar New Year as well as full participation in its month-long recognition of Black History Month of all its teams. The planned shirt was an admittedly cool design of the animal recognized this year. The only problem is, the animal in question was a monkey. Cousins discovered the shirts being laid out all over the arena and vocalized an objection that he and some other members of the organization shared to see an arena full of monkey depictions on the first day of Black History Month. The decision to remove the shirts was made and the organization will continue forward with the rest of its planned promotions.

Photo:  @James_Ham

Photo: @James_Ham

Obviously the unintentionally problematic optics of the overlapping commemorations didn't occur until the organization's star Black player noticed it and vocalized it, but no one would ever suggest that the organization maliciously tried to portray a long perpetuated, disgusting caricature of Black people as primates on the first day of Black History Month. Nor would anyone ever suggest Chinese culture is bigoted towards Black people for having a monkey zodiac symbol. Simply put, sometimes what people do good-naturedly in the name of one culture can potentially have problematic residual effects on another. Sometimes what someone does with good intentions results in a level of harm, discomfort or offense. It's important to dialogue about these instances and situations, then apply those learnings in action going forward. Its why when I see a person of Native decent using a Black art form developed during the Harlem Renaissance, featuring words by a beloved Black civil rights figure, to tell a White person how Black people amongst other minority groups, should feel about his attempts to deconstruct and analyze White privilege and supremacy as it relates to Black culture, I don't get upset, I just simply pause and think this to myself:

"Pass the mic, homie. I don't need a savior. I can speak for myself."