Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Are Determined to Speak Out on Race and Stop Being "Silent Out of Fear"
"How do I use my platform? How do you join in a way that is useful and not distracting and not shining a light on you?” says Lewis.
Macklemore, the 32-year-old born Ben Haggerty, is like a black comedian’s caricature of a white rapper: He looks like a real-life Bart Simpson. He graduated from Evergreen State College. And — here’s the punchline — he’s insecure about his white privilege.
Sitting in his room at New York’s Hudson Hotel one Wednesday morning, he wears pristine caramel-brown suede boots, fashionably ripped jeans and a green corduroy shirt over a tee depicting the new-age artist Yanni. In January, with his producer and musical partner Ryan Lewis, 27, Macklemore previewed the new album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made by dropping a nine-minute song called “White Privilege II.” Macklemore is, at first blush, the wrong guy to tackle white privilege, because he benefits so much from it. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were just an indie Seattle-area rap duo in 2012 when their playful, consumerist-critiquing single “Thrift Shop” unexpectedly rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it sat for six weeks, eventually selling 7.9 million copies, according to Nielsen Music.
Very quickly, the duo found a mass pop audience through a black art form. The Heist, their debut album, hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 1.5 million copies. They’ve since sent five more singles into the top 20 of the Hot 100, and “Thrift Shop” was the only one to win any notable amount of urban radio airplay, peaking at No. 33 on the radio-based Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop chart — although it set a record on the Hot Rap Songs chart, where it spent 45 weeks in the top 10.
Meanwhile, Macklemore won endorsement deals with the NBA and Dr. Pepper. White privilege made him more palatable to pop fans and Madison Avenue alike — and, as statistics around white teenagers and policing indicate, it made him far less likely to get arrested back when he was a teenager who, as he has admitted, sold weed. But all along, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have incorporated progressive concepts into their music. They released “White Privilege,” the predecessor to their most recent song, back in 2005. In 2012, the same year as their breakthrough, they advocated for gay marriage with the Heist single “Same Love,” which featured lesbian singer Mary Lambert. But at the 2014 Grammys, Macklemore’s advantages came awkwardly to the fore when The Heist beat out Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City for rap album of the year, and Macklemore texted Lamar saying, “You got robbed” — and then, even worse, Instagrammed the text.
“When you mess up publicly,” Macklemore now says about the incident, “it can be difficult to get vulnerable again or to put yourself out there. You’re like, ‘Whatever I say in the media, they’re going to take it [a certain] way” — it becomes about another artist, and the intention is never received in the way it was intended.”
But by November 2014, Macklemore found himself compelled to speak out when a grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. “The night of the nonindictment was the biggest one in terms of realizing I had been silent [about racism] out of fear,” he says. “I had been silent out of not wanting to mess up, out of a fear of saying the wrong thing. If I said the wrong thing, that would be a bigger story than me supporting it.”
In a search for perspective, Macklemore called a widely respected older rapper (whom he declines to name) and asked for advice. “He told me that silence is action, and you are being silent right now,” says Macklemore. “That was a big turning point for me.” But if he was going to speak out, he and Lewis felt that they needed to gather more knowledge first. So they called Georgia Roberts, Lewis’ thesis adviser from his days at the University of Washington, who gave them what was essentially a college seminar on race. For six months they met every week for three hours to discuss the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, bell hooks and many others. “Georgia really schooled us,” recalls Lewis. Says Roberts: “They were beginning to process the previous couple of years, and I got the impression they were looking for an honest, outside perspective on some of the push-back they’d received. I appreciated that they weren’t dismissive of the criticism; they seemed genuinely interested in understanding it.”
In August 2015, the duo released “Downtown,” a rollicking, five-minute-long track meant to evoke early hip-hop as well as ’70s arena rock. The song, which includes the rap pioneers Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz, hit No. 12 on the Hot 100 and sold 1 million downloads. But it was the painfully earnest, musically meandering “White Privilege II” that thrust Macklemore & Ryan Lewis back into the conversation, inspiring tweets that ranged from “And in one fell swoop Macklemore has just gained my respect” to “end racism so Macklemore stops making songs about it.” The reaction online might be best summed up by this bon mot from Twitter: “Nothing says white privilege like Macklemore releasing a nine-minute song about Black Lives Matter.”
One line dominated the chatter about the song: “The culture was never yours to make better — you’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azalea.” Macklemore says he was “implicating” himself in that bit: “I don’t think people understood that I’m in my own head [saying], ‘You’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azalea’ — I’m talking about myself.” But he does admit he mishandled things with Azalea. “Iggy and I came up together,” he says. “We were on the XXL ‘Freshmen’ cover together. There’s enough of a relationship that I should have let her know beforehand. And I didn’t do that.” When the song came out, Azalea tweeted, “He shouldn’t have spent the last 3 yrs having friendly convos and taking pictures together at events etc if those were his feelings.” I ask Macklemore if he has made things right. “I haven’t talked to her,” he says quietly.
Still, “White Privilege II” won Macklemore and Lewis respect from some important quarters. Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, who’s now running for mayor of Baltimore, heard the song and immediately wanted to talk to Macklemore about it. “It’s powerful,” says McKesson. “It gives voice to a set of issues and nuance around the issue of white privilege.” Macklemore also sent the song to the rapper Talib Kweli the day before its release. “I loved it,” says Kweli. “Regardless of anyone’s opinion on the quality of the recording, whether or not it’s a good song, what he’s attempting to do is exactly what activists ask white allies to do when dealing with the struggle. He’s talking to other white folks on the song. He has black voices on the song. He’s dealing with the issue head-on. It’s not something that comes from an abstract place — it comes from a real place.”
When he and Lewis set out to write This Unruly Mess in the fall of 2014, Macklemore was struggling with much more than the group’s success. After The Heist came out, he relapsed after a long stretch of sobriety. “I have a problem with any drug. I’m going to take a shit-ton of Ambien and walk around,” he says. “Pills and lean and weed were probably the three that I used most. I smoke weed from the minute I wake up to the minute that I pass out, and [when I do] I don’t do anything productive. I’m usually lying to the people I love in order to do weed in the first place.” He had decided to resume 12-step meetings after learning that his wife, Tricia Davis — a former nurse who is now the tour manager for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — was pregnant. (The two got engaged in early 2013 and married in January 2015. Sloane Ava Simone Haggerty was born in late May.)
“There was so much fear starting this album, with the relapses and putting it off and expectations,” says Macklemore. “Sobering up, knowing that I was going to be a father ... starting an album was a very daunting task, to say the least.”
Macklemore grew up middle class in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, with a dad who made office furniture and a social-worker mom. In his teens and 20s he struggled with drugs; in 2008 he went to rehab and stayed sober for three years. But like many with addictions, he has repeatedly relapsed. “The first years of our relationship, he wasn’t sober at all,” says Lewis. “He was not a ‘get-more-social, go-out-into-public high’ person. He was an isolated high person. I’d be working with him on making a flier, a poster, designing a website, working on a song, whatever, and then I wouldn’t hear from him for, like, six weeks. But when he became sober, he flipped and became a workaholic.”
As of now, Macklemore hasn’t smoked weed in a year and a half. “If it wasn’t for sobriety,” he says, “we would not be talking right now. There would be no Unruly Mess to discuss. There just wouldn’t be any music.” He attends both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Macklemore’s sobriety, he says, makes him a “better human” — and if he has a supreme goal, it is to continually become a better human. He’s incredibly disciplined in this pursuit. It’s not just that he brings a sober coach on the road and regularly prays and meditates (as he did shortly before our interview). It’s little things like how, talking about life with his young daughter, he’s so quick to credit his wife for the hard work she does at home: “I’m already so tired ... my back’s dead from carrying her and she’s already not really sleeping — [but] it’s nothing compared to what my wife is going through.”
Even when Macklemore was thrust into the middle of a squabble between rock producer Bob Ezrin and Kanye West — Ezrin wrote that West does not “meaningfully and memorably address social issues through his music like [Eminem], Macklemore and Kendrick” — as West returned fire on Twitter, he made sure to acknowledge that Macklemore is “a nice human being.”
And Macklemore’s desire to better himself is, of course, reflected in how he and Lewis set about assembling their “tool set” for “White Privilege II.” (As Roberts herself says, “There is so much social pressure for musicians and celebrities to keep their bodies fit, but what about their minds?”) Nothing about the mixed reception of the song seems to have budged Macklemore’s beliefs. Asked if he would include Eminem in the Elvis, Iggy and Miley group, he says yes: “He’s a white person who raps. I think regardless of where you come from or how amazing you are, you’re still a white person appropriating a black art form.”
Lewis, who is single (and not sober), is the quieter member of the duo. Even his all-black hoodie-and-jeans outfit on the day of the interview contrasts with Macklemore’s colorful layering. When he does speak, it counts, and you can see how he keeps his partner honest. When Macklemore says that the Black Lives Matter folks in Seattle didn’t trust him right away, Lewis jumps in to say “and rightfully so.”
Lewis grew up in Spokane, a small city in Washington near Canada. When he was 6, his mother, Julie Lewis, revealed to him that she was HIV positive. She contracted the virus in a blood transfusion after giving birth to Lewis’ older sister, and later joined a Spokane HIV/AIDS speakers bureau. Lewis grew up fearing she would die, but she has survived with the disease for more than 30 years. Lewis met Macklemore about 10 years ago, through MySpace. He was primarily a photographer but also posted beats on his page. By 2010, Macklemore and Lewis officially became a unit.
The question now, says Lewis, is, “How do I use my platform? How do you join in a way that is useful and not distracting and not shining a light on you?” It’s curious that for all of their reading on critical race theory, Macklemore and Lewis still deliver “White Privilege II” from an entirely white-centric perspective, never asking listeners to step out of that reductive mind-set. It doesn’t reveal much of the black history they studied. In that way it recalls movies, like Mississippi Burning or The Help, about black history that focus on a white point of view. But more than all that, privilege is so deeply woven into the fabric of America that Macklemore benefits from his even as he critiques it. The song has, for example, gotten far more attention than it would have coming from a black rapper.
This is where Macklemore continues to find himself: Even when his heart is in the right place, he can’t escape the advantages of privilege. Which doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try. It just means it’s complicated.
Macklemore says that his daughter Sloane, now almost 9 months old, is wearing clothes for a 2-year-old and he thinks she’ll be walking any day now — “she’s in the 99th percentile” for height at her age, he notes with pride. With his good heart, his earnestness and his awkwardness, Macklemore has long seemed like a new dad just waiting to happen. When he says, “The amazing thing about being a dad is to be able to look at your child and realize that the universe is so much bigger than you,” it’s only surprising that he hasn’t already had that revelation.
Now that Sloane is here, though, he is looking to change, to scale back his workaholic tendencies. I ask the man who calls himself a rap entrepreneur — certainly one of today’s most successful indie musicians — how he plans to grow the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis business during the next few years. “I would say I’m not really there,” he replies. “I’m like, ‘How do I spend more time with my family?’ versus ‘How can I grow this business?’ There’s no doubt Ryan and I could make more money right now. But that has never been the reason why I make art.” (Though the duo will tour Europe and the U.S. this spring.)
This Unruly Mess is an album that will go down easy for many fans, with bright tones and high-energy beats that will liven up a party but are polite enough to play in front of the kids. “Let’s Eat” is an infectious and funny anthem about scarfing down bad food. And while there’s a nod to hardcore hip-hop in “Buckshot,” which features the old-school boom-bap rapper KRS-One, “Growing Up,” a lovely song about fatherhood, relies on an assist from Ed Sheeran. (Macklemore has admitted that Adele “graciously” declined to sing on the latter.)
Beyond the sobriety, the self-awareness and the work-life balance, Macklemore’s greatest goal may be to finally escape from his own head. “The reason why I meditate and pray in general is just to remind myself that it is not about me,” he says. “Regardless of how this interview goes, it is not about me. It’s really not about me. At the end of the day, God willing, I’ll have another 40 or 50 years on this planet, and what I’m saying to myself is, ‘What do I want to leave here?’”
This article originally appeared on the cover of Billboard magazine.