On Monday night’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and a team of poets and musicians delivered a dramatic performance of “White Privilege II”—the song Macklemore released last month as an express reaction to the appropriation controversy around him and, importantly, an effort to direct attention back to the social issues that underlie it.
The performance opens with Macklemore rapping emotionally from beneath a spotlight on a starkly lit stage, backed lightly by trumpet, piano, and a choir. “I’ve heard that silences are action,” goes one line, followed by the rapper’s regretful admission that he has reacted too passively to racism. But it’s his eventual silence here that lends the performance its power, as Macklemore cedes the stage mid-song to a succession of other voices—black voices—who speak forcefully and eloquently on their own behalf.
First, poet Nikkita Oliver delivers a stirring monologue about black pride, empowerment, and liberation, and poet Danez Smith invokes the activism of Huey P. Newton and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the murders of Emmett Till, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, and Islan Nettles. “Because enough,” he repeats. Poet-singer Jamila Woods then brings it home beautifully, singing “Your silence is a luxury, hip-hop is not a luxury” as the choir and instruments swell around her.