Tef Poe on Why He’s Taking Aim at ‘White Privilege II’ With ‘Message to Macklemore’

By Bakari Kitwana Feb 10, 2016

Tef Poe—the St. Louis MC, writer and co-founder of HandsUpUnited—just dropped "Message to Macklemore" in response to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ top-selling "White Privilege II." The powerful response record is part of Poe’s #52Weeks campaign which has him recording 52 new freestyles over 52 weeks.

"Message to Macklemore" comes amid intense social media debate about Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance and "Formation" single and video. Add to that the discussion generated by #OscarsSoWhite, the news that Deray McKesson is running for mayor of Baltimore and Tidal’s $1.5 million pledge to various Black-led organizations, and it’s clear that we are in a movement moment of elevated discourse about Blackness.

In this Colorlines exclusive, Tef Poe, who was born Kareem Jackson, talks candidly about White privilege, White supremacy and how he sees the new movement for Black liberation evolving. He also asserts that philosophical-to-frivolous arguments are distracting us from the needs and concerns of the real people at the heart of the movement. 

Why "Message to Macklemore"? Why now?

"Message to Macklemore" is necessary because we have so many different types of people in the artistic community lending their craft and their platforms to the issues. At the same time, we have to remember the grassroots nature of how this potential social movement started—with the people at the bottom, the people in the gutter, the dungeon.

And all too often, these conversations are intellectualized and moved completely away from the people who aren’t allowed to come into the rooms and intellectualize the different theories surrounding racism. But they did show up in the middle of the street on West Florissant when a militarized police force was encroaching on their neighbors. So many people in pop culture are speaking out now, but they are not speaking in terms of an all-out need for a political revolution in America for Black people.

In the song you say that Ferguson is ground zero and that everyday people should be at the center of this movement. What’s happening right now on the ground in Ferguson?

What is happening on the ground is what is happening in any community that goes after the state the way we went at the state. We have to be clear that Ferguson was not a situation where people came out to morph into the system or to allow the system to pacify them with solutions and messaging that had nothing to do with the fact that state-sanctioned terrorism is legal in Black communities in America. The reality is that Black people are under attack, and we can’t be apologetic about that. We can’t be apologetic about the fact that this movement is moving into a space where there are counter opinions to the popular mainstream narrative. 

You have to look at people that you know, that you love, and say, "I politically disagree with you" or, "I don’t think that your leadership reflects the messaging of the actual people that this movement is supposed to be working for." 

What have been some of the victories at this point? Is there progress?

The collective consciousness of Black people all across America has increased. What happened in Ferguson is something that you cannot avoid in today’s national discussion when it comes to such things as poverty, race relations or even the Barack Obama administration. On a minimal level, we have succeeded in changing the course of the conversation. On a local level, the victories lie in our self-determination.

In Ferguson, my organization, HandsUpUnited, offers a few examples: We have a Books and Breakfast program that has fed over 1,000 people. Kids coming to this program are learning about Harriet Tubman on a deeper level than what they learn at their public schools. They are learning about Assata Shakur and why America wants to capture her. And in 33 cities, on the morning of Saturday, February 27, kids are going to be getting educated about Marcus Garvey and the Marcus Garvey movement.

In "Message to Macklemore," you talk about aspects of the movement for Black lives and liberation being co-opted by mainstream entities from the presidential primaries to Hollywood. What do you think the focus of the movement should be at this point?

The priority for the movement should be political education—educating ourselves about the political struggles of today and the past and incorporating those jewels that are relevant to these times. We must figure out how to organize a body of Black, Brown and poor people to understand our role in terms of global revolution, even as we live in the belly of the beast, under the most colonial and imperialist regime that the planet has ever seen.

What we do know concretely about this system is that it doesn’t work. And we do know that it’s malfunctioning at such a rate that it’s collapsing on itself. It would be foolish of us to bring ourselves deeper into something that already doesn’t have sustainability and also doesn’t have practical usage for people of color.

In the song you also discuss privilege as a divide within the community. For example, you talk about the many people on the ground who don’t have textbook definitions of terms like intersectionality, patriarchy and misogyny. Can you say more?

Before August 9, when Mike Brown was murdered, I didn’t have the best understanding of these things myself. My analysis of these subjects is constantly evolving and broadening. Black men won’t be free until Black women are free. I believe that misogyny and patriarchy are the greatest problems in our movement. I do believe that homophobia has no space in this movement. I do believe that similar to our brother Huey P. Newton, even though I may not understand the complications of a person’s lifestyle, that I have zero right to impose on their destiny and zero right to impose on their space in this society that we all claim to share with each other.

I say all that to say that we can all do more, and quite frankly none of us have done enough, especially the men. On the flip side, we spend so much time breaking down theory among people who understand the theory that when it’s time to introduce a space to educate some of the young brothers about patriarchy and misogyny, there is nobody there to do it. 

In Colorlines’ discussion with Macklemore, Jay Smooth mentioned that perhaps more Blacks are talking about Macklemore’s "White Privilege II" than Whites. What is your reaction to that?

[White people] have the privilege to ignore it when they choose to and to discuss it when they see the need to. The difference between Macklemore and Tef Poe is that I didn’t have a choice to respond when I wanted to. I didn’t have a choice as to when my talent could be of assistance to the movement. I can be punished severely by the music industry for making records like this. My opinions are more than just opinions. Me making a record like this doesn’t help my iTunes sales. It doesn’t help me clear up accusations that I’m some type of psychotic cop-killing rapper. It just further digs a hole for me as a Black American artist that I can’t climb out of. For me, it’s not going to be a Top 40 hit. It’s going to be a bunch of complicated conversations that I can’t walk away from. 

At the end of "Letter to Macklemore" you say, "Why do we hate Bill Cosby but praise Obama? He’s raping the whole planet." How do you respond to people who may see your comparison of Cosby to Obama as a way to trivialize the issue of rape?

I said, "Why do we hate Bill Cosby but praise Obama?" but I’m not part of the Bill Cosby defense bandwagon. Bill Cosby doesn’t give two cents about poor Black people. These [lines] grew out of my frustration with the response of so many folks to the State of the Union address. I was baffled how many folks were willing to forgive Obama just because he made some slick comments during his speech. The presidency is the most patriarchal office in the country, regardless of who holds it. Millions of people worldwide have been ravished by America under Obama’s leadership. America is raping the resources of the world. I would never compare this to the violation of a woman’s body. It’s a comment about American imperialism and what Obama is doing to the world. When we say Black Lives Matter, we need the analysis to extend to what is happening to the people of the world at the hands of U.S. foreign policy

What do you want people to take away from your song?

What I want people to take away from the record is that any time you have back-and-forth dialogue pertaining to social justice or movement-building, this is the iron sharpening the iron. It’s also me drawing a line in the sand, verbally, so that when people look back at this moment they will know that there were people who were committed to challenging the popular narrative. And there were also people who took a gamble and rolled the dice even when it wasn’t convenient or comfortable. 

Bakari Kitwana is the executive director of Rap Sessions, which is currently touring the nation leading town hall discussions on the theme “Election 2016: Reform or Revolution?” He is the author of the forthcoming "Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era."