By Thomas Johnson, October 19 2017 —
In 2004, MTV ran a special called The Shady National Convention. A tongue-in-cheek mockery of the coinciding American federal election, The Convention envisioned an Eminem presidential campaign, with 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Ludacris and P. Diddy as his running mates. One of the speakers, a lumpy butternut squash of a man, endorsed Eminem more emphatically than the rest. He referred to himself in third-person, waved his petite hands and championed Mr. Mathers like no one else could: “He’s got brains, he’s got guts, and he’s got Donald Trump’s vote!”
Last week at the Black Entertainment Awards, Eminem freestyled acapella for nearly four minutes — an impressive feat. But we aren’t talking about it a week later because of his well-documented technical prowess. We’re talking about it a week later because he’s Eminem. The best-selling rapper of all-time, the man Rolling Stone naively called “the king of hip-hop” in 2011. We’re still talking about it because he’s white.
There’s a lot to unpack in Eminem’s freestyle. The loudest argument for it as a transcendent moment for fans is that it concretely communicates his stance on the current White House administration. But that wasn’t up in the air. Slim’s been spurring “fuck Trump” chants at his concerts since 2016. We already know where he stands. The freestyle raises more questions than answers — will this open a dialogue? What will his fans think? Will they listen?
The freestyle is likely to fall upon tone-deaf ears. Eminem’s distaste for Republican politicians is strong, but in the wake of his freestyle, the Twitter-sphere completely missed the point. Fans spoke out, either denouncing the rapper for his condemnation or shirking accountability in the matter altogether. The sad reality is that this will change nothing.
This isn’t to discredit him. The freestyle was poetic, touching and necessarily frightening. Aside from the subject of race in America, he used his platform to bring awareness to Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane trauma, the NFL censorship debacle and the latest worst mass shooting in United States history in Las Vegas. Eminem boldly risked alienating a major portion of his fanbase, and unapologetically at that. Eminem’s fans overlap with Trump supporters not only in their demography, but also in their passion. He’s got a hell of a lot to lose.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the man we’re celebrating for speaking against injustice created an alter-ego — Slim Shady — so that he could divulge his own very controversial ideas, which include assaulting lesbians like Ray Rice, punching Lana Del Rey, raping his own mother, immolating the love of his life and graphically murdering his ex-wife. There is a divide between art and artist and some songs are simply meant to draw a reaction from the consumer, regardless of where that emotion comes from or goes. But Eminem isn’t a credible voice of reason.
It’s crucial to remember that a large part of the reason this story is being run ad nauseam is because of Eminem’s race. Most mainstream rappers have spoken out about Trump in the last 18 months. None of them have received this kind of attention, despite the fact that their work has been just as strong as Slim’s presidential diss.
The most unsettling question the tirade begs is why doing the conscionable thing has become reason for celebration. Our lives in 2017 are defined by invisible and redundant binaries. We still expect the right thing to be done by the wrong people and for the worst of us to shine like the hero Gotham deserves — but only when it doesn’t mildly inconvenience us. There is no clear good or bad. If there was, we probably wouldn’t even know what it is. There’s just uncertainty and tomorrow. And rap music.