Bonnie Greer on... Eminem
PUBLISHED: 13:00 26 October 2017
America's culture wars have raged for years, says BONNIE GREER. But Eminem's intervention is a significant one
US art and culture are at war with the US President. This is nothing new.
The play MacBird! opened on Broadway not long after Lyndon Baines Johnson assumed the presidency. A huge hit, the play, based on Macbeth openly speculated on the possibility that LBJ murdered JFK for his own gain.
The Godfather and Columbo were a response to the darkness of Nixon; Saturday Night Live satirised Gerald Ford’s clumsiness; American Psycho and Public Enemy critiqued Reagan’s 1980s; Kurt Cobain echoed the angst of President Bush the Elder’s world of Desert Storm; Sex And The City was a read-out of Clinton America; The Apprentice, starring real estate tycoon and beauty pageant owner, Donald Trump, became a metaphor for the US’s overweening power. When Trump got bored and started attacking Hispanics to amuse himself, NBC did not renew his contract.
Not many noticed that a wedge had already been made in American politics and cultural life itself. This was through the nomination for Vice President of the ludicrous one-term governor of Alaska, and subsequent television reality star, Sarah Palin. Finally, Barack Obama had House of Cards, which became Russia’s guide, it is now being discovered by intelligence services, on how to infiltrate America.
Now it is Trump’s turn. But there is a difference. The stakes are suddenly higher. There is the probe concerning possible collusion with Russia. Psychiatrists have started a movement called ‘Duty To Warn’, an effort to alert the American people that the President of the United States is mentally unfit.
There is the theatre. “NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of Trump,” screams Fox News. The play? Julius Caesar, produced by the Public Theatre as part of its summer series of Shakespeare plays in Central Park.
The actor playing Caesar resembles Trump, causing the performances to be heckled by his flock and much worse. Trump supporters are googling in search of the name ‘Shakespeare’ in their vicinity.
Almost every theatre in the US with any connection to Shakespeare has been submitted to everything ranging from email abuse to death threats. Sponsorship is drying up for these houses. Even the National Endowment for the Arts had to issue a press release in which it stated that it had not given money to the Shakespeare in the Park production. A highly unusual move.
Late night television is an almost wall-too-wall ‘Dump Trump’ fest.
But nothing compares to the free-style rap attack that Eminem unleashed at the recent BET awards.
First things first. To say that Eminem’s lyrics are problematic is an understatement. He weaponises misogyny and general violence against women as a way to sell his music.
Like many, I came to him through Stan the poignant and powerful exploration of the rapper himself. It featured a woman bound up in the boot of his car, fighting for her life, yet told something about the dark heart of the male of the species, something every woman knows. It was valuable because of that. Stan caused critics to compare him to Yeats, Eliot, Hemingway, even Shakespeare. The rapper had done what all fine writers and poets do: he had discovered both a yearning and a need. And he had named it.
His latest rap is free-style, a ‘cypher’, that is, without music. The four-minute video begins like the Real Slim Shady as Richard The Third delivering his own version of ‘This is the winter of our discontent’.
There is the prowl; the words, and the search for the words; the anger; rage; the planning for destruction and despair. There are flashes of brilliance: his use of the Nazi salute to depict the height of Trump’s fabled wall channels the neo-Nazis of Charlottesville. His Southern drawl in describing it both mocks them and links with them.
Seated like a silent Greek chorus watching are men like him, but black and Hispanic. They are motionless and expressionless. Because he is not talking to them.
Eminem is addressing his own. And there lies the power of his intervention and why it is resonating. This rapper was never anything but a white guy born to a teenage mother, growing up in a working-class family with barely any money; travelling from place to place, a child of people called ‘trailer trash’ and worse.
He and his mother ended up settling in a black working-class neighbourhood where he became a part of the hip hop battle scene, gained respect and eventually fame/notoriety and wealth.
Yet the rapper never deserted his background, never smoothed out who he was. Which is the reason many white men and boys came to rap music. They came through a white man who had the approval of someone as eminent as Dr Dre. Eminem made it possible for working-class Euro America to rap, too. To talk about their own experiences, how they saw and lived in the world. They could do it in their own voices.
His main rival in reaching out to the white working-class / rural community is Kid Rock, another Michigan white guy who began his career in rap, but born into better circumstances than Eminem.
He commands respect among the same demographic as Eminem and is known to ring up cable talk-shows to express himself about liberals in no uncertain terms. Rock is an ardent supporter of Trump and may make a run for the Senate next year. Outspoken and partisan, he has never addressed his fans, never appealed to them so directly.
And this is the power of what Eminem has done. His ‘free-style’ is called The Storm.
In the video, he calls Trump a “kamikaze / that’ll probably cause a nuclear holocaust,” a “racist 94-year-old grandpa,” and “orange”. He raps about the deprived backgrounds of many of the black players in the NFL. He calls out Trump’s assumption that the League is full of “spoiled brats”.
He forces his audience and fans to confront black pain; black rage; black helplessness at having continuously to fight to stay human in the nation of our birth.
The rapper raises his fist in salute to Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarter back who started the ‘take a knee’ protest as a statement against police brutality.
At the end of it, he draws an imaginary line in imaginary sand.
“If you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split / On who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this: F-k you!”. He signs off with “We hate Trump!”
In the end, whether or not Eminem considers himself a part of ‘the Resistance’, this is what he has become.
In this stress-test of the Republic that is the Trump Presidency, art and culture in the States are examining themselves, looking at purpose and meaning.
Eminem has taken his status and privilege, not to what Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon calls the “coastal elites”, but to his own community.
He is asking them the questions that all great art ultimately asks both creator and participant: “Who are you?”