“I’m sick of them sweatsuits and them corny hats.”
There is a conversation about Eminem that I think must be acknowledged.
A real part of the culture wars that goes understated about why a lot of old heads (like myself) always had reservations about white rappers is that privilege does not allow or invite accurate self-reflection. Black culture is the universal solvent. Rap *IS* Black culture, but there is a difference between being allowed to participate in the conversation, and thinking you have the right to shape the conversation.
Western culture would never allow a contemporary Black composer to decide Baroque or Romantic musical standards – no matter their degree of proficiency. An American practitioner of Japanese swordsmanship would never be allowed to seriously critique Obata Sensei’s technique or decide what is or is not Shinkendo. Distilled grapes made anywhere in the world outside the Grand Champagne region of France is merely a Brandy.
Yet in America, because nothing of value can ever be considered exclusively Black, in contemporary music we are asked to seriously consider Eminem the greatest rapper of all time (GOAT). Or at least as Machine Gun Kelly asserts “top 10.” What are we to base this metric on?
Certainly not speed, when rappers like Busta Rhymes and Twista have notably faster flows. It is not content, Joe Budden has went on record of saying Eminem has lacked any semblance of content for the past ten years. Lyricism? Meh. What has Eminem offered better than Mick Jenkins, Jay Electronica, or Kendrick Lamar? And I won’t dare mention Rakim or the original greats because let’s be serious. Now one can make an argument based on record sales, but in a majority white nation that decries any kind of real deconstruction of implicit racial or patriarchal bias we have to understand the market is absolutely designed to artificially inflate the record sales of a bleached blonde lookism privileged cis heterosexual white male.
Though he has never been what one might reasonably call modest, at the early part of his career Eminem focused most of his vitriol towards other white rappers he felt were unworthy, berating his rivals with homophobic, ageist and sexist rhetoric intended to demean and debase. In his maturation, he has become comfortable enough to turn this language upon the very culture that initially – and foolishly – welcomed him.
With his latest album, Eminiem sees himself as a person qualified to dictate norms (ie mumble rap isn’t “real rap”, Yachty sucks, Migos are trash, etc). As, at best, a guest to Black culture, even if some members of that culture have unwisely granted him status as a distinguished guest, he has NO right to such a position. At best, it is inherently distasteful that he would feel comfortable enough to publicly disparage young Black rappers he deems as less than worthy. At worst it is blasphemously arrogant, anti-Black and misplaced.
His views on Lil Yachty are insignificant and inconsequential because Yachty has an inherent birthright to the culture that Eminem can never claim. Yachty is a young Black child subjected to the disdain and inopportunity that inner city Blacks face in America. Instead of acknowledging with grace the place Black America has afforded him in the culture, as is the expected methodology of a colonizer, he plants a flag and takes up space. Instead of being gracious and welcoming, he stands now as a dictator of expectations, a gate keeper deciding who is and who is not valid. The kind of guy that stands in a room with a Black rapper who would go on to win a Pulitzer prize to make sure he writes his own verses. You know…To vouch that he isn’t cheating.
Put another way: Could you imagine the Righteous Brothers determining who is and who is not real “Soul” music? Or Jerry Lee Lewis determining what is or isn’t real “boogie woogie rock and roll?”
With the possible exception of Vanilla Ice, no other white rapper had ever come into the culture with that kind of cultural hubris. Blondie had to shout out Fab Five Freddie. Beastie Boys opened for acts like Run DMC until they got their shot after which they were only too happy to be accepted by the culture. Third Base stayed humble their entire career. Young Black Teenagers studied groups like Kid N Play. ICP literally put on makeup to downplay their ethnicity. Kid Rock toured with Too Short on Jive. Everlast worked behind the scene with the Rhyme Syndicate for years.
And then came Eminem, who paid very little deference to the white rappers that paved the way for him.
I remember “I remember.” I think it is only fitting, if ironic, that the new breed of White rappers feel the same way about him as he felt about Everlast:
“don’t have a heart attack now. Somebody help ya mans up” is a diss completely in conversation with “I only wish the cardiac woulda murdered you…”
“But he got too old to jump around” becomes “Damn He’s a younger me“
“I wish you would lose yourself in a record that you made a decade ago” is the natural distillation of “yesterday was so long ago… now Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit came along and now nobody wants to hear your old ass anymore.”
Do not in any way shape fashion or form see this as me carrying water for Machine Gun Kelly. More to the point this is the reality Eminem helped create. Gone is the era (if ever it existed) of the respectful thankful white rapper. It has been replaced with emcees forged in Eminem’s own likeness and the young white rappers coming up don’t feel as if they owe him anything. Why should they?
“I got all my shit without Dre producing me.”
That’s the thing about privilege. Privilege means never having to respect what came before you. A colonist not having to respect the established norms and only recognizing what they can take through conquest. Survival of the most fit. To rappers like Machine Gun Kelly, Eminem is bloated and past his prime – a mark, ripe for the felling. To Kelly coming for Eminem is not an attack on a sacred institution, it is a mercy killing and a text book example of divine karma.
Now Black people, whose persecution and oppressed existence created the climate that birthed hip hop, must stand outset our own house and watch guests we let in a little too easily and let become way too comfortable tear up our house with no respect for all we sacrificed and how hard we worked to build it. And this is the true danger of legitimizing colonizers as exceptions.
There are no exceptions. Hip hop belongs to Black people and in a world where we are devoured literally and figuratively, any purely and exclusively Black creations must be guarded around the clock. The gatekeepers must protect our cultural creations as if our lives depend on them, because essentially, they do.
About the author:
Amoja Sumler is a nationally celebrated poet, essayist and one of the preeminent emerging voices of leftist intersectional social advocacy. From his essay’s discussing the role of law enforcement to the value of capitalism he is best known for fusing the art of the intellectual into the familiar. Amoja has headlined poetry festivals such as the Austin International Poetry Festival, the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, Write NOLA in New Orleans and Rock the Republic in Texas. As a resident artist of several southern Arts in Education rosters, Amoja lectures at schools and literacy nonprofits, while teaching creative pedagogy and keynoting at social advocacy conferences like Long Beach Indie Film Pedagogy Conference and Furious Flower.