Yesterday, the greatest white rapper of all time celebrated his 39th birthday. The truth is that I was never a huge Eminem fan during the peak of his popularity. For the very early 00’s or odds or whatever we eventually decide to call the last decade, I was more into underground rap and Eminem was too mainstream for my select hipster taste. I couldn’t avoid hearing the singles on the radio, though. The lyrics were clever, but the whole Slim Shady persona seemed too ready for mainstream and pop crossover. If I had actually listened to that whole first album then, my suspicions may have been laid to rest, and I would have embraced the music of Marshall much sooner, but as it happened it was only many years later that I begrudgingly had to admit that he was one of the finest wordsmiths on the planet.
While I still have more appreciation than delirious fan boy love for Shady, there are several things I do like and appreciate about him. The first is that he was the mainstream first white rapper (exempting the Beastie Boys who had borderline mainstream success in different times of their career) who wasn’t a total embarrassment to their race. There are plenty of talented, if not well known, underground rappers of Caucasian descent, guys like Aesop Rock, Slug from Atmosphere, Sage Francis and Apathy (from Connecticut, mother fuckers!), but Eminem gave us rap loving white folk an insanely talented guy for us to root for complete with Dr. Dre’s stamp of approval. He also is not Vanilla Ice, which is nice, nice, baby.
One brief side note: If there are those of you out there who would tell me that it’s racist for me to support someone just because I share skin color with them and my particular shade happens to be under represented in that field, then I have just two words for you: Barrack Obama. If I want to root for white rappers and white basketball players, I will. It’s really more the underdog theory in play more than the fact that all of our ancestors came from the same general area of the world a long time ago.
The thing I love most about Eminem is his honesty. I believe the ultimate goal of art is to hold a mirror up to society to show us our problems and shortcomings. Too often today the mirrors of art, television and film are gilded and frosted and sugarcoated so the reality that stares back at us is unrealistic and more indoctrinating than enlightening. This has always been a very important and misunderstood element to so called ‘gangsta rap.’ Back in the ‘90s the public and the media rushed to say this dangerous new genre of music was glorifying everything from violence against the police to violence against women to violence against gays. Chuck D from political hip hop group Public Enemy described “rap as black America’s CNN.” This is the “ghetto reporter” defense of gangsta rap that says the music simply reports the world the way each artist perceives it. It is the mirror of art held up through their perspective into a bleak world, each with its own unique distortions.
Eminem’s career has been plagued by similar storms of controversy; maybe even because he was such an instant media darling with his cute blond hair, blue eyes and white face. Conservatives, religious groups and irrational mothers everywhere rushed to accuse him of encouraging his violent, drug abusing, nihilistic persona of Slim Shady to their kids. He was teaching boys to bully women and gays. He was teaching girls to love the bad boy that treats them like shit. He was destroying the youth of America and his enemies were armed shocking stats telling of rises in related crimes to prove it.
There was only one problem: Eminem was a symptom of these problems and not a cause. These disturbing trends were rising well before Marshall’s meteoric star was. He was reporting of a culture that had long glorified violence in the media. He grew up in a country where gays have been harassed and denied basic rights as far back as anyone can remember. The men in his life and in the music he listened to were more likely to refer to women as bitches than any single other word.
How am I so sure of all this? Well, because I am a part of his culture too. When it’s just a bunch of guys hanging out, chances are some of the vilest shit you have ever heard is being spoken. We call each other faggots without thinking twice about it. We use offensive gay terminology to describe other people we know are heterosexual but say it just mean it in an extremely negative way. We refer to the women we love, girlfriends, wives, even mothers or sisters, as bitches or worse without hesitation. In my experience it is just the language young men use almost universally amongst close friends. It wasn’t just Eminem that taught us how to do this. Maybe it’s the culture we grew up in, or maybe it’s just that young men in general are instinctively vile, lewd and crass.
Either way, Eminem was never one to clean up his act for the bright lights. He included language, like calling someone gay as an insult and not really meaning that they’re gay, that was sure to drum up controversy and really didn’t seem necessary to the song. That is how Eminem talks though, and he wasn’t going to pretend he was something else just to make himself more palatable to the media and masses. Maybe Eminem is abusive toward women and a homophobe, or maybe just the culture he has lived in is abusive toward women and homophobic (which it definitely is), or maybe it’s both. But despite some of you thinking I give him too much credit, I think the mirror he holds up against our society highlights a lot of the problems we are dealing with now.
One song demonstrates just how controversial, brutally honest and misunderstood Eminem can be. That song is “Kim,” in which he lives out his darkest fantasy of kidnapping and murdering his then wife. Only Marshall Mathers is brave enough to strip his being down to the soul in front of the whole world. A lot of people don’t want to hear it, but we all have thought about doing some evil shit at one point or another in our lives. Not that we would even tell anyone that we conjured up such horrific images in our brain, much less act on them, but come on, they’re there. I mean who hasn’t when spurned by some she-demon (shemon?) thought, “NOW BLEED! BITCH BLEED! BLEED! BITCH BLEED! BLEED!” Right, I never have either.
But I still think there is deeper meaning to this song than just his courage to tell us all what we all think about in our darkest moments but never admit. Listening to the song again today and hearing lines like, “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I SWEAR TO GOD I HATE YOU! OH MY GOD I LOVE YOU” drew me to analyze the song deeper. His confused and conflicting emotions show us how quickly intense love can turn to intense hate.
Hate and love are profoundly connected feelings. I would go so far as to say that they are opposite extremes of the same emotion. Indifference or even contempt is much different than hate. If you have contempt or are indifferent towards something or someone you see it as beneath you, and not worthy of your attention or care. Only when you are attached to something can you care enough to hate or love it. When you do love something, whether it’s a person, possession or ideology, you hate whatever stands against it or threatens to separate you from it. If that receptacle of your love betrays you, or leaves you, that intense trust and caring can morph into malice, vengeance and scorn.
The song also relates the bitter truth that even in the most passionate of loves, perhaps especially, the relationship will eventually end one way or another and at least one if not both people involved will get hurt. People who love each other almost always end up hating each other, for a while anyway. As time goes on you care less and less about that person until you can’t remember why you spent so much time and energy hating them.
This echoes of the words of the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama told us so long ago how suffering is inherently a part of life if we let our desires and attachments lead us. The reason for this is that everything is temporary and always changing. If we cling to what was in the past, we will only feel pain because the present has changed. We would be like all those Eminem haters stubbornly insisting that the America of the 1950s can still exist and blaming rappers that it doesn’t. The greater the love and attachment we feel towards another person, the greater the suffering will be when we lose them, even if the way you lose them is they die in your arms as your spouse at 90 years of age. That is not to say that we cannot enjoy the present and the things and people around us today, but holding on to them when they’re gone or lost will cause purposeless and helpless suffering.
I do not think that Eminem had the Buddha’s words in mind when he was writing “Kim.” I do think, however, that in his willingness and honesty in playing out his own private psychological battle in public for us all to see allowed him to touch on some universal truths of life. When an artist puts up his mirror to the world around him and isn’t afraid to tell us exactly what they see, that is when greatness is possible. Happy (belated) birthday to you Marshall Bruce Mathers III and birthday wishes also to my little sis, Angela Rose McLeod.