As a huge fan of Eminem myself, I came out quite disappointed after listening to his freestyle, “The Storm,” at the BET Hip Hop Awards. Besides the underwhelming lyrical flow (which is an entirely different debate), what bothered me the most were his final lines:
“And any fan of mine who’s a supporter of [Donald Trump], I’m drawing in the sand a line, you’re either for or against, and if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split on who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for it for you with this. F*** you” (CNN, “Eminem unleashes on Trump: The 11 fiercest lines,” 10.12.2017).
It’s not that Eminem does anything “wrong” here, legally nor morally; everyone has the right to express their opinions openly, and music generally strives to serve as a platform through which political critique can freely be asserted. Hip-hop is one such platform. That rappers old and new speak about political issues has been a norm for some time. So what’s the deal with Eminem?
There’s a significant gap in degree between Eminem’s political commentary and that of other rappers. Take Kendrick Lamar, for example. Many of his albums, such as “To Pimp a Butterfly,” raise awareness of social issues and have become famous for resonating with those by whom the problems are most keenly felt. Nowhere in “To Pimp a Butterfly” does Kendrick Lamar take an explicit political stance, however.
Compare that to Eminem’s freestyle, in which he viciously attacks those with opposing political opinions. All of his lyrics are aimed at one omnipresent Donald Trump, whom Eminem calls a “b**ch” (CNN, “The full lyrics to Eminem’s Trump-bashing freestyle ‘The Storm,’” 10.11.2017). You may say that Eminem is simply being direct and controversial, just as he always has been. Well, in this case, he is being direct, controversial and divisive. With the last “f*** you,” all Eminem does is add to the extreme ideological polarization existing in the United States today.
Yet the main problem is not Eminem’s hateful language; the vulgarity is rather a “fitting weapon against a vulgar president” [The Atlantic, “What Makes Eminem’s Trump Diss Special (and What Doesn’t),” 10.11.2017]. The problem lies in the way that the vulgarity is used to vilify half the country. Eminem’s hatred and anger by themselves may seem morally appropriate, given the administration’s inadequate response to the recent devastation in Puerto Rico and bizarre attacks on athletes protesting police brutality. However, the divisive- ness with which the arguments are delivered harbors costs that far outweigh its benefits.
Perhaps Eminem intended to use his platform to jolt his Trump-supporting fans. Perhaps Eminem wants to force those who have not yet, for whatever reason, confronted the true nature of the Trump administration. Indeed, he is “uniquely qualified” in this endeavor, not only because of his prominence but also because of his willingness to speak bluntly about real issues (The Independent, “Why Eminem’s rap about Donald Trump is resonating with millions of Americans,” 10.12.2017).
His intentions, if true, are unquestionably benevolent and laudable. In fact, in general, the media praised Eminem for criticizing Donald Trump and standing up as the people’s voice, treating his freestyle as a fresh, enlightening commentary on the current state of affairs.
The reality, however, is that there wasn’t much novelty behind his action, for similar messages have been repeated dozens of times before by other rappers (Billboard, “Does Eminem’s Rap Heroics Against Trump Deserve All the Praise?: Op- Ed,” 10.12.2017). The marginal benefit that comes from bashing Trump offers only a negligible addition to the existing pile.
Take a look at the comedy industry to observe the impact of this repetitive “pile.” Almost all late night show hosts nowadays are expected to condemn Trump—so much so that Jimmy Fallon saw his ratings plummet after he interviewed then-candidate Trump with apolitical humor rather than sharp political bite (The Guardian, “How Fallon fell: why is the late-night host floundering in Trump’s America?,” 10.16.2017). It’s fine that we are pushing prominent comedians to become political watchdogs, yet surely it wouldn’t hurt to have more ideological perspectives in the mainstream media? The one-dimensional nature of today’s comedy industry means that “one-liners and impressions” can no longer instigate legitimate and impactful change (The Guardian, “How late-night comedy went from political to politicized,” 05.05.17).
Eminem pushes further this flatness by not only reverberating Trump critiques but also by categorizing Trump supporters as a singular group of people deserving of scorn, if not hatred. It adds too little nuance to bring about positive change, while it continues to create more animosity. At this point, there is no place in the current political dialogue for multiple sides to coexist.
I am not exclusively supporting the right wing, nor am I discouraging protests. After all, uninhibited criticism of the government is a fundamental tenant of any functioning democracy. I am, however, discouraging unreasonably caustic rhetoric that contributes to polarization and staleness within the American media. We are free to voice our opinions, but we must also consider the consequences.
That includes the artists, especially prominent musicians like Eminem, who hold considerable power and lead large crowds. There were more sensible approaches that Eminem could have taken for the benefit of the people. He could, for example, have called for Trump supporters to empathize with the victims of the administration. While doing so, he still could have incorporated inflammatory language. But he could have saved the “f*** you” for Donald Trump, not the supporters. Or he could have simply expressed disappointment with those the supporters, rather than denouncing them in such a senselessly direct manner.
These are just a few of the numerous ways that Eminem could have improved the current situation rather than exacerbating it. Other artists could also do much more to stand in solidarity with victims of the Trump administration rather than simply attack political opponents. Tupac, for example, called for unity amongst—rather than division between—white and Black people, raising the issue in songs like “Changes.”
In a way, Eminem’s freestyle exemplifies our tendencies to search for blame during times of angst rather than solutions. It’s easy to express our emotions in ways that are exciting and extreme, but it’s difficult to protest in ways that are inspiring, not antagonizing. I think all of us, including Eminem, could do better in this regard.