Think race doesn’t matter? Listen to Eminem
You know that saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? It’s true. This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court proved just that in its decision on affirmative action by noting that race “unfortunately still matters.”
If you disagree, look no farther than Eminem, hip-hop’s poster boy for diversity. He may speak about what’s on the minds of disgruntled teenagers everywhere. He may inspire young white teenagers to rap, and he may work really hard to cultivate his talent, but Eminem is underwhelming as a rapper. In fact, he hasn’t made a single song that’s a poetic standout.
And yet, Nobel Prize poet laureate Seamus Heaney has likened Eminem to Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Rolling Stone deemed him “The Voice of America.” You bet your baggy jeans race still matters — the proof is in the praise.
“He has created a sense of what is possible,” Heaney gushed to students at the Prince of Wales’ summer school in Norwich, England. With “verbal energy,” Heaney added, Eminem has “sent a voltage around a generation.”
Feels more like static electricity to me.
No offense to Heaney, whom I’ve been told is a pretty energizing writer himself, but Eminem’s no Bob Dylan. Just four years ago, he was brandishing a chain saw, ranting about killing his wife and running around with a bunch of white clones to prove his point. Let’s not forget the lovely Eminem-Elton John duet at the 2001 Grammys that would keep the gay community from crucifying him for being a big misogynist, a homophobe and an all-around idiot on record.
For what it’s worth, Eminem has paid his dues. As a guy who rose to the top of a black art form with a black producer who lent him street credibility, Eminem hasn’t done badly for himself. He’s sold more than 20 million records and is the best-selling rapper in history. Last month, Eminem and Dr. Dre were tied for the No. 2 spot on Forbes’ Top Celebrity list, behind Jennifer Aniston.
What’s the big deal? Eminem’s a good lyricist.
Oh, and he’s white.
More specifically, he’s the only white guy (aside from Rick Rubin, the mastermind behind Def Jam) to reach pop-star prominence in hip-hop culture, bigger even than the Beastie Boys. More than Vanilla Ice or MC Serch or Bubba Sparxx, Eminem was the perfect bridge between the hard-core streets — and the glamorization of drug culture — and the cozy suburbs. He was no studio gangsta — he had lived on both sides of the color line, and he had a Tarzan complex to boot. Someone was bound to take hip-hop to middle America, and Eminem was the perfect guy to do it.
“The Eminem Show” was the best-selling CD last year. The movie about his life that he said wasn’t, “8 Mile,” brought in more than $51 million in the United States.
But the bigger he gets, the less important he becomes — because he’s stopped being a snarling, angry guy and now is just a calm white dude with a lot of money. How shocking is that?
Eminem is the first to admit that his popularity has been enhanced by race, which I respect. In a May 2002 issue of the Source magazine, Eminem told reporter Erik Parker: “The fact that I’m white is probably the reason that I sold double the records I should have. I’m not saying anything different than any rapper has said, N.W.A. or Ice-T. It’s just that when a white face is saying it, these white kids connect with it. I reached into them (sic) homes of Middle America because white kids, not to say they should or shouldn’t have,
looked up to me and connected with me because they look like me.”
But as James Baldwin wrote in an essay about Norman Mailer in 1961, one does not stop playing a role just because he has begun to understand it. And Eminem will go down in history as the guy who revolutionized hip-hop, a notion I can’t support because it’s a half-truth.
Anyway, Eminem just bought a house in the ‘burbs for $4.8 million. Now that the buzz is dying down from “8 Mile” and he’s been crowned a pop culture icon, what’s left for him? The Elvis comparison is so two years ago. He and his mom have seemingly settled their very public feud. His focus seems to be on raising his daughter, Hailie.
It’ll be interesting to see his popularity fade, if in fact, it does. Just as people of color will not be taking over college campuses or boardrooms anytime soon, there will not be another hip-hop anomaly/pop culture icon like him for quite some time.
I can’t say I’ll be missing him, though. I never quite got the angry logic of anti-affirmative action pundits like Clarence Thomas or Ward Connerly until now. When race becomes the single most important part of a person’s appeal, it’s not just a disservice to him and his talent, but it can also be isolating.
And for a culture that thrives on the pulse of a broadening community, isolation is death.
Unless, of course, you’re an angry white guy: Then you can become the voice of America. Truly, some things really never change.
E-mail Joshunda Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org.