“The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and myths.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Eminem didn’t come to mind the day of Mike Brown’s murder. He wasn’t a thought when the video of Philando Castile went viral. The same can be said for Sandra Bland and all who became hashtags after losing their lives to unjust police violence. This isn’t a slight at Em—may no celebrity infiltrate our minds when tragedy crosses the timeline—but like others before him, after years of silence, he has galloped to the frontlines to commune against the greater issue. Eminem is different, though. At times appearing as a disconnected hermit; a famous rapper who lives in an ivory tower absent from society’s ills.
JAY-Z feels very distant from us, and yet, by comparison, Em seems like a resident of Pluto. He’s chosen privacy over the invasion, solitude instead of accessibility. I don’t fault the man, fame will devour anyone who isn’t careful about boundaries. In his case, the walls were high, the castle doors locked, and communication scarce.
Displaying his disgust of Donald during his BET cypher was a reminder that Marshall Mathers is still an inhabitant of Earth, a fellow citizen of the United States who also carried a deep distaste for the commander-in-chief. His lyricism lacked the blunt directness of YG’s “FDT,” and despite an intense devotion to an eccentric delivery, the internet broke underneath his stance. He still had the power to rattle cages in a way other rappers rarely achieve, white America still saw him the way Peter Parker views Steve Rogers. He drew a line in the sand, a gesture much stronger than any of the words he rapped. The freestyle was only the beginning of his aggressive, political re-emergence in the post-Trump landscape.
The cover for Revival―his forthcoming ninth studio album―displays the American flag overlaying the Detroit rapper facepalming. If the cover indicates anything of the music to come, it’s his disappointment in the country. The LP’s second single, “Untouchable,” attempts to explore the complex roots of racism and racial tension in modern America, rapping from the vantage point of both a white and black man in a fashion similar to Joyner Lucas’ “I’m Not Racist.” Eminem, unlike Joyner, didn’t use shock value to go viral as “Untouchable” is far more intricate in its delivery. The man who had a voice to speak to the hearts of white America was suddenly giving his viewpoint of the black perspective. Much like Joyner’s, the song has received a slew of mixed reviews.
Mr. Porter (also known as Denaun Porter) can recall during the making of Revival―he was there for most of the process―a moment when he entered the studio and the 8 Mile emcee was watching the news, scorching with fury. He had seen what we all have seen, again and again, yet another black man riddled with bullets by those sworn to protect and serve.
“Police chased him and shot him down. Em was furious about it. I can’t remember who, and that’s sad to say because so many black people got shot by police officers,” Mr. Porter explained over the phone, a sullen confession that I could empathize with.
He was right, the number of victims who have been assaulted and murdered by officers is a recurring nightmare. Vice just released heart-wrenching numbers that further highlight what we’ve known for years. Names are stacked upon names, bodies are violently returned to the soil, and justice continues to lose its appointed definition.
What I didn’t know before speaking with Porter was that Eminem was watching the news with the same outrage we were. He didn’t tweet or Instagram or march, but he was watching, waiting, and writing.
Mr. Porter moved back to Detroit from L.A., returning home to assist with his friend’s next album. He said there was no specific decision to begin on Revival, but he did recall this specific in-studio story as a moment before the project began. “I would say just having things to talk about,” he confessed when asked about what inspired Eminem to enter album mode. He continued:
“Political things that happen make you want to talk about things. The president is an asshole… the guy, the guy is a piece of shit. You can quote me on that. He’s literally a piece of shit. And I think stuff like that fuels [Eminem] to want to talk. He doesn’t want to rap about nothing. It’s like he just wanted to talk about some real things that were going on in the country and his life.”
Mr. Porter’s honesty reminded me of an old Em lyric from The Slim Shady LP: “How am I supposed to be positive when I don’t see shit positive.” There’s nothing positive about America in 2017.
Remove the blonde hair dye and immature hijinx, his lyrical dexterity and storytelling prowess, and Eminem is a rapper who documents the inescapable internal and external conflicts surrounding him. The aches and agonies he described in “If I Had” became nonexistent after The Slim Shady LP; his dream of making rap his profession came to fruition. New worries replaced the old. Issues of money became problems with drugs, the aggravation of invisibility turned into avoiding overwhelming hero worship. He may have escaped the suffocation of poverty and other extremities, but paradise wasn’t behind the exit door, it rarely is.
He couldn’t write “Stan” until experiencing the extremities of diehards. He couldn’t write of sobriety until the cleansing of drugs from his system. “Untouchable” is another example of internalizing the issues he’s witnessed and allowing them a voice on the outside.
When he wished to challenge the Bush administration against the War on Terror, he spoke out on “Mosh,” a call of defiance against the president. You can hear the awareness of power and influence embedded in the lyrics and declarations of “White America,” as if an epiphany blossomed the thought that he could speak directly to those who shared his skin color. Color and race are subjects he’s weaved around before, but there’s no way of dancing around the current racial conversation. Race is a subject being wrestled in every medium by every person, and silence appears as compliance, but the subject is a labyrinth of nuances deeply rooted in the blood-dyed soil we walk upon. But how can you chose silence when you witness, in public spaces, the problems plaguing this country? Especially for an artist like Eminem, who is a student of hip-hop, the cloth he’s cut from never shied away from criticism of politicians or challenging the establishment. Not everyone is capable of saying what needs to be said, but it should be said, and Marshall is searching for all the right words.
Eminem isn’t Ta-Nehisi Coates; most rappers aren’t. He isn’t grasping the subject of racism in America with the poise and power of Bruce Lee fighting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But even someone of Eminem’s fame and fortune can’t turn a blind eye to what’s occurring, for the same reasons he couldn’t express a false sense of positivity in the beginning of his career.
I won’t reward him with a cookie for speaking out, but I understand why he’s doing so. All Americans are affected by the state of this country. We are all walking through this racial labyrinth. The issue of racism will not be solved by Eminem, but his actions do show he is among us. Not even the most distant stars can ignore what is and isn’t being shown on the nightly news.
At worst, Eminem is criticized for falling short of breaking through such gigantic subject matter. At best, Eminem will continue the ongoing dialogue that so many believe we need to keep having.
“Untouchable” doesn’t have me excited for the album, or for more racial commentary, but I believe Eminem is sincere, and hopefully, that sincerity reaches the ears who need to hear his message most.
We are in the age of Trump and the myth of a post-racial America is dead. Rappers are just supplying the soundtrack. I pray all this talk takes us somewhere promising, but I don’t expect paradise behind the exit door.
By Yoh, aka Kareem AbYoh-Jabbar, aka @Yoh31