Art isn’t politically correct — at least it shouldn’t be. The better artists never worry about how others will respond to their work. An artist merely draws from within themself and their own spiritual environment to produce songs, paintings, statues or whatever that are personal, inventive expressions of the soul.
Eminem is a rapper, but he’s also an artist. Not all rappers are artists, but Em is. He’s proved that by his expert wordplay and the controversial subjects he chooses to discuss in his lyrics. Art isn’t necessarily controversial, but since artists are always thinking up new ways to present new subject matter, art tends to shock and appall the audience from time to time.
The artist also known as Slim Shady isn’t all controversy either. He’s equally adept at eviscerating an opponent with a microphone as he is at presenting with vivid emotions what it’s like to grow up a hungry white kid from Detroit. And for these reasons and more, Eminem is widely recognized as both an artistic genius and a master craftsman.
That being said, Em’s critics regularly charge him — or, more precisely, his lyrics — with being politically incorrect.
Referring to the eye of the latest storm, “Rap God,” one recent subhead in The Hollywood Reporter said “the controversial rapper continues to use politically incorrect language on his latest single.” The article goes on to describe the “media frenzy” caused by the return of Eminem and his homophobic lyrics:
“I attempt these lyrical acrobat stunts while I’m practicing that / I’ll still be able to break a motherfuckin’ table / Over the back of a couple of faggots and crack it in half / Only realized it was ironic I was signed to Aftermath after the fact,” he raps in one verse.
In another, he spits: “Little gay-looking boy / So gay I can barely say it with a straight face-looking boy / You witnessing massacre like you watching a church gathering taking place-looking boy / ‘Oy vey, that boy’s gay,’ that’s all they say looking-boy.”
The highbrow music connoisseur pretenders judge Eminem’s eighth and latest album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, as antiquated for its homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. “If Eminem really were a rap god,” wrote Daniel D’Addario for Salon, “he’d be producing music that will endure.” As D’Addario explains:
“Rap God” feels like a relic. Its existence may excite the blood for Eminem’s core fan base who’ve been there from the beginning … but it’s entirely out of place amid mainstream rap, whose practitioners are alternately concerned with outsize consumerism, their evolving understanding of themselves as political actors, or gushy emotion. Though the song’s rollout seemed opportunistic, the Macklemore/Ryan Lewis song “Same Love,” an anthem about equality, isn’t just emblematic of where the culture is right now vis-à-vis gay people; it also pointed out where music is.
Unfortunately, Eminem’s lyrics aren’t vestiges of a bygone era. And while phenomena like “Same Love” and Frank Ocean likely represent a shift toward the acceptance of homosexuality in hip-hop culture, I don’t think they’re emblematic of where the culture is right now. The culture may be headed there, but it’s not there yet. Not by a long shot.
One literary maxim advises readers not to judge authors for what their characters do, say or think. And perhaps Cocteau spoke in the same vein when he said that “the poet doesn’t invent, he listens.” The same can be said of all artists.
Eminem didn’t invent homophobia or its vocabulary. He’s only telling his audience what he saw and heard on the grey streets south of 8 Mile Road. What would his critics have him do? Would they like him to sanitize his lyrics, like they sanitized Huck Finn? As with any artist, Em’s under no obligation to present his world as it should be, only as it is. He, if he’s a realist, cannot stand above his own reality and judge it from on high. In fact, a serious artist must never engage in judgment.
People attack Eminem for his lyrics when they should direct their concerns to the culture that produced him. Despite what the writers for Salon may have you believe, Em’s lyrics are misogynistic and homophobic because the culture is that way, or at the very least its language is.
I know because I’m partly from that culture. Like Eminem and millions of others, politically incorrect and offensive language is part of my vernacular. And like Eminem, though I use “gay” and “nigga” in ways that would get me kicked out of a coffeehouse, I’m in no way homophobic or racist.
Marshall Mathers, the man behind the music, has tried explaining to the public the difference between art and the artist, between the homophobic and misogynistic words used in the inner-city and actually being a homophobe or misogynist.
While organizations like GLAAD have been on his case since the start, openly-gay artists like Elton John have defended Em for nearly a decade. In a strange twist, Elton John even attacks anyone who labels the Detroit rapper a homophobe.
“Let the BOY GEORGEs and the GEORGE MICHAELs of the world get in a twist about it if they don’t have the intelligence to see his intelligence,” the singer-songwriter told the press in 2005.
When Anderson Cooper, another gay and influential person, asked Eminem if he hated homosexuals in a 2010 interview, the rapper promptly responded, “I don’t have a problem with nobody.”
It was only a few months before the interview that Em had made public his support for gay marriage.
In an interview set to be published by Rolling Stone on November 22, Eminem tries again to explain the dichotomy of using homophobic language while not being a homophobe himself:
I don’t know how to say this without saying it how I’ve said it a million times. But that word [“faggot”], those kind of words, when I came up battle-rappin’ or whatever, I never really equated those words [with “homosexual”] … It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole. So that word was just thrown around so freely back then. It goes back to that battle, back and forth in my head, of wanting to feel free to say what I want to say, and then [worrying about] what may or may not affect people. And, not saying it’s wrong or it’s right … But the real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all. I’m glad we live in a time where it’s really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves.
Hip-hop lyrics tend to be ugly because hip hop comes from an ugly place, namely the impoverished and hopeless street corners of America’s inner cities. Millions of people have been separated from mainstream America, forced to live in crumbling tenements, where the dream of getting a decent education and a good-paying job is just that, a dream. And yet we expect such people to comport themselves with dignity and respect for their fellow man. Society constructs a system that drives certain groups into a state of hereditary and violent poverty, and then the same society is shocked when those people don’t behave as enlightened human beings.
If you grew up in a cozy suburb, if you never worried about your next meal or never got treated like toilet paper by society, then whenever you listen to hip-hop music, keep in mind that you’re a guest. This isn’t for you. You may have bought the track on iTunes, you might even enjoy the lyrics, but this isn’t meant for you. The music was made for the artist and whoever else can relate, for the person who has been there and understands all too well what the lyrics mean.
It doesn’t surprise me to see outsiders criticize hip-hop music. They must think hip-hop culture is so backward and hateful, and much of it is. But to attack the hip-hop artist for what the culture is, that’s just misguided. And if you want art to show society as it should be, not as it is, then what you want is propaganda, not art.
Eminem’s lyrics may be filled with violence, homophobia and misogyny, but you can’t blame him for what his lyrics depict, for what they dig up and smear under America’s nose. He’s an artist, and an artist doesn’t invent anything. He only listens.
[Photo: Sabine Fricke via Wikimedia Commons]