Eminem performed with Elton John. Toni Braxton wore a loincloth. Lil’ Bow Wow drove Madonna onto the stage. Jill Scott sang with The Blue Man Group. In the tradition of American music, the Baha Men took a “jump up” Soca song, exploited it so that it is now something played at high school football games and won “Best Dancing Recording” for doing so. Stranger things, I suppose, have happened.
But what I don’t understand is why Eminem won three Grammys, held the number one spot on the Billboard charts for weeks, and why he has been named Rolling Stone’s Artist of the Year for rapping about violence, homophobia and misogyny, among other things. I am a strong advocate of free speech. I would never dream petitioning anyone to censor Eminem’s lyrical message. But I don’t get why America seems to love lyrics that read: “I invented violence you vile venomous vomital bitches/ Vain, Vicadin, Rin-rin-rin/ Touch this chainsaw, left his brains all/ Dangling from his neck while his head barely hangs on/ Blood, guts, guns, cuts, Knives, lives, wives, nuns, sluts –” I don’t understand the appeal.
I don’t believe the problem rests with this small, angry man. Rather, I question the values of a society that embraces someone who raps about killing his girlfriend and having sex with his mother. Michael Greene, the President/CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences addressed the audience at the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards telecast and spoke of this very issue:
“Of late, the controversy over extreme lyrics has been a heat-seeking missile, and it is important to remember that the Academy is not here to defend or vilify, commercialize or censor art. We are here to recognize those recordings that are notable, noticeable and oft times, controversial. People are mad, and people are talking. And that’s a good thing because it’s through dialogue and debate that social discovery can occur.”
What type of “social discovery” does Greene expect? The discovery that inner-city youth are angry? That they feel mainstream society pays them little attention? If one listens to the lyrics of rap that have been created over the past 20 years, one can find the same themes.
Why, then, did it take a white artist to popularize this message? Eminem is rumored to be the highest-selling rap artist ever. Why? Is it because he reaches a broader audience because of his color? He grew up in inner-city Detroit and supposedly faced many of the same issues typically associated with growing up as a minority in urban ghettos. So if he is rapping about the same issues that others have, why is his audience larger?
I struggled to believe that, in this instance, Eminem should not be criticized for appropriating a traditionally minority art form. As stated, he grew up in the culture that has historically produced it. He is just a guy rapping about issues that matter to him, and his color should not be brought into a discussion of his success.
The other day I was lifting weights with a friend in the gym and forced to listen to a radio station playing “today’s hits.” This meant they were playing groups I had never heard, music that is often called “mainstream.” After a song from U2 went off the air, whose voice should carry across the airwaves? Slim Shady himself, heard on a station that did not seem to play hip-hop, rhythm and blues, or rap. So does this mean rap is mainstream? Or just that Eminem is? And if he is, why?
In addition, there is the subject of the content of his lyrics. On the Web site www.eminem.com, Eminem is quoted as saying, “Growing up, I was one of the biggest fans of N.W.A., from putting on the sunglasses and looking in the mirror and lipsinking, to wanting to be Dr. Dre, to be Ice Cube.” If Eminem wanted to be Dr. Dre growing up, it follows that young people in the situation he grew up in would find themselves wanting to be like him. The ramifications of children wanting to be like someone who raps that “There’s a four year old boy lyin’ dead with a slit throat/ In your living room, ha-ha/ What you think I’m kiddin’ you?” are potentially dangerous.
So it is not Eminem I’m worried about. It’s us. It’s not the artist I criticize, but those who buy his album. The argument could be made that there are lewd and violent lyrics everywhere — there always have been, and there always will be. But what’s it gonna take for America to stop loving them?
Aisha D. Gayle is a junior in Berkeley College. Her columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.