By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Jonathan Mannion|
The differences are numerous and obvious, but it’s the similarities that tell the tale: Two peroxide-blond young Caucasians pull themselves up from the ruins of the same crumbling blue-collar chocolate city. They do so on the transcendent force of the Negro culture and its signifiers (music, fashion and vernacular) that they grew up on. With better than a decade separating their ascents, they become darlings of popular media, academia, and the corporate forces that box and sell their slickly commodified rebellion. Both also become complicated symbols of America’s long-standing racial and sexual quagmire, as well as beneficiaries of the oldest and least challenged form of affirmative action — the reflexive elevation of whiteness, particularly the white entertainer mining (or, is that miming?) blackness. And, as a special added bonus, they’re each emblematic of the Zeitgeist in which they rule. At her peak, she embodied the greed-is-good/out-for-self mentality of the Reagan era (yeah, yeah, yeah . . . irony); he personifies, with newfound but rarely examined complexity and contradictions, the rage and uncertainty of straight white men struggling to keep their heads above nigger status in Dubya’s America.
Both Madonna and Eminem are icons of post–civil rights era white skin (and hetero) privilege. It’s a time when appropriation and culture-vulture shopping sprees are sanctioned as the organic evolution of art as opposed to the carefully managed co-option that is filled with historic precedent. But while Madonna would likely never own up to the role that alabaster tits played in her rise to world domination (I’m a fookin’ ahtist . . .), Em is more honest, more self-aware. From the moment he dropped his debut, the keebler media gushed that he’d brought psychological depth, lyrical wit and verbal dexterity to hip-hop — as though Chino XL, Cannibal, the Geto Boys and Redman (before he became Jerry Lewis to Meth’s Dean Martin) had never grabbed a mic. They vaulted him to GOAT status as though Rakim had never been born and Jay-Z’s sole claim to fame was snagging Beyonc√©. But Em is more on the level than the critics who fellate him. He knows that it’s more a matter of whiteness than talent that has granted him his particular measure of visibility and acclaim. "If I was black, I woulda sold half . . .," he rapped point-blank in the song "White America," on 2002’s The Eminem Show. End of convo.
Except . . . Eminem really is talented. He cannot be fucked with in terms of his flow — cadence, timing, the nimble tossing of the most ass-whipping, laugh-inducing rhyme. Still, Negroes who’ve watched him be given dap from people who don’t know shit about hip-hop (The New York Times’ Frank Rich is only one high-profile crotch jockey) are forced to use surgical precision in differentiating their fury at the media’s blatant white-supremacy-in-practice from a critique of his skills. (This is nothing new, of course. Similar contortions exist around the Beastie Boys.) Some don’t even try, and are stuck on a "Fuck that cracka-ass-cracka" mindset. Some up him without pause or question, while others give him love with reservation. In the words of Run-DMC, it’s tricky. And the impetus is, once again, with the Negro to transcend the prickly murk of the racial matter. As Greg Tate pointed out in a recent Village Voice article discussing how race has played out in Em’s career, "It has . . . found him scribed on the covers of hip-hop magazines as the greatest living rapper, which always makes me laugh and think of how predisposed white supremacy has made even colored journalists crown any white man who takes a Black art form to the bank . . . as the greatest who ever lived."
The issue of queerness is another area in which Eminem has been a lightning rod for controversy but not for serious mainstream dialogue. In a Rolling Stone interview published in 2000, comparing the uses of the words faggotand nigger/niggain his music, Em said, "That word [nigger] is not even in my vocabulary. I don’t think that you can put race alongside gender, a man preferring a man. Those are two completely different things. A gay person can be of any race. And I do black music, so out of respect, why would I put that word in my vocabulary?" (This was before the irrelevant powers that be at the Source dug up and floated an audiotape of the teenage Eminem using the word niggerin a basement-tape rap to describe a black girlfriend who’d dumped him.) He reiterated that point of distinction in this year’s November 25 issue of Rolling Stone, and his rationale for why using the word faggotis cool but "nigga/nigger" is not ("Like, if you’re using [faggot] . . . in the way of calling them a name, that’s different than a racial slur to me") is no less disingenuous for being the standard rap party line. And you can almost hear the bubbling up of Eminem’s unconsciousness: Damn, G, a wigga done ceded some white-skin privilege; ya’ll ain’t fuckin’ wit my hetero portfolio.
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