Eminem, rap and politics: a storied history

Eminem in his 4-minute gig in which he slagged Donald Trump at the 2017 BET awards. 12oct2017.
Eminem in his 4-minute gig in which he slagged Donald Trump at the 2017 BET awards. 12oct2017.

After a lengthy spell out of the limelight, Eminem is back doing what he does best: enraging America.

The rap megastar, real name Marshall Mathers, made his return with a scathing attack on President Donald Trump via a 4-minute freestyle rap aired at the BET Hip Hop Awards yesterday.

Eminem repeatedly brutalised Trump during the performance, blatantly accusing him of racism for his stances on immigration, NFL players kneeling as protest through the national anthem, and the Charlottesville white supremacy riots.

He finished the freestyle with an ultimatum to his Trump-supporting fans:

“And any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his

I’m drawing in the sand a line, you’re either for or against

And if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split

On who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this:

Fuck you!”

While being lauded in hip hop circles for his courage, the predictable response from middle America was one of anger. Eminem himself has acknowledged that as a white artist he’s been able to compile a huge white audience outside of general rap fandom.

His Trump-bashing has seen many followers turn their back on him – for the first time in his controversial career.

A common social media comment from opposition has been, “Stick to your own lane – you’re just a rapper”.

But the reality is, rap has been a heavily politicised art form since its inception.

It was developed as a platform for self-expression and freedom of speech and the first examples were seen in the 70s. Legendary pioneer Gil Scott-Heron, credited as the innovator of both conscious jazz and conscious rap, used his songs to push against issues like the Vietnam war and racial injustice, and was influential in campaigning for Martin Luther King’s birthday to be celebrated as an American national holiday.

From Scott-Heron’s trailblazing approach, the platform was set for more rappers to take a political stand. Grandmaster Flash’s often-imitated classic song The Message was birthed in the early 80s, painting a graphic depiction of the hardships faced in urban America.

Heralded as the rap capital during the 1990s, New York’s scene bubbled with political unrest. A host of artists like Ice T and Public Enemy headed the charge. Renowned hip-hop supergroup NWA also came out with their fabled Fuck the Police track around the same and followed it with a slew of anti-government anthems. Group member Ice Cube forged an acclaimed solo career touching on similar topics, while rock band Rage Against the Machine also found success crossing over into conscious rap.

In more recent times, stars like Kanye West have been quick to speak their mind. West’s debut LP The College Dropout was littered with political messages, as was his 2005 follow-up album Late Registration where he rapped the line “I know the government administers AIDS”.

It was in the same year that West appeared during a live TV call-to-action for victims of Hurricane Katrina and uttered the now infamous words “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

West has continued his outspoken manner, blasting corporate establishments and racist stereotypes on 2013s New Slaves.

Modern political rap has also received huge critical acclaim. Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, a long dive into the oppression and institutionalisation of African-Americans, received a MetaCritic score of 96 per cent, a place on many greatest-ever album lists and took out seven Grammy awards.

Eminem’s Trump disses yesterday weren’t even the first occasion that rappers have opposed the man. YG and Nipsey Hussle scored a Billboard hit with their 2016 song aptly titled Fuck Donald Trump, and J. Cole, who himself has released many politically charged tracks, led anti-Trump chants at a recent concert.

In fact, it wasn’t even Eminem’s first public slander of Trump, nor his first foray into politics. He frequently addressed racial discrimination in the early 2000s with songs like White America and Mosh, both extremely disparaging of the Bush Administration, while he called Trump in his 2016 release Campaign Speech, and in an appearance on Big Sean’s No Favors earlier this year.

With a new album rumoured to be dropping in mid-November, we could be in for a lot more government resistance from Slim Shady.

Even in Australia, political rap has been a recent talking point. Macklemore’s performance of his same sex marriage anthem at the NRL Grand Final two weeks ago caused a furore unlike any before it. The Seattle artist’s set received mass praise in the aftermath of the event.

Despite the fact that some may feel offended, it’s certain that Eminem, Macklemore and their rapping contemporaries will continue to make conversation by upholding hip hop’s earliest creeds and continuing to address the environment around them through song.

Top screengrab from BET Awards video of Eminem’s performance this week.

About Troy Whittaker 19 Articles
Rugby league journalist who also loves cricket. Bylines include – Cronulla Sharks, NSWRL, Inside Sport, The Women's Game, Punter Problems, Sportskeeda. Email: twhittaker@mymacleay.edu.au