At the Black Entertainment Television awards Tuesday night, a white guy stole the spotlight.
Eminem attacked President Trump in a 4 ½ minute freestyle tirade titled “The Storm,” calling the commander in chief a “kamikaze / that’ll probably cause a nuclear holocaust,” a “racist 94-year-old grandpa,” and “orange.” The rapper ended the taped performance by raising his fist in support of Colin Kaepernick and other protesting NFL players before “drawing in the sand a line” for his fans: Either they’re with him, or they’re with Trump.
Conservatives were quick to call out liberals who talk a big game about women’s or LGBT rights for fawning over a rapper whose work has flown in the face of both causes. Eminem, widely considered the best white rapper of all time, has always courted controversy. He shot to fame by infusing his lyrics with violence and misogyny that shocked suburban mothers and the media into giving him more and more attention. Adolescents, they worried, identified too closely with the rage coursing through his music.
“Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore / ‘Til the vocal chords don’t work in her throat no more?!” Eminem asks on one song. On another, he boasts, “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge / That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a fag or a lez / Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-vast / Pants or dress, hate fags? The answer’s ‘yes.’”
Another criticism came from the left, leveled in particular at a tweet from Keith Olbermann: “After 27 years of doubts about rap I am now a fan. Best political writing of the year, period,” he wrote, punctuating his declaration with multiple clapping emojis. Why now, and why Eminem? Black musicians have been making art that tackles questions of race for decades, and they’ve also spent the past year going after Trump and his supporters for propping up white supremacists. As New York Magazine writer Craig Jenkins points out, the response hasn’t been nearly as positive.
Both of these arguments are valid. While it’s possible to agree with Eminem in this instance and not countless others, liberals casting him as some sort of progressive hero are way off-base. And black artists have already put much more on the line than Eminem, for much less recognition. Their output is also often more emotionally affective. (“That’s an awfully hot coffee pot / Should I drop it on Donald Trump? Probably not” isn’t exactly inspiring.)
But the arguments also ignore whom Eminem is talking to. Eminem’s primary audience today isn’t crusaders for the resistance who were impressed enough with Tuesday’s freestyle to turn him into an avatar. It’s people who already saw him that way. Eminem’s real targets are the fans he addresses in the final lines of his verse. “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: F–k you!”
This isn’t the same old late-night television dump-on-Trump extravaganza. This time, the message isn’t coming from the coastal elite. It’s coming from someone who made his name speaking for middle America, and whose biography fits neatly into the narrative of the “white working class.” Many of his fans fit into that narrative, too. They may already be getting their pro-Trump fix from Kid Rock, another Detroit native who started as a rapper. Now, finally, they’re getting something different.
Whether Eminem’s display will actually change any minds is up for debate. But at least it’s getting his fans to talk. Disowning Trump supporters is a strong statement when those people are your supporters, too — and one that may make a difference, however marginal. Eminem’s critics are right that we shouldn’t need a lecture on condemning white supremacy from a white rapper. The sad fact is, some of us do.