Eminem had a lot to say about President Trump in a rap at the BET Hip Hop Awards. In the four-and-a-half minute freestyle performance, the rapper hammered Trump for targeting the NFL players protesting police brutality and for his failure to distance himself from white nationalists. Social media lit up. Liberal commentator Keith Olbermann tweeted, “After 27 years of doubts about rap I am now an Eminem fan.”
But why did it take figures like Olbermann until 2017 to afford rap music the respect they have long given to other forms of artistic protest?
It part, it is stylistic. Eminem’s caustic tone, vulgarity and angry delivery meshes with the angry white male style of political punditry viewers are accustomed to watching on cable news, recalling Olbermann’s own hostile anti-Trump editorials on his Web series, The Resistance.
But it is also substantive. For the past 30 years, black rappers have made controversial critiques of law-and-order politics in ways that made white liberals uncomfortable. As a result, these liberals became critics rather than allies of rappers, more concerned with policing black artists’ language than hearing the substance of their messages and the deep political critique behind their lyrics.
Censorship drove political rap from the genre’s mainstream, and only now is it creeping back in to provide a much-needed voice in our political discourse. Yet celebrating Eminem while dismissing black artists like Nas exposes how white audiences still ignore black political rap, especially when the subject is racism.
Political rap dates to the early 1980s. Fueled by anger about Reaganomics and police brutality, performers rapped about inner-city life. In 1982, Melle Mel famously voiced his frustrations with urban divestment, poverty and segregation on Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s iconic single “The Message.” By the late-1980s, Public Enemy commented on a panoply of race-related political topics, and Queen Latifah and Monie Love released the black feminist single “Ladies First.”
While many white baby boomers totally missed the development of political rap (and rap more broadly) during the 1980s, others, horrified by both its message and its vulgarity, led a campaign to censor or ban it.
In August 1989, the FBI famously sent the group Niggaz Wit Attitudes (NWA) a letter demanding that it cease to play its hit single “F‑‑‑ tha Police.” Police officers across the country refused to work as security for NWA concerts. Officers from the Detroit Police Department even disrupted NWA’s performance of the song at a concert. The FBI and other law enforcement saw NWA’s song as inflammatory and threatening.
NWA, by contrast, viewed their song as a fair response to an institution guilty of brutalizing black people. The LAPD’s killing of Eula Love in 1979 over an unpaid gas bill, the department’s deadly use of chokeholds and their militaristic policing style at the height of the war on drugs, drove the group’s critique.
Initially, this sort of political rap had the support of the record labels releasing it. But political opposition made that riskier.
Vice President Dan Quayle, Tipper Gore (wife of then-Democratic Sen. Al Gore) and actor Charlton Heston all roundly criticized Warner Brothers for releasing Ice T’s song “Cop Killer.” Police organizations across the country, as well as the National Rifle Association, engaged in a campaign to censor the controversial group and threatened to boycott all of Time Warner’s products if the label did not pull the song.
Under pressure from his label and the police, Ice T eventually relented. Law enforcement’s win in the “Cop Killer” controversy reflected its political power and its ability to influence art with hardball tactics, instead of changing its behavior or even addressing the critique driving rappers’ art.
As Dan Charnas writes in “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” Ice T’s decision had a chilling effect on political rap, which would be marginalized well into the 21st century.
One rapper, however, has avoided this marginalization. Eminem’s popularity and whiteness allowed him to survive conservative campaigns led by second lady Lynne Cheney. Cheney branded Eminem a “violent misogynist” in her crusade to expand parental advisory labeling for music, video games and movies.
And yet, this effort ultimately failed. Record companies opposed further regulations and Eminem achieved superstar status. His race allowed him to reach audiences in ways that black artists could not. He told the Source magazine in 2002: “The fact that I’m white is probably the reason that I sold double the records I should have. I’m not saying anything different than any rapper has said, N.W.A. or Ice-T in just that when a white face is saying it, these white kids connect with it.”
While politics silenced black rappers, it bolstered Eminem’s status, validating Eminem’s rebelliousness and providing even more appeal to white suburban kids. His race also seemed to make his vulgarity and political commentary less threatening. At the end of his song “White America” Eminem scathingly rebuked Cheney and her predecessor, Tipper Gore. There was no pushback.
Even as Eminem tangled with political luminaries without consequences, corporate record labels continued to suppress black political rap. In 2008, in an attempt to comment on race relations, Nas titled his ninth solo album, “N‑‑‑‑r.” Civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joined with retailers like Wal-Mart to demand that Nas and Def Jam Records change the title or risk the album being yanked from shelves. Like Ice T and Warner Brothers before them, Nas and Def Jam acquiesced.
The stance adopted by Wal-Mart and civil rights leaders illustrated how many in the public sphere refused to see rappers as the equals of other performers, artists and social commentators. For civil rights leaders like Jackson and Sharpton, the use of the “n-word” (as well as other problematic content in rap music) chafed against the middle-class black respectability politics that emphasized “proper” behavior, speech and dress as a strategy to transcend racism and to climb the socioeconomic ladder.
Rappers like Nas, who rebelled against respectability politics, could not be trusted to kindle a thoughtful conversation about race. Instead, these civil rights leaders worried that they would inflame anti-black racism with their incendiary language and crudeness. To prevent this, they attacked the entertainers’ use of the “n-word.” But their objection was not to the word itself — they voiced nary a complaint when scholars like Randall Kennedy, who published a book called “N‑‑‑‑r,” used it.
Yet sparking a serious conversation on race had been Nas’s goal. He told CNN that he intended to interrogate the nation’s racist past: “That’s why I named the album that — not just that the word is horrible, but the history behind the word, and how it relates to me, how it’s affected me, offended me.”
Political developments over the past decade inspired more black rap artists to increase their political engagement. Barack Obama’s election spurred more commentary from artists like Young Jeezy, Jay-Z and Nas. Police killings of unarmed African-Americans and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement also motivated black rappers and artists like Janelle Monae to record songs critical of police mistreatment.
And yet, while political rap has found markets and new business models to promote its expansion, it rarely goes viral among white listeners. Even a star like Jay-Z has neglected to generate the same type of enthusiasm among white liberals that Eminem’s freestyle did. Songs like “The Story of O.J.” decry racism and promote issues like black economic empowerment important to black listeners, but failed to register widely among white liberals.
Meanwhile, white rappers like Eminem, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis receive mainstream praise when they rap about issues many white liberals care about. Instead of provoking a backlash, “Same Love,” a song that criticized homophobia and celebrated same-sex relationships, helped propel Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album in 2014. But white audiences simply didn’t care to hear about the political issues tied to race that animated black rappers and their audience.
Eminem’s BET freestyle was a welcome act of political conscience from an artist well positioned to challenge rap fans who may have voted for President Trump. Yet, as Lawrence Burney wisely argues in Noisey, those showering Eminem with praise should remember that he risked far less than black artists who have criticized Trump, especially at a time when the FBI has renewed its focus on neutralizing black activism.
Trump’s silence about Eminem’s freestyle also illustrates the president’s preoccupation with attacking prominent African American figures such as Colin Kaepernick and Jemele Hill while being less inflammatory toward white critics. But while he’s remained unusually quiet about Eminem, it still may only be a matter of time before he participates in the longstanding suppression of political rap.