Eminem vs. Trump
The political importance of the artist
I was in Chicago with my son, visiting colleges, and he was listening to the new Eminem album while he was working out in the hotel gym. He told me that he thought the album was great, but that he was not sure if he agreed with Eminem using his celebrity for political purpose. I usually let my son (and my daughter) have their say, but I shot from the hip. “Sebastian,” I said, “Eminem is not a celebrity; he is an artist. When artists turn to politics, it is often a sign of trouble.” I told him the difference between an artist and a celebrity, as far as I can draw the distinction. In Eminem’s case, he does not and has never sought the limelight. His private life is private. He rarely goes to award ceremonies. I would take a guess that few reading this essay know that Eminem has at least one daughter and that he sent her off to a great college a few years ago. You do not know he has a daughter because he has fastidiously kept her away from his fame.
Recently, Public Seminar shared an open letter to the Directors of the National Museum in Krakow. That letter argued that there comes a time in the formation of fascist regimes when neutrality is complicity. The authors outline such a time in Polish history, explaining that not all fascists wear a fascist uniform, and that if we move to the now, the United States in 2018, not all racists scream “all lives matter.” In times such as this, times when the leader of the free world fails to condemn Nazis and Klansmen and stands behind ICE, a group designed to terrorize and deport a population— an innocent population — you have to choose a side. You cannot go about your aristocratic games, your life as usual. To remove yourself in the name of neutrality is to tacitly support Nazis, Klansmen, and organizations like ICE, and this tacit support strikes as more dangerous than outright racism because without it, outright racism is a fire with limited air. Just think about the name “ICE”– it is chilling.
What is more, we often think of art as occupying a kind of neutral space, or we argue for its necessary ambiguity. It is not the job of artists to produce polemics. We also think of museum directors and curators as being tasked with choosing an artist’s or several artists’ best work and elucidating the presented work for its anticipated audience with plaques on the wall. In the letter mentioned above, the authors also note that popular culture, during times of the intense targeting of all “others,” cannot be neutral either. Eminem is both an artist who has won several Grammys and his music is popular culture. His fan base is enormous, cutting across all demographics.
So, when Eminem released a video at the BET awards that had none of what makes his typical work controversial in it, we can safely assume that he did this — left out any sentiment that might distract the audience — on purpose. Eminem focused most obviously on Trump by letting him know: you cannot divide us; we have each other’s backs; we are not afraid of you; we see through you and we hate you. Alongside his message to Trump was an unequivocal message to his fans that goes something like this. You cannot love me and listen to my music and support Trump; it is either him or me and if you cannot decide who you like more, “F**k you.” It is a statement made both against Trump and anyone who supports Trump or prefers to remain neutral, to not choose a side.
Eminem does something else in this video that I assume is deliberate. He keeps the lyrics and the rhymes simple. He is known for his dense rhymes and difficult syncopation; his work usually demands more than one listen to understand and it is often unclear where he stands in his own narratives. In this video, he makes where he stands resoundingly clear and again, he makes sure that you only have to listen once to understand what is saying and where he stands.
Eminem is not civil with Trump; he is, however, until the end of the video, civil with his fans. He is like a teacher teaching the class (his fans) what Donald Trump has said and done, and why he thinks Donald is dangerous. There is subversion in this civility and there is also subversion in the incivility found in his forceful challenge at the end of the video. There is nothing civil about saying “f**k you” to someone — but there is a time for incivility, or the refusal to let people off the hook; there are times in countries and cultures when no neutrality is permitted. There are times when the two sides of the same story cannot be given equal credence or weight. An analogy to Hitler is apt here because we are talking about Poland and we know that it has recently become illegal to mention the complicity of the Poles in the murdering of Jews. Also, who, besides the avowed Neo-Nazi, would ever argue that there were two sides to that story? Do we really need to put “Neo” in front of “Nazi”? We do not say “Neo” in front of “Klansman.”
The deportations of Mexicans have begun and we have no idea when, where, or how they will end. I suspect much of the work of ICE is underreported. And what happens when the deportations solve nothing, when they prove to be actions of mere cruelty that do not improve anyone’s lives? Given this reality, we are at a time when no neutrality is permitted. To sit back and let deportations take on a life of their own is to be complicit.
And given Eminem’s popularity and reach, we need him. He can reach far more people than we can and because he was born “poor white trash” he has a street cred with many Trump voters, a kind of credibility that intellectuals do not have. He was born Marshall Mathers III (M&M) to a drug addicted mother eight miles outside of Detroit proper. His father left them when he was two months old and has never tried to find him (it would not be hard to find Eminem). He was moved from school to school, repeatedly bullied and beaten up. He is not a “bad boy” as he is consistently labeled; he is the scrawny and awkward kid in all of us. His music has enough anger to sink a ship. He is white and he is the stereotype of a Trump voter — a white working class kid who grows up in black neighborhoods and is given little to no chance to find a way out. This is the story of the artist who, in his video, outlines Trump’s suicidal fantasies, his fascist tendencies, and his politics of distraction without any fancy language or appeal to any of the literature on the topics.
I live in Southern California. Mexicans have been the target of bigotry for at least as long as I have lived here, and they are, at this point in time, visibly afraid. The woman who cleans my home is Mexican and she has started to call me Señora. Of course, I have asked her to call me what she has always called me, Lisa. I have no idea if she is here legally. I let her continue to call me Señora because I think it gives her comfort. Yes, there is paternalism in her deference to me but that paternalism may make her feel protected. And there are days when I find myself asking myself: what do I do next? Do I tell her in Spanish that if she and her family need shelter, then they can come to my home? It has crossed my mind, but I have two children. Am I going to be faced with such a choice? I think I would feel more certain about what I would do if doing the right thing did not potentially involve the safety of my children. So for all of the people I know who said that Trump was not really going to deport people, this is my “f**k you.”
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Here are some more videos released on YouTube related to Eminem’s video, all designed to give the people Trump has disrespected a voice. Many of them have nonsensical dates of release. My interpretation is that the dates are meant to communicate that this did not start with Trump; it was going on two or three years ago.
Lisa Aslanian is a freelance writer with a focus on political art. She holds a PhD in sociology from The New School for Social Research and is currently studying clinical psychology with an emphasis in spiritual and depth psychology and community psychology.