This is the third part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.
Part 3 – Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley.
In my late teens, I was immersed in a certain kind of politics that I find very difficult to put words on. So many of the words I have belong to the right, are loaded with implications I wish I could wash away: social justice warrior, virtue-signalling, identity politics. I spent a lot of time on Tumblr – a site I joined to reblog Glee gifsets that became a source for my political worldview – which checks out, because it’s politics that can only really exist online. Centred myopically on privilege/oppression dynamics, even where none are obvious; wielding the word “intersectionality” like both a weapon and a shield; pushing down my doubts because I was told I needed to “unlearn” all the oppressive, toxic shit I’d absorbed from society at large. I was drained of all my self-esteem – wracked with guilt for my whiteness and my cisness, panicking over mistakes I might make, terrified of men who I felt sure would hurt me – and was provided only self-righteousness in its place. I thought of politics as a collection of rules, most of which demand my passivity.
I’m twenty-five now. I’m a democratic socialist, and I think of politics as a coalition of like-minded people fighting for a better world. I find it hard to talk about the politics I held in my late teens and how it affected me, still affects me, because it plays right into the right’s narrative: the leftist hivemind, the shame people from privileged groups are allegedly made to feel, the disinterest in dissenting voices. I don’t want to sound like someone who believes trans bullies beat up kids while shouting “Die, cis scum!” or whatever. But I did feel suffocating anxiety, and that was real, and I think it’s worth talking about. Not just for personal catharsis, but because it’s a story I’ve only ever heard with a different ending to mine, where that kind of politics is rejected to move to the centre, or even the right. (If you think of political alignments as a straight line, that makes sense. But political alignment isn’t a straight line, or a horseshoe, or even an x-y axis.)
It’s a type of politics that in 2013 Mark Fisher, writing about left-wing Twitter, dubbed the “Vampire’s Castle”. Fisher describes how the Vampire’s Castle “feeds on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students”. It claims to be leftist but actively obscures class – “the sheer mention of class is now automatically treated as if that means one is trying to downgrade the importance of race and gender” – and is ultimately disinterested in structural critique. Rather, it is focused on individual behaviour, on propagating guilt, and on essentialising perceived enemies. “Notice the tactics. X has made a remark/ has behaved in a particular way – these remarks/ this behaviour might be construed as transphobic/ sexist etc. So far, OK,” Fisher writes, “But it’s the next move which is the kicker. X then becomes defined as a transphobe/ sexist etc. Their whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioural slip.” The Castle’s members are held together not by solidarity, but by “mutual fear – the fear that they will be the next one to be outed, exposed, condemned.”
Fisher was writing at the same time that I was neck-deep in the Vampire’s Castle, but it’s not a phenomenon unique to the early 2010s. Jo Freeman wrote about “trashing” in the women’s movement in 1976; Wendy Brown writes about a form of it in her 1995 book States of Injury; Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints made a feature-length video about cancelling earlier this year. It’s a recurring problem in leftist spaces, massively exacerbated by the social media-fuelled explosion in public shaming. But what I find so troubling is that just as I found my way out of that mindset, it seemed to become mainstream.
I see it everywhere – the callous lack of empathy for the political enemy, the almost fetishization of identity as ideology in and of itself – not just in obscure corners of social media and not just on feminist and liberal/leftist publications, but all the way up into the mainstream mass media. Cheerleading coal miners losing their health insurance because they’re demographically more likely to have voted for Donald Trump. Gender essentialism given a woke gloss, on matters as trivial as movie reboots and as serious as who should have the power to drop a nuke. The routine fact of lots of white women voting Republican – treated as a shock every time – causes other white women to apologise on Twitter because women they don’t know (and don’t know anyone like) voted Republican. It’s easy to imagine this as a worldview of the very young and the very online, but I mean, this is a real published critique of the fucking Beach Boys in The New York Review of Books: “Their best-known hits… are poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege. It is hard to imagine that they helped anyone toward self-determination or achieving their social rights.” This whole outlook is so baked in to how people talk about social justice that it’s not at all strange for soft-feminist beauty and fashion websites to publish earnest-sounding listicles about “Things You Might Not Realize Are Cultural Appropriation That Are”.
If this kind of politics is defined by being primarily a set of rules for behaviour – mostly along identity lines – cultural appropriation is the king of these rules; the place where the division between privileged and marginalised is rendered sharpest, where their roles are the most distinct.
“Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own,” according to Everyday Feminism. It’s “a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” It’s an imprecise term, imported from academia – where its meaning was already contested – and disseminated online in a game of telephone. But the idea – in its contemporary form, as popularised in largely online social justice communities – is basically about who is or is not allowed engage in particular behaviours, on the basis of their identity: usually racial identity, but sometimes national identity, sexuality or disability, too.
As Natalie Wynn once pointed out, some of the most oft-cited examples of cultural appropriation are just the classic old-fashioned racism of caricature and stereotyping. Dressing up as a Native American or Arab or just straight-up doing blackface for Halloween, the Washington Redskins’ half-assed defense that they’re honouring Native Americans by having a racial slur in their team name: these are so obviously racist that calling them cultural appropriation obscures more than it illuminates. (There’s an apparent conviction in a lot of social justice circles that the best way to explain something is to apply a bunch of jargon to it, when, obviously, the opposite is true.)
What the idea of cultural appropriation gestures – however clumsily – towards is, you know, white people with dreadlocks. Victoria’s Secret models and people at Coachella wearing Native American headdresses. Getting tattoos in Asian languages you don’t understand. Miley Cyrus twerking or Selena Gomez wearing a bindi. It’s about dominant groups (usually white people) taking cultural stuff from marginalised groups (usually people of colour) and stripping them of the context that birthed them. It is usually placed in a tradition rooted in colonialism: the imperialist westerner stole land and resources centuries ago, and now they steal culture instead. What might get a person of colour profiled or persecuted is, for a white person, reduced to a quirky fashion accessory.
It’s a framing that I feel somewhat alienated from inherently. I’m Irish: both white westerner and the daughter of a colonised nation. The Venn diagram of “white”, “western” and “from a historical colonial power” is three imperfectly overlapping circles – Malta was a colony, Japan was an imperial power – and cultural appropriation rhetoric collapses them together. It has to, because the power dynamics of cultural relations are so much more complex than any easily applied rule could ever account for.
The white rapper has been a contentious cultural figure for decades, shapeshifting and ominous. Both inextricable from the long lineage of white artists ripping off and taking credit for black music – from jazz to rock and roll – and a portent of hip hop’s whitewashed future. “Ever since the Beastie Boys went multiplatinum, so many commentators have been warily waiting for a racial hijacking of hip-hop,” Stereo Williams writes for The Daily Beast, “an Elvis Presley to emerge and suddenly wrest the music’s image away from black artists and fans.”
There’s probably never been a better time to be a white rapper than now – the last five years is probably the first time in my life where a white rapper having a hit could be accurately described as “not notable” – but the white takeover of hip hop hasn’t really happened. Not the way it happened to rock and roll, at least. As The Fader put it, “you can rattle off a dozen [white rappers] if you really try”. There has been a sufficient ascendency of white rappers that Macklemore could win a Grammy over Kendrick Lamar, and there’s sufficient wariness of the interloping white rapper that Macklemore had to spend like a year apologising for winning a Grammy over Kendrick Lamar. (I will go to my grave remembering Macklemore posting a screenshot on Instagram of an apology text he sent to Kendrick – who he saved in his contacts as “Kendrick Real” – to which Kendrick had not replied, and it will make me laugh every time.)
Nobody embodies the white rapper in popular imagination quite like Eminem. There were white rappers before and since, but none – except maybe Vanilla Ice – that quite represented the potential for hip hop’s whitewashing. Like Vanilla Ice, he has been extremely commercially successful. (It’s easy to retroactively imagine Vanilla Ice as a one hit wonder, but To The Extreme was the best-selling hip hop album up until that time.) But while Vanilla Ice was basically intrinsically embarrassing – and so easily dismissed as a novelty act – Eminem is technically proficient, becoming, as Carvell Wallace wrote for MTV, “the lone white representative in the greatest-rapper-of-all-time discussion.” Elvis was crowned the King of Rock and Roll over the black artists who invented the genre, and in 2011, Rolling Stone named Eminem the King of Hip Hop. (Much to Eminem’s chagrin.)
He’s both the ultimate example of a white takeover of hip hop and the baseline to which all white rappers are compared. He’s the name Macklemore invokes on ‘White Privilege’: “The face of hip-hop has changed a lot since Eminem / And if he’s taking away black artists’ profits, I look just like him.” When Asher Roth released ‘I Love College’, he was constantly compared to Eminem, even though the frat-party naval-gazing of Roth’s early work couldn’t be further from Eminem’s gory trailer-park horrorcore.
But if cultural appropriation is about power dynamics between the dominant and marginalised, are Macklemore and Eminem in the same power position? Macklemore spends ‘White Privilege’ rapping about how he “wasn’t forced into the projects” and was “blessed with the privilege that [his] parents could send [him] to college”. Eminem spent his childhood rarely living in one place for more than a year or two. He failed the ninth grade three times before dropping out of high school. (“Okay, so while Macklemore was keeping his room nice and neat,” Eminem raps, “I was getting my ass beat twice a week.”) For the cultural appropriation rubric to work, it has to collapse these class differences.
In his essay about the “white rapper’s burden”, Hanif Abdurraqib says that Eminem rapped like white boys who could smack their dad’s face without consequences – a danger that his whiteness made thrilling from afar, meant he could emerge unscathed – and it’s like he’s talking about someone totally different. It’s true that Eminem can’t experience the dangers of blackness, but Abdurraqib applies this too broadly, like his whiteness is an impenetrable protective coating. It sounds not just ignorant of the facts of Eminem’s life, but a total inside-out interpretation of his work: hearing a fantasy of danger instead of fantasy of revenge. On ‘Brain Damage’, Eminem takes the story of a real-life attack that left him with a serious head injury – jumped by his bully in the school toilets – and twists it through his Slim Shady persona. He beats the shit out of, and maybe kills, the bully, cathartically flipping around genuine experience of danger.
It’s easy to point to Eminem’s experiences of poverty, abuse and mental illness to try and bolster his authenticity – to position him as a rightful contributor to hip hop instead of an interloper – but it’s ultimately wrongheaded. Approaching white rappers by putting them each individually on trial for privilege sounds both futile and fucking boring: trying to prove that they’re one of the “good ones”, heroically transcending their own whiteness by piling up identities. But that’s all that the cultural appropriation rubric is really capable of doing.
The other forms of cultural relations that appropriation is usually contrasted with don’t get closer to capturing the complexity of reality. “Cultural appreciation” is supposed to be a less oppressive way to engage with other cultures, but it can easily take on a creepy, voyeuristic quality: treating people of colour as a spectacle there for your entertainment. In the Atlanta episode ‘Juneteenth’, Earn and Van – our working-class black protagonists – go to a bougie party celebrating the eponymous traditional African-American celebration of emancipation from slavery; the white half of the hosting couple insists on showing off his extensive collection of African cultural artifacts and his knowledge of black history, despite Earn’s obvious disinterest and discomfort. “Cultural assimilation” accurately describes some of when marginalised people take on cultural elements from the dominant group, but obscures marginalised people engaging with parts of the dominant culture for reasons other than survival, and so deprives them of agency. I find it hard to listen to Spike Lee talk about the impact Mean Streets made on him, how it depicted life as it was where he grew up, and attribute it to assimilation because he’s black and Mean Streets is about Italian-Americans. “Cultural exchange” between two equal cultures occurs in a fantasy world where all cultures are both monolithic and can be ranked in terms of their relative power in relation to one another. What does it mean if Paul Simon, the son of first-generation American Jews, “gravitated to black music” as a form of assimilation into US culture? Where does that fit?
The cultural appropriation rubric runs the risk of merely reflecting the oppressive dynamics it seeks to critique, rather than seeking to dismantle them. The dividing lines created by centuries of imperialism and white supremacy remain intact. A worrying fusion of race and culture is endorsed – one that, if it doesn’t actively argue for segregation, is incapable of arguing against segregation. I think often of Linda Lyndell, the white soul singer who recorded ‘What a Man’ in 1968. She quit music because the Ku Klux Klan sent her death threats for being a white woman singing black music and associating with black musicians. She didn’t perform again until 1993, after Salt-N-Pepa sampled her on their hit single ‘Whatta Man’. Cultural appropriation rhetoric leaves the underlying assumptions of those who attacked Lyndell unquestioned. “It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable,” Shuja Haider writes in his brilliant essay ‘Safety Pins and Swastikas’, “The problem is that they are compatible.”
The sharp distinction made between the privileged and oppressed – not just in how they experience the world, but in what each is expected, or permitted, to do – is ultimately a barrier to solidarity. Macklemore spends the first verse of ‘White Privilege II’ worrying about whether he’s allowed participate in a Black Lives Matter protest: “They’re chanting out, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but I don’t say it back / Is it okay for me to say? I don’t know, so I watch and stand / In front of a line of police that look the same as me.” But of course Macklemore should march for Black Lives Matter! That is exactly what anti-racist activism looks like. This points to the difference between allyship and solidarity, between politics as a collection of rules and politics as a fight for a better world: Macklemore is worried about appropriating black activism, instead of realising that this fight should be his fight, too. The fight against police violence, the prison-industrial complex and deportations, the fight for fair wages and free healthcare and climate justice, these are all the same fight: the fight for a better, more just world. This is what Bernie Sanders meant by being willing to fight for someone you don’t know. ‘White Privilege II’ views the Black Lives Matter protest through a lens where Macklemore’s privilege calls for passivity, not participation. Haider writes, “Categorically identifying white men with powerful, corrupt figures… isn’t just an accusation – it’s also an exemption.”
It’s not that there isn’t any problem with a lot of the things that get accused of cultural appropriation. It’s that the problem is commodification.
The cultural appropriation rubric is about individual faux pas. It’s about how the discerning consumer can have an ethical relationship with capitalism. It amounts to, as Tin Hinson writes for Novara Media, “the agonising process of wondering which parts of our culture it is OK to sell to capitalism for profit, and who should get the money.” Capitalism, by its nature, extracts and privatises common resources, including culture, to enrich a wealthy elite. These cultural works are easily robbed of context or a multiplicity of meanings, because capitalism subordinates all other values to exchange value. It comes down to what sells. And because of centuries of imperialism and white supremacy, things sell best with a white face. The easiest way to commodify rock and roll was through someone like Elvis: talented, sure, and handsome, and white. Instead of policing the behaviour of individuals, Hinson argues, we should “fight to stop sacred things being commodified, as the first step towards liberating the rest of our culture”, to create “a world where we start from the presumption that we are all due a share of the fruits of 100,000 years of human language, culture and technology.”
That’s not to collapse cultural appropriation into commodification – it would be weird and wrong for a white person to wear a Native American headdress even if no-one made money off it, because it’s disrespectful to misuse an item of such spiritual significance – but commodification often clarifies things that cultural appropriation leaves muddy. Take the case of RuPaul’s Drag Race: the show is routinely accused of appropriating ball culture, the LGBT subculture created by black and brown people in New York. But can RuPaul, a black drag queen, really “appropriate” ballroom, because he came up in the Atlanta and New York club scenes in the 1980s instead of balls? What power dynamic is at play there, other than wealth? Even if it is appropriation, the heart of the issue is commodification. The best way to express the harm done to ballroom is that people from outside the subculture are making money off their work – but they can only make that money because they turned it into a commodity. Emphasising cultural appropriation obscures the actual problem.
Eminem is a foremost – maybe the foremost – example of rap’s commodification, even as his work is aware of and resists that commodification. He was easier to sell because he’s white: “Became a commodity ’cause I’m W-H-I-T-E,” he raps on ‘I’m Back’, “‘cause MTV was so friendly to me.” His whiteness made him marketable even as his music’s violent rage, sick sense of humour and embrace of ugliness couldn’t be further from the first wave of rap’s commodification – Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer and pop rap that Abdurraqib writes was designed so “white mothers in the suburbs might think of them as ‘fun, wholesome rap music’.” Like the first punks, Eminem’s purposefully discomfiting provocations proved profitable.
Eminem’s work is inextricable from his whiteness. His reception is inseparable from his whiteness, obviously – “Let’s do the math: if I was black, I would’ve sold half” – and his early work sometimes riffs on being prejudged as a rapper because of his race:
Some people only see that I’m white, ignorin’ skill
‘Cause I stand out like a green hat with an orange bill
But I don’t get pissed, y’all don’t even see through the mist
How the fuck can I be white? I don’t even exist.
But it’s more than that. Abdurraqib calls Macklemore the first white rapper to meet the conflict of being both white and the most talked about rapper in the world head-on, but when Eminem blew up, he criticised whiteness through himself, twisted and played with it. The violence in his work isn’t a whitewashed version of gangsta rap, it’s the kind of violence that’s coded as white: Slim Shady is a serial killer, a school shooter. Of all the slasher villains Eminem evokes, Michael Myers feels the most instructive: Halloween is about the horror that’s native to the white suburbs, not coming from outside.
When he rapped about his whiteness directly, it was integrated into the whole, not the nine-minute apologies-cum-sermons Macklemore is prone to. (I would much prefer if Macklemore only made fun, silly songs about buying mopeds, for the record.) ‘Without Me’ is not a song I would describe as being “about” literally anything – it is the zenith of what Todd in the Shadows calls the “I’m back, bitch” single – yet it squeezes in self-aware commentary on the lineage of white artists profiting from black music, in between disses on Moby and Limp Bizkit. “Though I’m not the first king of controversy / I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley,” he raps, “To do black music so selfishly / And use it to get myself wealthy.” It’s a funny, tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the parallels between himself and Elvis even as it credits black people with inventing hip hop. He constantly credits the black people who helped him get where he is, particularly Dr. Dre, and uses his position to bolster black artists: his whole career he’s featured less famous rappers on his tracks and made attempts – often failed, admittedly – to mentor and launch the careers of black rappers whose skill he admired. He can spend an entire hour-long interview shouting out other rappers, easily. When he says on ‘White America’ that if he was black, he would have sold half, it’s not an apology or self-deprecation, it’s stated as fact: actively precluding the argument that he succeeded due to skill alone even as he claims to be one of the best rappers in the world. “He exploited the structural racism that allowed him to become the world’s biggest rapper,” Jeff Weiss writes for Vice, “then immediately flipped the barrel on those same forces that allowed him to flourish.”
Critics of white rappers’ cultural appropriation frequently say that they use blackness as a costume that can easily be discarded: Iggy Azalea is a white Australian who moved to the US aged sixteen, and she raps with an African-American accent that disappears when she speaks. But nothing about Eminem’s relationship to hip hop feels like a costume, other than the ones he fashions himself. On ‘The Way I Am’, he blasts critics who assume he’s wearing a costume, who treat his race as a “gotcha” and the outward signs of his working-class Detroit upbringing as affectation:
And I just do not got the patience
To deal with these cocky Caucasians
Who think I’m some wigger who just tries to be black ’cause I talk
With an accent and grab on my balls so they always
Keep askin’ the same fuckin’ questions
What school did I go to, what hood I grew up in
The why, the who, what, when, the where and the how
‘Til I’m grabbin’ my hair and I’m tearin’ it out
“If the Beastie Boys stormed in as the archetypal wild hip-hop white boys, they always existed in both worlds. They were NYC art kids with a hardcore past… 3rd Bass couldn’t help but leave you with the feeling that they were desperately trying to come off as the rare ‘good ones’,” Weiss writes, “With Eminem, it was natural: no other artistic medium possessed the soul or capacity to articulate his caustic wit and unalloyed rage. He was hip-hop because he couldn’t be anything else.”
And a big reason for that is that Eminem is working-class. Hip hop is a black artform, but also a predominantly working-class one. Race and class are so deeply intwined in the US that they are sometimes (wrongly) treated as interchangeable. Nicole Phillips writes about white hip hop audiences as “white, suburban youth… grateful to live in suburbia where life is not ‘rough,’” effectively dismissing the possibility that white working-class people could identify with art made by working-class people of colour because of their common experiences. But so much black art articulates working-class experiences and feelings. The longing to escape and the lack of means to do it in Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’. Trying to piece together an image of the late father from gossip about his misbehaviour on ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’: “And when he died / all he left us was alone.” The dedication at the start of The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Juicy’:
To all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’
To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of
Called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter (it’s all good)
And all the n***as in the struggle
You know what I’m sayin’? It’s all good, baby baby
Eminem’s work and popularity are inseparable from his whiteness, but it’s a mistake to assume that his audience relates to him primarily on a racial level: comparing Eminem to the rise of the alt-right because he “tapp[ed] into the same disaffected white rage” seems too neat and tidy, to me, as if the meaning of disaffected rage is defined by the race of the person experiencing it. I even think it’s a mistake to assume his audience primarily relates to his misogynistic and homophobic lyrics. I’m sure there are fans who do relate primarily to those things – although if you threw on an Eminem album because you were really excited about being white, you’d be in for a pretty rude awakening – but the heart of his work, that sun around which everything else rotates, is his articulation of being working-class, being mentally ill, surviving bullying and abuse.
The Slim Shady LP, in particular, frequently chronicles his then-present frustrations trying to raise a child on minimum wage:
At $5.50 an hour, then this boss wonders why I’m smartin’ off
I’m tired of bein’ fired every time I fart and cough
Tired of havin’ to work as a gas station clerk
For this jerk, breathin’ down my neck, drivin’ me berserk
I’m tired of usin’ plastic silverware
Tired of workin’ at Builder’s Square
Tired of not bein’ a millionaire
On ‘Rock Bottom’, poverty is a pressure cooker: “Minimum wage got my adrenaline caged / Full of venom and rage, ‘specially when I’m engaged / And my daughter’s down to her last diaper.” These songs sit alongside ones that re-enact and reinterpret the traumas of his childhood using the Slim Shady persona, mixing “confession, melodrama, comedy, horror, media baiting, craftsmanship and tabloid-scale hyperbole”. So much art that is “protective” of children the way Eminem is casts childhood as a happy, innocent time, but childhood in Eminem’s work is full of horror: the horror of poverty and bullying and violence, exacerbated by a complete lack of autonomy. When the teacher in ‘Brain Damage’ says she won’t give him after-school detention because “that bully wants to beat your ass and I’ma let him”, she represents all the adults who fail to protect children.
“He was rapping about a lot of really terrible and hateful things, but the visions of poverty he offered were terrifyingly, oppressively real,” Yannick LeJacq writes, “He might have been embellishing the specifics, but just because Eminem might not have actually gotten locked in the basement by one of his parents doesn’t mean my brother and I weren’t.”
Success naturally changed how Eminem rapped about class. (“They said I can’t rap about being broke no more,” he says on the first song on The Marshall Mathers LP.) On The Slim Shady LP, he raps, “I’m tired of bein’ white trash, broke and always poor,” but in his later work, he calls himself white trash as a point of pride. ‘Without Me’ opens with “two trailer park girls go ’round the outside / ’round the outside” and Recovery literally has a song called ‘White Trash Party’. But it really comes to the forefront on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, the most worthwhile album of his late career. He’s released plenty of music since, but there’s something definitive about MMLP2: closing the loop, pulsing to the beat of it ain’t over ‘til I say it’s over even as it feels unmistakeably like an ending. It’s the album where he mines his past most fruitfully, full of self-aware reflection on his own mythos; it’s the album where, after all these years, he forgives and apologises to his mother; it’s the album that opens with ‘Bad Guy’, which starts out like a classical Eminem killing-your-wife song before revealing itself to be a sequel to his most iconic song and finally reaching a power comparable to the original when he spends the last verse eviscerating himself more thoroughly than even his most eloquent haters:
I’m your time that’s almost up that you haven’t acknowledged
Grab for some water
But I’m that pill that’s too jagged to swallow
I’m the bullies you hate that you became
With every f*ggot you slaughtered
Coming back on you, every woman you insult
Batter, but the double-standards you have
When it comes to your daughters
Part of the loop-closing, that mining of his past and his mythos, is a proud embrace of being white trash and an effort to reconcile that with his present wealth. On ‘Rap God’, he calls himself “Dale Earnhardt of the trailer park, the white trash god”, but I always return to ‘So Far…’:
They say this spray butter is bad for my health, but
I think this poor white trash from the trailer
Jed Clampett, Fred Sanford, and welfare
Mentality helps to keep me grounded
That’s why I never take full advantage of wealth, I
Managed to dwell within these parameters
Still crammin’ the shelves full of Hamburger Helper
I can’t even help it, this is the hand I was dealt
It’s about how you can take the boy out of the trailer park but you can’t take the trailer park out of boy, but I’m always struck by the inclusion of both Jed Clampett (from The Beverly Hillbillies) and Fred Sanford (from Sanford and Son). So much political rhetoric positions the rural white working class and the black working class as enemies, but in ‘So Far…’, they are connected to each other, and to Eminem, through their class. Black or white, it’s all part of the same fight.
Cultural appropriation rhetoric ultimately discourages solidarity among people who should be natural allies – all the different kinds of people who have been denied the fullness of human flourishing. Allies in the true sense: the comrades you stand alongside in the fight for justice. Instead of uniting us, it tries to neatly segregate culture along increasingly baroque racial and ethnic lines. But cultures both are never monolithic within any group and inevitably mix together organically. Country music was invented in the American South but has roots in both Africa – where the banjo was created – and the traditional music of Ireland and Scotland. Westerns and samurai films exist in intimate conversation with each other, from the US to Japan to Italy and back to the US, remixing each other’s tropes and genre conventions in ways both distinctly of their country of origin and inherently international. Caribbean food bears hallmarks of dozens of cultures who’ve lived in the islands at various times, from the indigenous tribes to European indentured servants to enslaved Africans to South Asian and Chinese immigrants. As Ash Sarkar put it, “The appropriation debate peddles a comforting lie that there’s such thing as a stable and authentic connection to culture that can remain intact after the seismic interruptions of colonialism and migration.”
This unwittingly hides the real enemy: the wealthy ruling class. The cultural appropriation rubric obscures the problems at the heart of the very issues it claims to illuminate. As long as corporations dominate culture, it will be sold off piece by piece in order to generate profits for the already rich. There’s something vaguely absurd about focusing on appropriation – a theory of exploitation that’s largely symbolic – when the music industry is built on the very real, urgent and personal exploitation of artists: where sexual abuse is rife, where artists rarely retain the rights to their work, where young people, often from impoverished backgrounds, are locked into contracts that don’t reflect the value of their labour. Handwringing over the relative pennies made by white artists, instead of the mountains of cash raked in by the record labels, is missing the forest for the trees.