Eminem, Detroit, and the Prophetic Nature of Hip Hop

In 1999 a rapper named Eminem burst on the scene and became one of the highest selling and most well-known rappers of all time. He generally rose to prominence with macabre tales of violence and drug use which circled around his wish to kill his mother and his girlfriend. Interspersed with these rhymes were anecdotes about the run down state of Detroit which is his birthplace. On the back of these stories and his lyrical dexterity, Eminem quickly rose to superstardom and almost as quickly became a symbol for everything that an older generation thought was wrong with young people in general and Hip Hop in specific. This was ironic because Eminem didn’t look like most of his lyrical contemporaries. He was a poor White male in an art form dominated by poor Black males, describing his reality in much the same way they did. So where Black males generally spoke about the ills of growing up in the projects, Eminem brought us stories about living in trailer parks and being raised by a drug addicted mom whom he suspected of suffering from Munchausen Syndrome. These facts made him particularly appealing to young White kids and particularly irritating to their parents.

All this is not to say that Eminem’s whiteness gave him a free pass in Hip Hop. On the contrary, Eminem happened to be one of the most talented rappers ever who also happened to be White. This was a fact many of his critics in government and throughout society underestimated and as they turned up their criticism of him, he turned his lyrical talents to searing commentaries and critiques of America. Highlighting social and racial inequality in America, he satirically mocked his place as “Rap’s Elvis” stating “If I was Black I would have sold half.”

All of this was pretty shocking for Whites and Blacks alike who had assumed that Hip Hop was the sole province of Black males (generally from the Northeast) at that time. To think that a White kid from the Midwest (Detroit no less) could dominate rap was mind boggling. What was even more mind boggling was the fact that America had produced such a commodity. Here was a poor White kid from a single parent home who was adept at rapping and well versed in the experiences, deep depression, and heartbreak of poverty. For a time, even Eminem could not escape his own demons. He was constantly in trouble with the law and eventually succumbed to a drug addiction of his own, before entering rehab and changing his condition.

For all this, the most enduring part of Eminem’s legacy, may come to be that he presaged the fall of Detroit. In his movie 8 Mile, Eminem vividly illustrated the challenges of a kid growing up trying to make something of himself in a decaying urban environment. If you watch that movie now you can see the vacant lots, the oppressively shrinking job opportunities, and the abject sense of hopelessness of living in Detroit, and this time we can’t say it’s just poor Black people, because Eminem is White. If it was happening to Eminem, it was happening to everyone.

With Detroit’s bankruptcy we can now look back with 20/20 vision and see the truth. When 8 Mile came out in 2002 we only focused on Eminem and averted our eyes to what was going on around him. We didn’t care much about the environment that could produce an Eminem, a White rapper who was adored by many and hated by others. We didn’t care to do an analysis of the situation that could produce him. But now in 2013 with Detroit’s bankruptcy there is no shortage of analysis of the chaos that exists there.

The point I’m trying to make is that ever since Furious Five dropped “The Message” one of the roles of Hip Hop has been to point out the urban decay going on in America. Each Hip Hop superstar hails from somewhere and each time they become known to the mainstream they get labeled as thugs, criminals, and misfits. No critical thought is done about the environment that produced them. Hip Hop acts such as NWA, Nas, Tupac, Notorious BIG, and Jay-z among so many others, have made countless commentary on the sad state of America’s inner cities. But until Eminem, it was always a “Black Problem.” Eminem caused a stir, because he signified that urban decay was not just a Black Problem, it was a White Problem and beyond that it was an American problem that affects all Americans. His very presence in 1999 and his movie in 2002, as a rapper from Detroit, was a prophecy that there was a problem. We enjoyed Eminem’s entertainment, but ignored the situation that produced him. In 2013 Detroit is a bankrupt cautionary tale of the issues that afflict all our major cities to some degree or another.

Hip Hop continues to produce acts that find success against all odds, from places as disparate as Compton, Fayetteville, Miami, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Chicago and we continue to enjoy their entertainment or criticize their vulgarity without asking any critical questions about what is really going on in the places that they come from. Hip Hop is telling us America has a problem, Detroit has shown us that it is in our best interest that we start to listen and do something about it. If we want to improve the type of music our children listen to, maybe we should start by improving the conditions that produce the stories rappers tell.