Hip-Hop Fridays: On The "New" Eminem. Has White America's Prodigal Son Come Home?

If anyone still has any doubts that a massive makeover of Eminem's image is taking place, they may not have seen or paid close attention to the movie, 8 Mile. I was struck by the film's symbolism and nuanced cleaning-up of Eminem's image throughout the storyline. It is far from subtle.

Eminem, the rapper known for being disrespectful, to put it mildly, to his mother, is suddenly the protector and defender of his mother's honor, against an abusive boyfriend, in the movie. Eminem, the rapper accused of being "homophobic" and picketed by gay and lesbian-rights groups leaps to the defense of a person who is labeled gay, even cleverly freestyling on their behalf, in the movie. Eminem, the rapper who has never really made too much of his being White in an artform created by Blacks and who never so much as hints at using the word "nigger" in his lyrics is cast in the lead role where his skin color is the basis of his being a victim of "reverse racism" and where the word "nigger" flows like water - in the movie. Eminem, the rapper who was originally molded, guided and marketed by a Black producer, Dr. Dre, suddenly walks away, twice, from a Black man played by Mekhi Phifer, who is responsible for encouraging and promoting him - in the movie. Eminem, who was arrested and went to court on a concealed weapons charge amid allegations that he assaulted a person in another music group, the Insane Clown Posse, is brutally assaulted and has a gun pulled on him by a local Black rap crew, yes, in the movie. Eminem, who has made it clear that he makes Black music and respects it is referred to, on numerous occassions as "Elvis," short for Elvis Presley (the man Chuck D. called racist and a thief of Black music), in the movie. Eminem, the rapper who shouts out the 85% Black city of Detroit, without distinction, is featured as a struggling White rapper living in a predominately White northern suburb of Detroit in a trailer park community, in the movie.

Has Eminem finally come home, like the prodigal son?

To be sure, Eminem is an awesome Hip-Hop artist with legions of fans and good acting skills. But he has now been, what my man Power, from Wu-Tang, (and the star of the 2000 movie "Black and White") calls "hollywoodized." It certainly appears to have been a financially profitable undertaking. That's what "hollywoodize"-ing will do for you. But what is the root motive or target macro effect being aimed at, behind the way Eminem is portrayed? For those of us who understand that culture, along with economics and politics is used to control the masses -shape their thinking and behaviors to follow the agenda of a ruling elite - it is not hard to believe that more than a pretty penny was the objective behind the recrafting of Eminem's image which involved almost unanimous rave reviews of the movie from establishment mainstream media outlets.

I saw 8 Mile. The movie is good, but it isn't that good. Nobody that I know who saw it feels that it was anything less than a decent movie. But it wasn't worthy of all of the rave reviews it received, I am consistently told. So, what is behind all of the fuss?

The real story of the hoopla is that Eminem has been so sanitized in this movie that it actually would shock anyone who was led to believe that this movie is based upon his real life and his Hip-Hop persona, as advertised. The storyline has Eminem as this Rocky-type underdog rapper named "B-Rabbit," short for Bunny-Rabbit, yes, a nickname from his mother that survived Detroit's most heated MC battles. B-Rabbit is an endearing character and one that you are persuaded to cheer, at least by the end of the movie. And if you heard all of the things about Eminem in the media prior to the movie and didn't know too much about rap, you were probably pleasantly surprised by 8 Mile. And that is the point and objective.

A Hip-Hop artist that was depicted only two years ago as a subversive force and the White leader of America's counterculture, through one movie, has been defanged and become an object of sympathy for all White people who see Eminem victimized, ostracized and mocked by young Black men throughout the movie and who may identify with B-Rabbit's lower class background. No doubt, B-Rabbit wins the freestyling battle with a self-depricating rhyme that mocks himself and cleverly weaves together all of his "poor White trash"-loser qualities. He disses himself so badly that his opponent has nothing left to make fun of. Disarming.

The heavy thing about it all is that, for the first time, largely due to this one movie, White people have the basis to embrace Hip-Hop as an American cultural force. This was never the case with any Black rapper representing the artform and culture to the White masses, certainly not one like Tupac, who was, at one point, the Black leader of the counter-culture. And even the most popular White rappers from the Beastie Boys to Vanilla Ice didn't have the necessary standing to accomplish this. It took a White rapper to pimp-slap the American establishment and then make it fall in love with him the moment he took one step toward them. The Prodigal Son.

I heard Jay-Z praise 8 Mile recently saying that its box office success would "open doors for Hip-Hop." Well, I beg to differ, or at least qualify what agreement I might have with what Jay said. 8 Mile doesn't open doors for Hip-Hop's Black base. Hasn't Hollywood been making movies about Hip-Hop for the last 15 years? No, I can't see 8 Mile breaking any glass ceilings for the Black side of Hip-Hop's family, but the movie may open the door for an open embrace and acceptance of Hip-Hop as a White-controlled cultural force. No, I see nothing but a clear and continued bifurcation, through 8 Mile, of Hip-Hop's Black origin and base from its increasingly majority White fan base and corporate mass disseminator.

I thought of this same thing when I watched Island/Def Jam head, Lyor Cohen, on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago state that as much as 65% of all records sold in the Hip-Hop genre category, are sold to White fans; and in the very same segment say that of the 5 million units that Jay-Z sold on one of his albums, 4 million were sold to Whites. Lyor's math didn't add up and I didn't accept his view that Jay-Z has 80% White fans. I think it is closer to the 60% to 65% range, but the message was clear: this was the traditional 60 Minutes audience and the message and the way that Jay-Z was portrayed throughout the program was designed for a White audience. This, even though I know that much of the footage that 60 Minutes shot for the special captured Jay-Z in a light that was firmly rooted in the Black community and would have revealed the more community-oriented aspects of his business and philanthropy. That stuff never made the 60 Minutes cut.

A good friend of mine, who is a major Hip-Hop concert/party promoter told me weeks ago, at the height of the mourning over the loss of Jam Master Jay that "Hip-Hop has been taken from us." He described to me the legion of young White Hip-Hop groups that are appearing all over the country, on the underground White Hip-Hop, rock rave and club scene, playing before all-White audiences, with absolutely little to no notice from the traditional Black Hip-Hop underground and street factory. He was exasperated. We spoke for about two hours seamlessly connecting the dots from Vivendi Universal to 8 Mile to the new cadre of White Hip-Hop groups to the delay in the release of 50 Cent's (the hottest rapper on the street, anywhere - a Black rapper who Eminem has signed to his record label) album painting a picture of how the multinational corporations at the top are seeking a way to marry their largely Black-created product with the White masses in America (It is the same dilemma that the NBA experienced in the last decade). I told my friend that the only remaining barrier to a complete White mass and corporate takeover of Hip-Hop music was radio format and the mixtape business. Because radio is still too-racially stratified and segmented, and mixtapes are controlled by Black American or immigrant populations in New York City, it is not possible, yet, for the corporations to produce a slew of White rappers who would be deemed "hot" and authentic by an important Black core of trendsetters. But that day may be soon approaching as more and more of the Black opinion leaders in Hip-Hop music's radio and street culture are co-opted by the corporations through their relationships with record labels, video channels and product endorsement deals. By the way, the manner in which Justin Timberlake went from admitting on BET that N'Sync never had Black girls prominently featured in their videos to his making songs with Hip-Hop producers backed by videos loaded with Black women - in just one year - is a sign of how quickly things can move. To understand how this is made possible, one should consider the fact that BET and MTV are both owned by Viacom. Now, you can do MTV's TRL and BET's 106th and Park in a package deal. Justin Timberlake's attempt to build an urban constituency and combine it with his lilly White pop base depends upon Black radio playing his music. He has BET in his backpocket now, for videos, but it remains to be seen whether he will get a warm reception from a much more critical and trained Black radio (which of course is largely owned by corporate stations) audience. Think of this in political terms, say, the 2000 presidential elections. While Justin Timberlake (read George Bush) moves from right to left, making outreach to a Black audience; Eminem (read Al Gore) moves from left to right, making outreach to a skeptical broader White constituency. But both young men are trying to capture the "center" - Middle White America. Will Eminem's Black constituency of fans be taken for granted, just like Al Gore's are? That will be up to Marshall Mathers, I think.

It will be interesting to see whether he will continue to give his traditional statements about making Black music or whether he will continue to permit his image to be altered for the benefit of broadening his career, by the decisions and advice of his non-Black advisers. Eminem, to his credit, and a testament to his integrity, has thus far been cautious about how far he moves even creatively inside of the Hip-Hop genre, away from his core audience. I once heard him say that he desired to use more guitars in his music, but that he was mindful of how the guitar has not received a consistent embrace from Hip-Hop fans. The Black ones, for sure. Eminem's friendships with White pop and "rock" figures like Fred Durst, at one time, and Kid Rock today, as well as his friendships with White rockers lend themselves to a gradual non-eventful creative evolution, as long as the Dr. Dre-like tracks remain visible. (By the way, Em just bought Dre a $280,000 Bentley, saying he would be "nothing" without his Black mentor. I wonder if Eminem supports reparations. Perhaps he thinks America would be "nothing" without Black blood, sweat and tears.)

One must admit that "Lose Yourself," Eminem's current hit off of the movie soundtrack, walks the line carefully, almost perfectly, between a "Black" Hip-Hop and "White" pop/rock audience. Listen to how subtle and skillfully the production uses the guitar, piano, strings and horns to give the impact, energy, tempo of a rock song; while Em lays impressive lyrics, and a powerful delivery and voice inflection on top of an authentic boom-bap beat. The lyrics work for any street battle or rhyme cipher and the music rocks on MTV and gets run on Black radio. Never seen a politician that could match that feat. Oh, I forgot about President Clinton, the man that many Blacks claim as their own.

Enough for now. Maybe Jay-Z will have the courage and foresight to absorb and pre-empt all of this by releasing his collaboration, "Guns and Roses," with Lenny Kravitz off of the Blueprint II album. The guitar is in ample supply and the effort is all-Black. Or, maybe we will get more of the creative ingenuity of "One Mic" from Nas to properly evolve the musical sound and slow the roll or properly greet the White embrace of Hip-Hop, from both the top, the bottom, and now maybe, the Middle of White America's power pyramid.

Eminem was cool. This B-Rabbit character? Don't know. He is certainly more polite, but we just can't trust him as much, or know where he is going, I think.

He just makes me nervous.

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, December 6, 2002