The Em-word

So Eminem gets tagged a racist. Are we surprised? This is the guy who put domestic violence into the Top 10, yes? Last week, The Source magazine, a monthly glossy widely regarded as the hip-hop bible, made public two tracks (allegedly recorded at least a decade ago) that find Em offering up racial slurs.

Em acknowledged that one of the tracks is his. In it, Em raps: But black girls only want your money ’cause they’re dumb chicks … Never date a black girl because blacks only want your money, and that shit ain’t funny … I mean that’s pretty sad when ya dating a black guy and then you turn around and fuck another big black guy.

The unacknowledged track spills lines like, ’Cause I don’t like that nigga shit/I’m just here to make a bigger hit.

The songs, according to the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Kim Osorio, were brought to the magazine’s attention under dubious circumstances: Three unidentified white guys from Detroit delivered the tape to The Source’s offices in New York. Magazine founders Ray Benzino and Dave Mays held a press conference last week to play the tracks.

Benzino himself has had an ongoing beef with Eminem, a grumble manifested in the pages of his own magazine. In one issue this year, an illustration depicted Benzino holding up the severed head of Em.

Another boring hip-hop feud, or grounds for real scrutiny and reflection?

Well, if not The Source, then who to step up and say something truly disapproving of Eminem?

It should be noted that Osorio, Benzino and Mays are African-American.

For many white journalists, embracing Em has been a way to appear relevant while dealing with racial guilt. Em is the biggest rap star in the world — what better conduit for white journalists to claim some stake in hip-hop culture, particularly after the embarrassment of Vanilla Ice?

“Various media outlets are not going to say anything about this,” says Osorio. “Eminem puts too much money in their pockets. I hope that the hip-hop community — black, white, Asian, Hispanic — will step up and hold him accountable.”

The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, the country’s largest coalition of hip-hop artists and label execs, has taken Em’s side in the finger-pointing.

Osorio, who herself has been recipient of an Em lyrical attack, says she wants to see him “apologize to the community that he’s offended, and to all the women. For me, this is a wake-up call.”

As a defense to the track, Em claims youthful recklessness born of a breakup with an African-American girlfriend. And why not? The man’s made a career of attacking foes and deflecting responsibility under the guise of “art.”

Em’s official response to the tape was this: “Ray Benzino, Dave Mays and The Source have had a vendetta against me, Shady Records and our artists for a long time. The tape they played today was something I made out of anger, stupidity and frustration when I was a teenager. I’d just broken up with my girlfriend, who was African-American, and I reacted like the angry, stupid kid I was. I hope people will take it for the foolishness that it was, not for what somebody is trying to make it into today.”

Is this an apology? And aren’t at least half of Em’s famous anti-women, anti-gay riffs in song fashioned from that same sort of anger?

Yeah, Em can be articulate, self-mocking and funny, and yes, he can be downright inventive. Yet much of Em’s musical output, his misogynist victim rap, reveals noxious obsessions with balky girlfriends and mothers. In it we find the old mantra of “It’s not my fault — my mom didn’t love me — so I have issues.” Themes that allow him to behave like a cruel, abusive slimeball.

By most accounts, Em had a fucked-up childhood. Big deal. Who didn’t?

Certainly Em hasn’t been flying this wounded-child flag all by himself. Take a look around. We have been inundated by “little boy” victims in pop culture for at least a decade, from Limp Bizkit to Em to Linkin Park and beyond. Clint Eastwood’s latest garbage opus, Mystic River, is filled with insufferable man/boy characters victimized by evil mothers, wives and girlfriends.

What galls me the most is that these “artists” — these lost little boys — are placed on pop star platforms and rewarded for spouting pitiful inanities against mother and girlfriend. And the artists are always blameless.

Em’s doleful rhymes, his macho revulsion of women and gays — along with all these other nü-metalist whiners — always beg a simple, too-obvious question: Why can’t they, as songwriters, simply deal with love as an emotion? If they are such strong, virile dudes, why can’t they report a fuller spectrum of emotions in their songs? Are they that badly beaten down by the women in their lives? That victim-based, woe-is-me lyric is easy and is, by now, so tired. Where’s the artistic stretch? Besides, none of that stuff looks good when you’re a multimillionaire staring middle age squarely in the face.

Sure, Em is misogynistic, homophobic and seemingly ignorant of basic human issues. But is his music even considered art? If his experiences were so horrible, and he has ugly feelings about something because of the experiences, does he have an obligation to pop culture to censor it? Or does he have an obligation to art to call it as he sees it?

Well, Em’s been described offstage as a kind, sensitive man and father. Fine, so let’s say he’s good guy. If he is, does that mean his lyrics are based in shtick? Are they fiction to uphold a persona? Em’s frame of reference has always allowed so little in the way of compassion that he has license to throw hissy fits of irresponsibility. Where’s the art in that?

In an effort to keep himself “relevant” and “dangerous,” Em could very well be a master at playing the stir-shit-up card for the sake of controversy, thereby giving him access to the nickels and dimes of suburban kids so easily awed by his badassedness, his ability to rankle their mommies and daddies.

The raps revealed by The Source in a way expose Em as an opportunistic con man from the get-go: a guy who adopted specific black culture and pop music and used it as a career launch pad. It’s true that loads of people have done that, from Elvis on down the line. But never has it been done so self-consciously, or now, apparently, thanklessly. And one can only wonder what would happen if, say, Jay-Z had said the same things about white women.

To his credit, Em has always acknowledged that if he were black he wouldn’t sell as many records. He once cheekily rapped, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley to do black music so selfishly/And use it to get myself wealthy.

And it’s not like Em was working for the ACLU, or running for public office when this racial flap was suddenly brought to light. No, the vulgarity is all part of his pop package. In the end, he’ll probably sell more records.

Meanwhile, our collective hearts pump dishwater.

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]