Eminem’s Freestyle Was Paramount, But It’s Hardly Novel

By the time Eminem completed his visceral freestyle on Tuesday night’s broadcast of the BET Hip Hop Awards, he’d left a Shady-sized crater at the intersection where rap and politics meet. Even in middle age, Marshall is one of the biggest rappers in the world, and the rippling social impact that his anti-Trump verse has had in just 12 hours reflects that. Rightfully so, the freestyle was truly a sight to see. But rushing to view it as the most imperative performance of its kind—a widespread response to last night’s broadcast—discredits a wave of rap that’s been on Trump’s head since his presidential campaign.

Em closing out the cipher festivities was poetic to begin with—an all-time great lyricist preparing to hold court in the foreground of a handful of today and tomorrow’s torchbearers. And it was fun to see another white man—shout out Pop—speak directly and angrily about the Buffoon-in-Chief instead of crouching behind buzzwords and neutral forms of expression, afraid to tip the scales. Tip? Em see-saw’d them.

Any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his
I’m drawing in the sand a line, you either
for or against
And if you can’t decide on who you like more
and you split
On who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this…

Fuck you!

Pulling the cards of those wishing to “stay out of it” is an exercise in which too few celebrities are willing to engage, and Shady hit the nail on its head. That and the spectacle of the event being nationally televised and anticipated aside, however, how much was there to truly, excitedly write home about? Have we not seen this before? Last summer, YG framed his entire sophomore album campaign around the phrase “Fuck Donald Trump” months before he’d even been elected president. A single and video, a national tour, merchandise, stage design. Dude was talking Trump down waiting in line at the airport in conversation with a TMZ paparazzo.

Earlier this year, A Tribe Called Quest slammed Trump and the Muslim ban at the GRAMMYs, punctuated by Busta Rhymes referring to Trump as Agent Orange during a broadcast that did its best to swerve every opportunity to take on the obvious political paradigm shift head-on. It was one of the more daring instances in live performance history where it pertains to rap, but there were hardly calls of Q-Tip and company having pulled off something revolutionary. From Rapsody to Vic Mensa—who physically stood in protest with indigenous people in North Dakota as Trump pushed to ravage their sacred land with the Dakota Access Pipeline—rappers have been outspoken about the president, his administration, the circus Washington D.C. has become and much more over the last 18 months to nuanced acknowledgement. Em isn’t even the first white rapper to take this route; G-Eazy and Macklemore hopped on the remix to YG’s “FDT” last summer.

Furthermore, under the light, Eminem’s performance isn’t exactly a searing bullseye. He opened with wobbly attempts at humor—“That’s an awfully hot coffee pot/ Should I drop it on Donald Trump? Probably not”—and rarely strayed from his dismantling of Trump, a practice that ultimately distracts from the larger picture at stake. “We love our country and we love our military, but we fucking hate Trump,” rapped Em at the end of his freestyle. To spend that much energy on one individual—a vessel, a pawn really—while millions buckle under the pressure of a system designed to produce the society we currently live in actually suggests that Em is almost there, but even he may not fully understand what time it is.

To that point, there are a bevy of rappers who have displayed an understanding of the bigger picture. J. Cole talked about control of Congress being the issue on David Letterman’s show in 2014, while Obama was still president. Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” highlights America’s configuration and presentation of the black experience as a grassroots issue. That dropped in 2015. Vince Staples told the one percent, the government and the president to “suck a dick” on “BagBak” last year.

Look, I’m not just a disgruntled Eminem non-enthusiast screaming whataboutism chants from the rafters. But far too often, folks wait until there’s a proper megaphone to get behind before championing a supposedly necessary movement. Kudos to Em for going there on BET last night, but the train he hopped on was already moving full speed ahead.

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