Eminem's not afraid to grow
“I’m not afraid to take a stand,” Eminem raps on the chorus to his empowering anthem “Not Afraid”, off his new album, Recovery. And he’s not kidding. Though the rapper has long been one of pop culture’s most controversial figures, now—at 37, clean and sober, and cleansed of his platinum hair and perpetually raised middle finger—he may have just made the most shocking statement of his entire career.
Earlier this month in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, Marshall Mathers casually announced his position on same-sex marriage: “I think if two people love each other, then what the hell? I think that everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable, if they want.”
The tone of Em’s comment may be humorous, but make no mistake: in hip-hop culture coming out in favour of gay marriage is no laughing matter.
Homosexuality is one of the last remaining taboos in rap. In the three decades the music has been around, not one single famous rapper has ever come out of the closet. Artists routinely accuse rivals of being gay; music critics turn a blind eye; bloggers are so anxious about sexuality that they insist on adding the phrase “no homo” to any sentence that could ever be imagined to broach the topic.
Those who have dared to address homophobia in hip-hop can be counted on one hand. The Beastie Boys publicly apologized for ignorance in their early years (Licensed to Ill was originally going to be called Don’t Be a Faggot); Common once recorded a song urging tolerance; Kanye West spoke out against rap’s rampant gay-bashing at the 2005 MTV Awards. (He later admitted to the Georgia Straight that it was scarier than calling out George W. Bush for Hurricane Katrina, and that many in hip-hop automatically assumed he was gay. “Like you can’t be a straight dude that thinks it’s wrong to gay-bash!” he fumed.)
Suffice it to say it takes major cojones to tackle the subject—and, of course, Slim Shady has never been short on cojones. But it also takes maturity.
Em himself has been famously accused of homophobia in the past. His early work—which included lines like “Hate fags? The answer’s ”˜yes’ ”—earned him the ire of activists, and rightly so. A steady chorus of boos could be heard around the world and was only silenced by a surprise performance with Sir Elton John at the 2001 MTV Awards.
But life has a funny way of forcing you to grow. When Eminem hit rock bottom popping pills roughly two years ago, who do you think he turned to? Sir Elton John, naturally. The gay icon—who went public with his own struggle with addiction years ago—helped the rapper get sober and reportedly remains an influence in his life.
Substance abuse, of course, is another sacred cow in rap. “It took me a while to admit that I had a problem,” Eminem recently told CNN. “In the hip-hop world that I live in, I think that it can be mistaken for weakness. And the last thing that you want to do in hip-hop is admit that you’re weak. But if I didn’t admit that I was weak with this certain thing, I was going to die.”
Getting sober obviously caused Em to question a lot of old ideas that are firmly entrenched in hip-hop culture.
And herein lies the beauty of having some elder statesmen in hip-hop. The hotheaded young bucks can scream all they want about aging rappers being out of touch, but there’s just no disputing the value of having some grown men in the game.
Until now, it’s pretty much just been Jay-Z trying to teach hip-hop how to grow the eff up. The rapper put the kibosh on a few of rap’s utterly nonsensical commandments—“Thou must not be a sucker for love” and “Death before dishonour”—by marrying Beyoncé and ending his dispute with Nas, thus proving that rap stars need not end up 40, alone, and embroiled in petty street beefs that jeopardize everything they’ve worked so hard to build.
And now Em is, thankfully, pointing the way forward for a hip-hop culture that doesn’t condemn people for simply being who they are. He certainly isn’t the most likely candidate for the job, but somehow that makes him all the more perfect for it.