Eminem - “White America”
Written by Marshall Mathers, Jeff Bass, L. Resto, and Steve King
From The Eminem Show (Aftermath, 2002)
I’ll just say it right out front: I didn’t learn to appreciate Eminem until 2002, a-thousand-in-hip-hop years after his commercial breakthrough. It would be dishonest to state or imply that I “slept” on him at first. The fact is, I actively avoided Eminem’s work from the beginning. I figured that I, a funkafied, culturally-savvy mixed-race Californian musician old enough to have original Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five 12-inch singles in the crates, needn’t pay heed to this perceived imposter from the heartland who, as far as I knew, was just party-crashing the most important musical development of the late 20th century. I had also heard horrible things about his rampant homophobia and other questionable philosophical positions. I changed the channel when his videos came on TV, and closed my ears when folks tried to tell me he possessed skills. Then one day, shortly after the release of The Eminem Show, I heard “White America”, and had to take a closer look.
Songs that deal with race and racism in American pop music can usually be traced to a handful of specific traditions. There’s a protest/socially conscious tradition, which typically laments the current race relations climate, and sets eyes on a future where things will be better for all (e.g., Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child”). There’s a more confrontational tradition, which aims for revealing uncomfortable and previously unexpressed truths about race relations, often addressing institutional power (e.g. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, and Oakland hip-hop artist Paris). There is also a more observational and/or metaphorical tradition, which aims to teach about the perils of racism through a story, observation, or ironic narration (e.g., Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is”, Kid Creole’s “Consequently”. Lastly, there’s a kind of transcendent tradition, which aims to transcend racial (and other societal) barriers by refusing to acknowledge or believe in the barriers in the first place (e.g., Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”, Prince’s “Uptown”, any song with the phrase “black, white, red, yellow, or brown” in it).