by Sarah Quartey, ’14
In the past twenty years alone, Eminem claimed the title of the seventh most top-selling artist and the first most top-selling artist of digital sales (The Nielson Corporation). But when Eminem entered the hip-hop nation, he brought with him the issues and identities of white Americans. The offensive and occasionally vile content of Eminem’s lyrics have triggered massive media attention: with controversy, lewdness, and popularity, Eminem wedges open a place for white identity to be addressed in America’s race conversation. Eminem skillfully harnessed the power of hip-hop as a hyper-racialized medium.
For many social scientists, authors, and historians like Bakari Kitwana, “the term ‘hip-hop nation’ is used interchangeably with black youth culture” (xiii). With his record-breaking sales and media-stunning controversies, Eminem is the representation of a culture associated with black youth, and yet Eminem is a white artist. Even though Eminem notes he is invading black music as a white musician – in his song “Without Me” he considers himself “the worst thing since Elvis Pressley to do black music so selfishly” – he constantly refers to his whiteness. Popular Music and Society notes that Eminem explicitly references his own white identity in seventeen songs on his first four albums alone (Armstrong, 341). Authors like Loren Kajikawa have devoted entire scholarly journal articles to an exploration of how individual Eminem songs approach white identity: even through the single entitled “My Name Is” Eminem has been responsible for “mapping how notions of whiteness were evolving” (Kajikawa, 342). Eminem became a pop culture icon at a turning point in history: the American 90s and the early 2000s have experienced a flurry of writing and studies in the search for the recognition of white identity (McDermott and Samson, 246). Whiteness used to be the invisible ethnicity – white people have considered themselves “bland” and whiteness was often seen as the “norm” (Gallagher, 28). But the identity of whiteness has evolved from “an invisible yet privileged identity” (McDermott and Samson, 245) to “a healthy white identity” (Helms, 207). This development of white identity has taken many steps: white individuals must “accept [their] own whiteness, the cultural implications of being white, and define a view of self as being racial” (Helms, 207) in order to adopt whiteness as a healthy, central self-identity. Eminem completes all of these tasks in a very public sphere: he makes no qualms about accepting his white identity in black music, he elaborates the cultural implications of being white through performance and exaggeration, and his music asks the rest of the country to consider whiteness as a self-identity. The exploration of Eminem’s completion of these three tasks is the basic outline of this paper.
[discussion of my use of the terms “whiteness” and “blackness” removed for length’s sake; contact me for this section of the paper]
However, I postulate that Eminem has been so successful in sparking a conversation about whiteness not only because of his controversial lyrics but because of the specific venue of hip-hop. Hip-hop itself is hyper-racialized. Hip-hop is a “world built to worship urban black maleness: the way we speak, walk, dance, dress, think” (Toure, 101) and a reaction against “the daily assaults of racism” (Toure, 105). Hip-hop began as a channel for urban blacks to perform their cultural identity even in a racially-oppressive American society. Hip-hop is a racialized medium because blacks have operated within it to shed light on the issues faced by black Americans, but Eminem uses rap to “mak[e] whiteness meaningful” (Kajikawa, 356) and to “lay bare the constructed nature of both identity and authenticity” (Kajikawa, 353). Kajikawa in her article “Eminem’s ‘My Name Is’: Signifying Whiteness, Rearticulating Race” argues that “instead of transcending racial boundaries as some critics have suggested, Eminem negotiated them in ways that made sense to his target audience” (Kajikawa, 341). Kajikawa suggests that Eminem did not violate a black music scene with his discussion of whiteness, but that he instead transformed a cultural genre into a universal venue for making statements about ethnicity and identity. Kajikawa observes that “My Name Is…” “imitates and comments on numerous faces of whiteness” (Kajikawa, 349) while admitting that Eminem is “above all else… rapping” (Kajikawa, 349). Eminem is using his music as a means to question white identity and the raced genre of rap. Eminem “uses the black/white racial binary to carve out a niche within hip-hop” (Dawkins, 465). In a sense, Eminem has wedged open a place for a conversation about the white identity in a musical genre that has been dominated by the issues of the black community. “Within the last decade, contemporary rap has become increasingly self-aware as to how such identities [like race] are created, performed, and disseminated… this can be attributed, in part, to the emergence and success of white rapper Eminem” (Lee, 352). Hip-hop has changed over time, and Eminem erupted on the scene just in time to open hip-hop to conversations about not just race in America but specifically, whiteness. He has harnessed an already hyper-racialized venue for exploring questions of what whiteness is and what whiteness means.
But in this, there have been charges that Eminem is stealing black music. Eminem’s authenticity as a rapper has been questioned because rap is a traditionally black genre of music, but Eminem is white – even then, Armstrong explains that Eminem is “firmly grounded” (Armstrong, 336) in authenticity. Hip-hop is a genre in which it is especially important for the rapper to have authenticity – that is, to have certain experiences or identities – in order to be taken seriously. Hip-hop is a genre that comments on racial conditions in America, and being authentic “offer[s] the kind of credibility that could be used as a platform to speak out about social conditions in the United States” (Molden, 194). In hip-hop, there are three major forms of authenticity: “concern with being true to oneself,” allegiance to “location or place,” and “requisite relation and proximity to an original source of rap” (Armstrong, 336). Essentially, in order for a rapper’s music to be considered worthwhile, the artist must be self-aware and true, have geographic rap allegiance, and connect to other prime figures in rap. “White rappers immediately generate questions of cultural property and appropriation,” (Molden, 194) but Eminem has been so successful in the rap music industry because he has indisputable authenticity. Eminem is an incredibly self-aware rapper; Armstrong’s original research shows that Eminem refers to his own white racial identity in at least seventeen of the songs on his first four albums (Armstrong, 341-42). The Detroit rapper, Eminem, breaks down East Coast (hip-hop)/West Coast (gangsta rap) divides in the genre by forming his own “Detroit style” geographically-based rap. “I make fight music,” Eminem proclaims (Armstrong, 340), therefore creating authenticity for his new types of music and his white identity as a rap artist. Eminem was produced by Dr. Dre, one of the originators of “gangsta rap” as a genre and a well-respected figure in the rap world. Production by Dr. Dre is Eminem’s indisputable connection to the originators of rap. Thus, Eminem is not only authentic in each of the three categories of credibility, he dominates those categories. Eminem is the remarkably successful artist he has become because even as a white artist in a black music genre, Eminem is undeniably authentic. Eminem’s fixation on his white racial identity within a black music genre is not demeaning but instead transformative; Eminem embraces hip-hop as a venue for exploring race and ethnic identities for both black and white artists.
“Eminem’s success in renegotiating rap’s construction of identity authenticity to make space for his white body [depends on] his success in posturing a multiple, subversive, sometimes fictional, and yet still autobiographical ‘I’” (Lee, 351). Eminem clarifies the answer to “what is whiteness?” primarily in the lyrics from his turn-of-the-millennium albums by publicly and frequently referring to his own racial characteristics, therefore using his own hip-hop music as a performance of whiteness through the exaggeration of white physical features, the parody of white cultural icons, and the evaluation of non-stereotypical white social class position.
“[Eminem’s] body performs an exaggerated whiteness in his perpetually pale skin and unnaturally bleached blond hair, while his narratives often engage archetypal identities of the impoverished, uneducated white American…” (Lee, 356). In a minimum of three instances, Eminem refers to his own characteristically white physical features: blue eyes, blond hair, or a “white -ss” (Armstrong, 341). Eminem signals his audience that he is representing whiteness because he physically appears to be an exaggerated state of whiteness. In doing so, he notes to his audience that pale skin and blond hair are parts of white identity. Eminem constantly reminds his audience – and any potential critics – that he is white. He then goes on to comment on white culture. His songs “My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady,” “The Way I Am,” and “White America” are just four his songs that explicitly express whiteness and self-identity.
The song “My Name Is” makes many references to popular white icons like The Spice Girls, Pamela Lee Anderson, and Nine Inch Nails. By parodying these figures, Eminem is calling attention to some of the absurdities of the cultural icons of white America. Eminem continues in the song to parody high school English teachers and good grades. “My English teacher wanted to flunk me in junior high / thanks a lot, next semester I’ll be thirty-five,” Eminem raps in “My Name Is.” Doing well in school is often seen as a white cultural ideal, since oppositional culture deems that doing well in school is “acting white” rather than being true to blackness or other minority status (Ogbu and Fordham, 177) – and Eminem defines that white ideal by exaggerating school failure. In the song, Eminem even parodies white speech patterns. White speech patterns are often referred to as “standard English” (in contrast to Black English Vernacular, also known as Ebonics), and a characteristic white speech phrase would be “hi! My name is…” such as in Eminem’s song “My Name Is.” In “The Real Slim Shady,” Eminem announces that he’s white in the same linguistic fashion: instead of the simple but characteristically black “yo!” Eminem opens his song with “may I have your attention please…” In the song these two songs – “The Real Slim Shady” and “My Name Is…” Eminem absorbs elements of white culture and raps about them in a controversial but enlightening way; he is bringing into light certain elements of white culture and he is bringing white culture into the conversation by being so lewd that the media and the general public cannot possibly ignore him. Eminem refers directly to his audience, calling out that he is white and that “there’s a million of us just like me….” (“The Real Slim Shady”). He wants his white and black audiences both to know that he is trying to represent white America.
In addition to physical features and cultural icons, Eminem constructs white identity by looking at issues of class. “With respect to class, the silence that Eminem’s highly visible ‘white trash’ pride should dispel is the one around white poverty,” writes Rodman (116). When whiteness is considered the invisible identity or the “unmarked marker” (Frankenberg, 68), the mainstream media “prefers to pretend that whiteness and affluence go hand in hand” even though “the vast majority – 68% – of people living below the poverty line are white” (Rodman, 116). Eminem brings into the public view the harsh reality of low-income white Americans, therefore creating a white identity that is not based solely on affluence or the idea of middle class values. Some critics consider Eminem to have been “socialized black” (Calhoun, 269) because of his low-income, ghetto upbringing, but they fail to recognize that such a childhood environment is actually characteristic for a huge portion of white America. Eminem’s portrayal of whiteness is counter to the “blankness” idea of whiteness previously held by identity politics, and as a result white conservatives believe that Eminem “must be cast out, lest his racially-blurred performance come to be accepted as a viable option for other members of the white club” (Rodman, 111). Eminem shatters “the dominant cultural mythology that equates whiteness with middle class prosperity” (Rodman, 111). Eminem poses an answer to “what is whiteness?” that, for the first time, includes the identity of low-income and/or ghettoized white individuals.
Eminem uses his performance of hip-hop to explore whiteness as a construct. One of his techniques is surprise. For some time in America, people have associated whiteness with blandness. But because Eminem does constantly refer to himself as white or remind his listeners that he is white, he employs a shock factor: he is white, but he is controversial and stunning. He starts his song “The Real Slim Shady” with the exclamation “y’all act like you never seen a white person before.” Undoubtedly, everyone in America has seen a white person before – but it has become commonplace in America to associate whiteness with some invisible ideal, such that when Eminem identifies himself as a lewd rapper, his whiteness becomes unusual, surprising, and even cause for concern (Calhoun, 281). Eminem offers his own answer, while simultaneously opening the floor for others, to answer the question of “what is whiteness?” through autobiography, critique, parody, and social commentary of his own experiences as a white man.
Eminem has purposefully pursued the black music scene of hip-hop to initiate conversations about race. Unlike other crossover artists, Eminem flaunts his race as a part of his authentic self. Race is a central part of Eminem’s identity; it has shaped the way he looks at the world. While growing up, Eminem “felt like an outcast” (Wenner, et. al, 450) because some hip-hop groups were militant about keeping hip-hop a black music scene. Eminem writes that he, at one point, adopted black cultural traditions, but knew that he could only feel comfortable as white – whiteness was a part of his identity, not just a reaction to criticism from other black artists. Eminem notes that when he was a teenager, he would wear the Africa medallion – a sign of Black Power – but then commented on his view of the situation, “But you’re a kid, so you’re not really sure of anything, you haven’t really experienced life yet, so you don’t really know how to explain yourself to the fullest… you’re tryin’ to find your own identity and you’re stuck in that whole thing of, who am I as a person? Walkin’ through the suburbs and I’m getting called the N-word, and walkin’ through Detroit I’m getting jumped for being white. And goin’ through that identity crisis…” (Wenner, et al, 450). Here, Eminem is explaining that because he loved hip-hop as a teenager and because hip-hop was a black space, he felt he needed to assume a black identity – but it turns out that Eminem felt uncomfortable in that identity. It is true that Eminem faced outside pressure not to assume a black identity (“And me and my boy are in matching Nike suits and our hair in high-top fades, and we went to the mall and got laughed at so bad. And kinda got rushed out the mall,” (Wenner, et. al, 450)), he also noted that his white identity was more than external pressure; it came from within himself, as well. Eminem accepted whiteness as a part of himself. “A rash of overprotectiveness within our nation keeps many fans from enjoying the hip-hop of a sneering white MC [Eminem], but why shouldn’t we welcome a frank discussion of white maladies into our homes when millions of white people allow our MCs into their homes to talk about [black] disorders every day?” Toure writes (103). If Eminem had not entered the hip-hop music scene in 1996, Toure may not have ever suggested that whiteness become part of the natural discourse of the hip-hop nation.
Eminem’s ideas have infiltrated white American homes because of the legal controversy and community uproar surrounding his lyrics. He responds to those grassroots criticisms in songs like “Sing for the Moment,” which acknowledges that “[his] ideas are like nightmares to white parents” and in songs like “White America” which admit he “created so much motherf-ucking turbulence.” “Lyrics, lyrics / constant controversy / sponsors working ‘round the clock to stop my concerts early / surely hip-hop was never a problem in Harlem / only in Boston / … / so now I’m catching the flak from these activists when they raggin’ / actin’ like I’m the only rapper to slap a b-tch and say f-gg-t,” continues the song “White America.” Because Eminem has a more universal audience than almost any other hip-hop artist – “the Recording Industry Association of America… certified Eminem’s eighteen million in U.S. sales; only the late Tupac Shakur has sold more albums” (Armstrong, 348) – he has been in the prime position to open up the American race conversation to concepts of whiteness, and he has embraced that position.
The conversation about race in America did not begin only recently, so why is it that Eminem, at the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, has been the artist to bring the concept of whiteness as a self-identity into the public eye? In fact, given that America’s economy was built upon slavery, race has been a central part of American history since the conception of the original thirteen colonies. But whiteness has been associated with only privilege and racism; white people have avoided associating themselves with whiteness as an identity because of the stigma attached with such a label. “The evolution of a positive white racial identity consists of two processes, the abandonment of racism and the development of a non-racist identity…” (Helms, 207). Make no mistake; Eminem is far from the perfect non-racist exemplar of white identity. That said, Eminem has made great strides in constructing a white identity not focused on racism of racial tension. Central to this claim is the fact that Eminem refuses to use the word “n-gger” in his lyrics. “It’s just a word I don’t feel comfortable with,” Eminem says in a Rolling Stone interview (Wenner, et. al., 448). He continues, “[the] racial slur… doesn’t feel right to come out of my mouth” (Wenner, et. al., 449). Actually, one tape did surface of Eminem using the word “n-gga” when he was free-styling in a basement at a mere sixteen years old. When the tap surfaced, Eminem reported, “I was angry at myself. I couldn’t believe that I said it… if there was never no Eminem, it wouldn’t be so shocking, but given who I am and what I stand for today, then what else could be Eminem’s Achilles’ heel?” (Wenner, et. al., 448). In this interview, Eminem is referring to his creation of whiteness as an acceptable, non-racist identity – and he admits that he feels he has betrayed himself because once, just once, when he was sixteen he was caught using a word he openly defines as a racial slur. Whiteness is a central part of Eminem’s identity, and because he is aware that whiteness must be constructed without racism as a central tenet as it has been constructed historically, he does not use “n-gga” or “n-gger” in his interviews or lyrics.
Sarah Quartey, a sophomore majoring in Urban Studies with a minor in Life Lessons, is interested in rallying for social change, scrapbooking, social justice law, and long nights debating the merits of who-knows-what. She’s dedicated to closing the socioeconomic gap. firstname.lastname@example.org.