Jon Stewart isn’t the only pop culture titan President Trump’s recent rhetoric has drawn from the shadows of social media silence back into the public eye. This week, rapper Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, also emerged from whatever Hobbit-hole he’s been sequestered in to perform a freestyle cypher at Tuesday night’s BET awards. The resulting verse was a full-frontal attack on pretty much everything the president’s been up to these past few weeks, hitting issues like Trump’s notorious feud with the NFL, his response to the crisis in Puerto Rico and his child-with-a-potato-gun approach to foreign policy.
It didn’t take long for Twitter to kick up a sandstorm of praise, J. Cole calling Mathers a “Rap God,” T-Pain calling for us to “Protect Eminem at all costs,” Keith Olbermann hailing the cypher as “the best political writing of the year, period.”
I’m sorry, what?
The cypher, aptly named “The Storm,” carries much of what has become a staple of Mathers’s artistry: anger, unfiltered and untamed, in every lyric, lines that hit and stick in quick succession like throwing knives in a wall, and pure, unapologetic vulgarity all around. The resulting product is one to be remembered, but set it up against other freestyle pieces like Kendrick Lamar’s famous 2016 Grammys performance or even some of Em’s other pieces like his 2009 freestyle on Rap City, it falls into the category of “just fine.” “The Storm” is just as scattered and chaotic as the name suggests, with a rhythm that leans and wobbles without a backbone, without threads to hold it into something more staunch and unified. Instead of manipulating or engaging his material in a way gives us something innovative he yells at us things we all already know: Trump’s the worst. Mathers is better than this and we all know he’s better than this, so why is this performance so significant?
It’s not because he bashed Trump. Everyone’s bashing Trump. Especially rappers. Heck, even Tupac was bashing Trump back in the 90s. Everything bad you could possibly say about the guy has been said or shouted or tweeted by Cher a hundred times over. What Eminem says in “The Storm” is nothing new. What is important, however, was that he was the one who said them.
For the audiences (both in attendance and watching at home) of award shows like the Grammys and BET awards, anything critical of the current administration is basically like trying to explain anxiety to a single mom. Eminem, however, has a large following in white Republican circles. Eminem can get to the people who turn the channel when Kendrick Lamar starts to rap about police brutality or when Meryl Streep speaks in defense of “the fake news media.”
“The Storm,” for all its flaws, is important for the same reason it can’t just be Colin Kaepernick calling for racial justice. It’s important for the same reason it can’t just be Rose McGowan or Angelina Jolie accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. With issues like these, privileged voices need to rise along with those of the marginalized. Men speaking up for women. White people speaking up for people of color. Rich people speaking up for the poor. People taking action to help other people. While “The Storm” finds itself lacking in many areas artistically, it carries an important lesson. When your voice has that kind of power, you need to use it.