Reconsidering Eminem in a Post-Me Too World

Pop Culture

Reconsidering Eminem in a Post-Me Too World

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Déjà vu is the feeling of having lived through an experience before it happens to you, and 2018 was thick with it. Stories of harassment in Bollywood and the media industry eerily echoed events that have already transpired. A liberal director, known for sensitive portrayals of women in his films, was accused of disgusting behaviour; you decide whether I’m talking about Woody Allen or Vikas Bahl. A stand-up comedian was finally called out after indecently exposing himself to a shocking number of women: I could be talking about Louis CK or Utsav Chakraborty. Men who claimed to stand for liberal values, who anointed themselves champions of equality, were found to be predatory parasites putting up a performance for the sake of public perception.

Musically too, this year has felt like a throwback for me, thanks to the return to relevance of one Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, aka Slim Shady, aka the Rap God. 2018 began with Revival, a brand new Eminem album after a gap of five years. And then, last month, he surprised everyone with a surprise release called Kamikaze. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Eminem album release if it didn’t cause outrage, and like clockwork, accusations of homophobia and fading celebrity were flung at the rapper. Cue the déjà vu.

Eminem and controversy go together like McDonalds burgers and indigestion – the latter inevitably follows the former. It’s a trend he began all the way back in 1999, with his mainstream debut The Slim Shady LP leading to much pearl-clutching among audiences that had never encountered his chaotic blend of raw talent and twisted intellect, backed by the production genius of Dr Dre. He rapped about murdering his wife, assaulting pop culture figures, and created fantasy scenarios of gruesome violence, and nobody could look away. Slim Shady, the Mr Hyde to Marshall Mathers’ Dr Jekyll, became a character whose skin he slipped into when giving voice to some of the darkest thoughts expressed through the medium of hip-hop.

The sins of the Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs of the world are as heinous as the ones Slim Shady rapped about committing: The only difference is theirs were real while his were fictional.

The Slim Shady character has always been a villain, a conduit to the murkiest corners of Em’s psyche. It’s a persona he’s cultivated for years, one that surfaces when he’s writing and performing. But is the real Slim Shady also the real Marshall Mathers? When his newest album, Kamikaze, contained a lyric where he used a homophobic slur against fellow rapper Tyler, the Creator, he was quick to issue a public apology. “I think the word that I called him on that song was one of the things where I felt like this might be too far,” he said in an interview a few days after the album released and he was called out online. However, he did go back to using the act of sucking dicks to belittle another man in his very next release, the single Killshot. Even if it might be hard to spot sometimes, there is a difference between the Marshall Mathers who has previously expressed support of gay marriage and the Eminem/Shady hybrid that spits insults from the mic.

If you go by the art he created, Eminem was the polar opposite of today’s entertainers that are currently being exposed as frauds. The sins of the Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs of the world are as heinous as the ones Slim Shady rapped about committing: The only difference is theirs were real while his were fictional. Eminem’s demons have lived in the spotlight for us all to see, while the real danger came from those public figures who put up a façade of correctness, only to let their demons come out in secret, where they caused real damage.

In 2018, with the benefit of the knowledge we have today, it’s easy to look at Eminem’s body of work and dismiss it as an offensive collection of regressive ideas. But there is another way to look at Eminem as well, and that is to recognise that the performer and the person are separate entities, and one may not necessarily resemble the other. It’s a notion that could serve us well, as we learn that the “woke”, liberal men who seemed to say all the right things and support the right causes are not what they seemed. Slim Shady might be a rapacious, predatory, wolfish character – but so are the many who are now being exposed.