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Marshall Matters: Eminem and Political Change

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This may not come as a surprise: Eminem has been angry since he began his rap career in 1996. During the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards, the rapper released a freestyle titled “The Storm” attacking President Donald Trump. The four minute track features Eminem screaming, calling Trump “The Thing” from The Fantastic Four comics, and supporting Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel. He’s rapping (more of a strange slam poem) in a parking garage with a group of black men nodding behind him. It’s odd and cringeworthy, but his efforts have taken social media by storm.

I’m not going to state my opinion on the freestyle or the politics. Firstly, I’m not an Eminem fan. Secondly, everyone knows the consensus on Trump. So my question is whether Eminem has any influence on our contemporary political climate, and whether music in general has ever had an influence on politics.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, folk music fought against the war in Vietnam and tackled social issues. The ‘hippies’ spearheaded the new sound. The most influential hippie of the decade was, of course, Bob Dylan. He played at protests, sang of the inequalities and became popular amongst America’s youth. In 1975, Dylan released a protest song “The Hurricane”, which spoke to the racism and injustice behind boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’s conviction for murder. He played a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden, raising over $100,000 for Carter’s defense. Dylan’s show brought publicity to the trials, but didn’t change much else. Carter was verdict was changed to not guilty twenty years after his imprisonment, ten years after the Dylan record was released. The federal judge who overturned the conviction stated that he had never listened to the song, but his grandson probably did.

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s featured the rise of hip-hop and its connection to police brutality. Compton-based N.W.A. rapped about racism in the Los Angeles police force. Their 1988 song “Fuck tha Police” brought the genre to the forefront of society. Public Enemy’s 1989 song “Fight the Power” brought rap about racial-injustice to the East Coast, saying “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We got to fight the powers that be / Lemme hear you say / Fight the Power.”  These songs, like Dylan’s before them, were the soundtrack to the 1992 L.A. riots.It’s impossible to say that these songs and artists caused the protests. It’s impossible to think that they were the only reason people began to speak out against the issues. But, they may have been factors.

Music pinpoints emotions. It can make us cry, laugh, and smile. Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, and countless others utilized an emotional gateway to broadcast their messages. These artists had a wide audience and knew their platform could create empathy where others mediums couldn’t.

During Trump’s rise to power, numerous protest songs were released. A major issue, however, was that none were pioneered by mainstream artists. Loudon Wainwright III, Fiona Apple, A Tribe Called Quest, and several others released Trump attacks, and while this isn’t to say they aren’t well-known or accomplished musicians, they simply aren’t leaders of the modern music industry. Where was Drake’s protest song? Where was Taylor Swift’s “Fuck tha Police”? There were a few lines here and there, but it was nothing close to Bob Dylan pushing the masses. Popular musicians can tweet their dislike for Trump all they want, but music sparks feelings that 140 characters cannot. Tweets lose traction, disappearing after a day or two. Songs last forever.

Eminem’s freestyle is all over the Internet. I’m not sure how much this will shake things up. But at least he’s using his medium, not just his following, to bring attention to the state of our democracy. What’s more, he’s a white rapper. Maybe that will gather an audience that black rappers would not. Maybe this will push Trump protests further. I doubt it’ll lead to anything monumental, but it may swing a few opinions, and that counts for something.

Personally, I’m not sure any form of music has swayed my political thoughts. Music has set an emotional backdrop for my beliefs, but it has not created them. And yet, a high school acquaintance of mine often posts on social media about his love for Trump and fights dissenters. After the freestyle, said acquaintance posted “Eminem really has me swaying my opinion on the President.” So, that’s a success, and persuasion via Eminem could be a trend.

Music has the ability to hit some emotional sweet spots many mediums can’t reach; and although we may not be able to tabulate pop-music statistics in correlation with political polls, music is necessary to express, relate and relay emotions or hardship.  

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Illustration by Hua Chen

written by
Sage Kelley
October 17, 2017