Eminem, BET Hip-Hop Awards Freestyle Cypher, Detroit MI, 10.06.17 (Rap as poetry & LKJ)

Would some of the age-based prejudice that afflicts hip-hop - distorting the critical reception of the contribution of artists and encouraging a kind of jockeying for space and attention - fade if we spoke of MCs as poets, and often great ones at that? As Rapsody said recently when dismissing the sex-based labelling of women who rap, being a skilful MC is not linked to physical strength, it’s all about the intellect, so why is there a culturally imposed age limit on the practice?

I’m no particular fan of Eminem. This reflects my inbuilt interest in the marginal and esoteric: there is comfort to be found in this quiet space for people with a temperament like mine. But most of all, I have never listened to an Eminem record from beginning to end because I will never accept the premise that there is anything worthwhile in music, or art, that revels in violence against women. Just like I wouldn’t sit down on a Sunday evening to watch a classy-take on a lynching, or a well-shot video showing the physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of a child, I refuse to acknowledge music/art/literature that holds up violence against women as entertaining, or cathartic (choose your adjective) for men. I make no exceptions here. None.

For too long male artists have argued that their art matters more than the abused bodies of women: in a literal or figurative sense. But it seems the times are changing, as even pretty, white women are speaking up about the abuse they have suffered in the popular media these days.

But to return to Eminem and this question of rapping as poetry. Certainly, this freestyle is manufactured and stagey and not even something I’d listen to twice, but it has an undeniable power. It is pure and resolute in its political message and I hope impact, not unlike this wonder from Linton Kwesi Johnson from another era, another locale (1980).       

Both peel your eyelids open and force you to take notice, while carrying the imprint of the artist. Within the critical/cultural milieu surrounding LKJ it would be strange for someone to dismiss his art and contribution, past and present, based on the fact that he is no longer 20-years-old, simply because it is a generally accepted fact that he is a ‘tap natch poet’ (and a much respected, beloved one at that). 

Maybe a similar shift would occur within hip-hop culture, if we just changed the terminology: rather than focussing on MCs as performers, jumping around, we started to speak about them as poets, speaking truth to power ... Maybe the overwhelming response to this Eminem freestyle will be part of this cultural change, we’ll see. It’s certainly needed.