10 November 2021
As the cliché goes, some of my best friends are gay. Denigration of homosexuality offends my entire moral code. I’d sooner paint myself blue and sing Eiffel 65 than use the word f****t.
But are the two mutually exclusive? Well, it depends on what you mean by homophobia.
The artist Eminem means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Visionary rapper. Inspirational ex-addict. The GOAT. But should the artist’s legacy gloss over repeated instances of homophobia in his rhymes?
What homophobia you ask? In the words of the man himself, “Hate f**s? The answer’s yes.”
Not shy about displaying this-described hatred, Eminem’s lyrics consistently (and anachronistically) feature the f word; from 2000s’ Marshall Mathers LP to 2020’s Kamikaze. Nor is this language incidental to his image, with lyrics such as those from the track “Criminal” broadcasting the rapper’s wish to “…stab you in the head, whether you’re a f** or les” leaving little ambiguity. And a deep dive into his back catalogue reveals that Eminem doesn’t just use homophobic language. He revels in it.
How does he get away with this? Well, it’s complicated.
In 2021 musicians, including rappers, are increasingly answerable to discerning audiences fed up with casual and not-so-casual homophobia- consider the backlash Da Baby faced after targeting the gay community earlier this year (at the Rolling Loud music festival the rapper reportedly told fans to put their hands in the air- except those who had HIV or were gay men who had sex in parking lots).
The artist was promptly dropped from several festivals before posting a lukewarm apology on Twitter claiming that “I aint trippin on [the LGBTQI community], ya’ll business is ya’ll business”. “Is hip hop conquering homophobia?” The Guardian even queried when reporting on the incident.
And wouldn’t that be something? But I’m not convinced (not least due to a certain peroxided Detroiter). Outrage, even when justified, is rarely enough to change hearts and minds of its target; indeed, Da Baby predictably went on the defence via his new track Giving What it’s Supposed to Give rapping “My apologies for being me the same way you want the freedom to be you.” Sorry Jonathon, but the right of gay people to, you know, exist, is not the same as your sense of entitlement to be homophobic. But it’s an entitlement enabled (if not justified) by the culture’s deep seeded gay problem.
Having read Da Baby’s infamous rant verbatim, I can report that it was pretty damn repulsive. It was also idiotic, with the rapper’s tangent about the purported effects of AIDS, not to mention colossal failure to read the room, confirming he’s no brain surgeon. But not all homophobes are built the same, and Eminem in contrast is a whole lot smarter and more self-aware. Still a smart-ass juvenile delinquent of a kid at heart, he knows exactly how to push buttons; and when to toe the line. (A darkly funny example of this balancing act can be seen in the track Drug Ballad containing the line “Drink more liquor to fuck you up quicker than you’d want to fuck me up for saying the word… [pause].”)
But Eminem’s secret weapon? His depraved alter ego Slim Shady. You see it’s Slim and not Marshall Mathers who waxes lyrical about violence, rape, woman-bashing, of gay bashing, and murder until the accumulation sheer awfulness becomes almost ridiculous. Almost meaningless. Because one man can’t possibly mean all of those terrible things- right?
Sure, he drops the word f****t as casually as he threatens to kill ex-wife Kim. But if you react? You’d only be playing into his hands. By making a career out of outrage baiting, Eminem has effectively rendered himself un-cancellable. After all, what good is judging an artist who so vocally doesn’t give a fuck what we think about him anyway?
It goes without saying that Eminem and Da Baby are far from the sole offenders in this space. Hip hop, while not inherently homophobic (to claim otherwise would deny gay superstars of the genre such as Frank Ocean and Lil Nas X their rightful place), does have a regrettable track record when it comes to expressions of sexuality and masculinity. But many those most guilty of using the slurs in question present an uncomfortable paradox. Their words are homophobic. But they don’t, in fact, hate gays.
This contradiction is something artists such as Kanye West struggle with when confronted by the true damage of their lyrics. The rapper is candid about his love for his gay cousin and the fact that this has caused him to examine and challenge the discriminatory beliefs he’s held since childhood. Crucially, West acknowledges his homophobia admitting “I’ve been discriminating against gays.” And we didn’t even need to cancel him first.
In his own way, Eminem’s personal life also demonstrates a more tolerant side than his persona would admit. In addition to playing the butt of the joke as a self-loathing homosexual in Seth Rogan’s The Interview and participating in an award show stunt that saw Sasha Baron Cohen’s flamboyant “Bruno”’s buttocks planted in his face, Eminem and the famously camp Elton John, or Uncle Elton,” have nurtured a twenty-year friendship since performing together at the 2001 Grammys. “He’s an amazing guy… I just adore him” the singer expressed on The Graham Norton Show. Eminem even gifted Elton and his partner David Furnish diamond encrusted cock rings to celebrate their civil partnership in 2005. And if cock rings don’t spell tolerance, I don’t know what does.
So how well do we know the real Marshall Mathers? We know that-just like mine!-some of his best friends are gay. We know that he is not immune to introspection, with several tracks reflecting on his own hypocrisy when it comes to women and the LGBTQI community. And we know that he still won’t, like Kanye, actually admit that on some level he is guilty of perpetuating homophobia and the damage it causes.
It pains me to admit that Em continues to excuse his language with what’s about the lamest excuse possible. That is, he claims that the word f****t isn’t intended as a gay slur but is shorthand for “a sissy.” It’s not only insultingly off the mark but disingenuous- Marshall Mathers is far too intelligent to overlook the underlying effect of using a word traditionally weaponised against the LGBTQI community as synonymous with weakness.
To me, Eminem is still the blisteringly talented, sometimes inspirational outsider with the contagiously disturbed sense of humour. But I can see him that way; because I’ve never been on the receiving end of his lazily adopted prejudice. I can guiltily enjoy his unsanitised lyrics because they don’t have the ability to hurt me.
Eminem is never going to be a saint and honestly, we wouldn’t want him that way. But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the encouragement of his legions of fans who’ll indulge his homophobia because it’s easier that way, that has led to a man in his forties still not ready to take responsibility.
On The Real Slim Shady, Eminem brags “I’m like a head trip to listen to cause I’m only givin’ you things you joke about with your friends inside your livin’ room.”
There was probably an element of truth to this too- back in the year 2000. But to use the word f****t now is not brave or edgy. It’s an embarrassing case of failing to recognise that society has moved on without you.
And if you really are, as Em claims, making gay jokes with your friends in your living room in 2021? Guess what, you’re cancelled too.
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