Saturday, October 30, 2004

Eminem's "Mosh"

I have what I think is a fairly standard relationship to hip-hop for a white leftist male of my generation -- my main avenue into it is its more political strand, and it definitely does interest me, but I am not at all connected to grassroots hip-hop culture. And I also am exposed to bits and pieces of mainstream, popular hip-hop in my swim through our popular cultural environment.

I have always found Eminem to be an interesting figure -- his music is often inane, sometimes deeply offensive, but also, at times, catchy. But more important, the phenomenon of Eminem is an interesting nexus in our popular culture for understanding race, class, gender, and sexuality, and how they work.

Progressive media have been making a bit of a stir about his song and video "Mosh." Both, but particularly the video, have progressive political and powerfully anti-Bush content. The video's final message of "Vote" is a bit disappointing in some ways, but there are lots of messages in there about the importance of being active beyond voting too.

A progressive political edge is something new for Eminem, though I think his film 8 Mile had some interesting content to it as well -- its answers were all American Dreamy, but even the fact that it showed a more open portrayal of both white and Black working class reality in the U.S. made it rare in the current mass media environment.

The best commentary I've read about the new song/video is on Justin Podur's blog.

I also found the article about it on AlterNet to be interesting, though not necesarily in good ways. I think that article unwittingly illustrates ways that racism shapes progressive movements in North America, and how distant progressive white spaces are from radical Black spaces much of the time.

For one thing, the article's obliteration of the history of conscious hip-hop is breathtaking. It quotes a youthful responder on some MTV board saying of Eminem's new song, "Not since Chuck D has a hip hop artist spoken so eloquently of the power in numbers. If we stand up as a bloc and vote, both the president and the senator will have no choice but to listen." Other than a mention much earlier in the article of P. Diddy's ridiculous "Vote or Die" campaign, this is the only mention of a hip-hop artist or music that is both Black and political, and stands in the context in which it is presented as being an authoritative statement. Hello!! What about about The Coup? What about Dead Prez? What about the countless conscious hip-hop artists (e.g. check this out) at the grassroots in lots of cities across this continent that a disconnected white guy like me knows nothing about either?

There's lots of other really relevant stuff that the article doesn't mention -- there is all sorts of stuff about the role of Em's whiteness and previously apolitical content in his rise to fame, and how the music business selects for those things. And the fact that the big purchasing power in hip-hop these days is young suburban white boys and men, and how their racist fantasies of Blackness and the power of their dollars have helped shape mainstream hip-hop, and which parts of the realities of life in urban America get amplified and which get silenced.

And what about talking about the insight that Eminem's cultural location and role, both in general and with respect to this song, can provide into the contradictory political location of the white working class in this country? (He may be a millionaire many times over, but his place in the culture, and I think to a certain extent his actual origins, are symbolic of working class and poor white America.) This article treats "Mosh" as a sea change and a redemption for Em, rather than as emblematic of contradictions that permeate society -- the fact that being in the class-exploited but still white- and male-privileged position of a working class white man puts you at a place in the social hierarchy where being screwed by the ruling class might mean getting together with your buddies and fighting the boss, or it might contribute to enforcing your own not-bottom place in the pyramid by going home and beating your wife (something, I hasten to add, that middle-class and owning-class men are just as prone to do, if not more), or it might mean both. Sure, there may be a change in consciousness on the part of Eminem, but I doubt it is anything that makes the significance of his earlier misogyny and homophobia disappear. Dealing with contradictions in analysis and in standpoint head on is more useful than shallowly papering over them for the sake of political expediency in the moment.

Anyway, I do really like the video, and I do hope that it's a sign of an ongoing process of politicization by Eminem. We'll see.

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