White Saviour Complex: Does Eminem Give a Voice to Black Rappers or is He Simply Guilty of Appropriation?
What would you say if I asked you whether your life contains anything appropriated from another culture? If you think that everything in your life is authentic then you might be unaware of how many foreign traditions could be present in your life, due to cultural appropriation. Each time you go to a yoga class, you’re exercising a once sacred practise. Tramp stamps? A tribal tradition long before it became a symbol of the stereotypical ‘loose’ woman. And the shisha you love to smoke in that crowded bar on a Saturday night, is a tradition taken from the Middle East. These are all fun and harmless — minus the toxins in the smoke — but the problem is, we’re losing the fundamental roots of the original sacred traditions. We live in a society that conveniently enjoys all the exciting things other cultures have to offer, whilst disregarding the difficult parts of their history. They are forgotten due to expropriation from industries trying to make money.
One of the biggest cultures to have fallen into this group of appropriation is black culture. From cornrows, to music, to slang; naming just a few of the things white culture has taken from the black community and used as a trend in popular culture. Take a moment to think about the music on your phone or Spotify playlists. Do you have anything by Eminem or Elvis Presley? Or perhaps you enjoy listening to Iggy Azalea when you’re getting all glammed up for a night out. Or do you jump around to that Macklemore song when you’re on a sticky dancefloor? All of these music artists are guilty of taking an art form created by the black community and using it to express themselves, making them, their record labels, producers — the list goes on — a lot of money.
But are these artists doing an inherently evil deed? I hear you wondering whether you should feel guilty for listening to their music. What I’ve found during my research is, like most things, white rap artists are on a spectrum.
Although not all white people are responsible for the oppression of individuals of other races, the white western world is still left with a significant hangover from the actions of its predecessors and that’s not something it can run away from.
One of the biggest markets of appropriation is the music industry, and it goes back further than you might think. Visualise the music charts, I’m sure the first thing that pops into your mind when you consider the appropriation of black music is rap music. While this is one of the biggest genres to have expropriated music from black communities, music styles were being stolen long before hip-hop arrived. Everyone knows who Nina Simone is, right? If you don’t, have a listen to Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, (you can find it on YouTube) and tell me you don’t feel the pain she has endured. It is visceral, and tangibly apparent. The music comes from pain and suffering, and yet white musicians have emulated similar music. Only it misses this palpable energy, this rawness that can come only from the lived history of oppression.
You might not have heard of Nina Simone, but I bet you’ve heard of Elvis Presley, right? His music is timeless and still influences the music industry to this day. The music of Elvis Presley was notoriously controversial due to him being named the ‘king’ of rock’n’roll. Black musicians brought about this style of music and yet because Presley was white that meant he was in possession of a higher platform, more privilege, and awarded more opportunities.
Elvis Presley has been likened to Eminem by many critics over the years, including by the rap artist himself. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last twenty years, you’ll be familiar with the music of Eminem. Whether you love him, or you hate him, it’s impossible to deny his success.
Eminem, a white rapper from Detroit, made a name for himself in the nineties with his controversial music and blatant disregard for rules or who he might offend. If you don’t believe me, google the lyrics to Cleanin’ Out My Closet or Kim.
The rapper, named Marshall Mathers at birth, was brought up in a broken home by his single mother, Debbie Mathers. He never had a dad around, something he notoriously writes songs about, and found solace in hip-hop and rap music. According to an article featured in NME in 2013, his favourite artists were LL Cool J, Kool G Rap, The Beastie Boys, Ice T, and Idris Muhammed, most of whom are black rappers. Although I think it’s important to point out that he often claims his biggest influences were The Beastie Boys, a group of three white rappers. Marshall, 47, was so inspired by the artists that he started using rap to vent his frustrations, in a way not dissimilar to the original black rappers.
The roots of rap music
Rap is a form of poetry that was first used in the 1970s by black youngsters expressing their frustrations around life in the ghetto. It became a way of fighting back against white privilege and the oppression the black community faced. Living in poverty in the ghetto, rap gave black youths an opportunity to express themselves artistically. But the market of rap music didn’t hit the big time until white individuals saw an opportunity to make money, which lead to the appropriation of rap music and hip-hop.
The frustration is clear in some of the music written and performed by black rappers. J. Cole brings the subject up in his song 1985 from the album KOD, saying, ‘they wanna be black and think your song is how it feels’.
Eminem’s childhood was famously rough. If you’re a fan of his music you’ll know he regales his listeners with tales of fatherlessness, a mentally ill mother, and traumatic bullying at the hands of his peers. Some examples are his 2002 song, Cleanin’ Out My Closet and his 2020 song, Stepdad. He used rap as an outlet for his anger and frustration at the world, after being influenced young by hip-hop. An article written in 2018 by Hanif Abdurraqib, says Eminem gained respect and credibility from his African-American peers due to this.
Although unquestionably successful, Eminem’s music has always been regarded with controversy that has divided the public and fans of the genre. Some have respect for him, for making such a huge name for himself as a white rapper and using that platform to build up black artists. Others suggest that he’s guilty of a concept titled White Saviour Complex and has taken for himself a market that should be reserved for black artists.
White Saviour Complex
One of the questions that is quite often debated amongst fans of rap is this: has Eminem capitalised on something that wasn’t his to take or has he given a voice to black artists? To answer this question, I’d like to introduce you to White Saviour Complex, a term used to describe a white person using their given privilege to help a person who is not white in a way that is perceived as self-serving. It could easily be argued that Eminem used his white privilege, becoming famous on the coat tails of his black predecessors, and then utilised his platform to raise up black artists who may or may not be more talented than him.
Despite being a huge Eminem fan, I agree that this is the case, although I don’t find that he has done so in a patronising way. I agree that he has done what he can with what he’s been given. I also know that he is aware of his privilege, just from listening to his music, as well as the respect he has gained within hip-hop and black music communities. I don’t think this question has a binary answer, but is much more nuanced.
An article written for The Guardian in 2018 told of black youngsters receiving the music of Eminem well due to his use of angry and nihilistic lyrics. As well as this, Eminem regularly uses his platform to promote black rappers. He often collaborates with black artists and addresses his white privilege in his music. So, although he is guilty of appropriating black culture, he is also an ally for individuals within the black music industry.
Eminem was accused of being a poser and a tourist early on in his rap career. Black artists questioned why he was rapping, as he was white. This angered him because his passion came from real fury at some of the things he’d endured. He used rap as an outlet for his childhood struggles. An article in The New York Times written in 2002 quoted Manuary Rayes in saying, ‘[Eminem] is always dressed regular in sweats like us. The sweats might cost more, but he ain’t frontin’. He’s not rapping about clothes, cars and jewelry like all those other rappers. He’s rapping about life — you know, stuff that we go through out here. Some of it’s a goof, but some of it’s real, and it sounds like it comes from the heart, you know. A lot of us can relate to that.’. What Manuary is saying here is that the black music industry had some respect for Eminem because his childhood experience wasn’t dissimilar to theirs. This gave Eminem some entitlement to this form of art due to his childhood being rooted in similar struggles. Despite the music of Eminem coming from such an organic place, there are other white artists who are less authentic. For example, it’s easy to see the distinction between a rapper like Eminem and Iggy Azalea.
Iggy Azalea and Macklemore
I’m sure you’re familiar with the white rapper, Iggy Azalea. The artist, 29, shot to fame in 2012 after being signed by the black rapper T.I., amid rumours that she didn’t write her own lyrics and criticisms around her strange accent. A post featured in The Washington Post in 2019 described Iggy Azalea’s peculiar accent as a ‘blaccent’, due to the inconsistency of her language. Being from New South Wales she speaks with an Australian accent at events, but when rapping she picks up a Deep South accent. What does Iggy Azalea rap about? Blowjobs, partying, cars, being rich. In my opinion, it’s more pop music than it is rap or hip-hop. It doesn’t strike the listener as having much depth or feeling to it. Eminem’s music emulates sadness, anger, passion, to name a few emotions, whereas Iggy’s music doesn’t seem to be about much more than making people dance and bringing in money. She is a stark contrast to Eminem and perhaps part of the reason there is animosity within the rap industry towards white rappers.
In the same Washington Post, Bethonie Butler reminds the reader of times Iggy has won credit where other black and Asian rappers have missed out. Nicki Minaj is arguably one of the most popular female rappers out there, but Miss Azalea made it onto a list of up-and-coming rappers in Freshman’s Class, a list that left off Nicki Minaj, whose ethnicity is mostly African-Trinidadian according to the website Ethnicelebs. In 2014 Iggy received four Grammy nominations. This was the same year Kendrick Lamar lost a Grammy to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who are both white and considered to be pop artists. As you can imagine, there was a lot of frustration in the hip-hop community that year, particularly with Kendrick Lamar’s popularity within the hip-hop industry.
After Macklemore won that Grammy in 2014, he sent a text to Kendrick Lamar saying, ‘You got robbed. I wanted you to win…. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.’ A couple of years later he followed the apology with a song named White Privilege II. In the song he explores the injustices within society and the rap industry, as well as acknowledging his white privilege and the appropriation of black music.
Iggy Azalea has made no such acknowledgement and pays no homage to her black predecessors who made this market available to her in the first place and without whom she might not be a success.
The rapper’s use of a black accent and black language has shot her to fame, a clear example of her appropriation of black culture.
Does Eminem give a voice to black rappers or is he simply guilty of appropriation?
So, what do you think? Is Eminem only guilty of appropriation or is he aware of his privilege and does he use it to raise up those who don’t have a voice? If we put Eminem next to Iggy Azalea it is clear to see who is appropriating black culture and using it for their own gain and who is organically using it for the good of themselves and others. It has been implied that Iggy Azalea uses ghost writers, she uses fake accents that mimic the accents of black individuals, and raps about shallow subjects, seemingly having no access to a past that allows her to really understand the roots of black music. Eminem has used his fame countless times to boost the careers of black rappers and often acknowledges his white privilege, where Iggy’s own career is propped up and furthered by using language provided by the black community. Iggy, among other countless white rappers, has lost sight of the fundamentals of black music, something Eminem never fails to do.
I think it’s safe to say that Eminem has appropriated black culture, but he is aware of it, and he uses his white privilege for the good of a marginalised culture.