A few weeks ago, Eminem released "Rap God," the third single from his new album The Marshall Mathers LP 2. When I listened to it for the first time, I was instantly struck by the repeated use of homophobic slurs, which include a threat to break a table "over the back of a couple faggots" and a long, vicious diatribe about a "gay-looking boy." I searched for responses, assuming that the song would already have attracted controversy — and found nothing but dozens of articles praising his lyrics and flow while selectively overlooking the song's blatant homophobia.
So I wrote an article about it.
My article was titled, "Eminem's 'Rap God' is incredibly homophobic, and no one is talking about it." Within a few days, it was pretty much the only thing about "Rap God" that anybody was talking about anymore. My complaints were quoted in articles at Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, The Huffington Post, and more. Writers at Salon and The Daily Beast picked up the charge. Openly gay artists like Boy George, Solomon, and LastO criticized Eminem in public statements.
But Eminem himself stayed quiet on the subject — until today, when Rolling Stone released an excerpt of a cover story in which Eminem wearily defends himself against accusations of homophobia:
I don't know how to say this without saying it how I've said it a million times. But that word, those kind of words, when I came up battle-rappin' or whatever, I never really equated those words… It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole. So that word was just thrown around so freely back then. It goes back to that battle, back and forth in my head, of wanting to feel free to say what I want to say, and then [worrying about] what may or may not affect people. And, not saying it's wrong or it's right, but at this point in my career — man, I say so much shit that's tongue-in-cheek. I poke fun at other people, myself. But the real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all. I'm glad we live in a time where it's really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves. And I don't know how else to say this, I still look at myself the same way that I did when I was battling and broke. [Rolling Stone]
I'm glad that Eminem has finally broken his radio silence, and that he once again clarified that he personally has no issues with gay and transgender people.
Unfortunately, he's still completely wrong.
Before I elaborate, let me describe what happened after my article was published. I was hit with hundreds (if not thousands) of angry comments, tweets, blog posts, and emails from Eminem fans, some of whom were more rational than others. For every 10 or 15 people who spammed me with bigoted insults, I received a genuine argument from someone pointing me to an interview in which Eminem had expressed his personal support for gay marriage, or explaining that he once clarified that his homophobic slurs weren't actually intended to attack homosexuals.
The rational complainers were particularly incensed that I had called Eminem "lazy." I tried to explain this in my original post, but since it seems to have gotten lost in all the uproar, let me clarify: On a purely technical level, I think "Rap God" is an incredible song — and that's part of what makes the laziness of its lyrics so frustrating. It is lazy to rely on the same slurs you've been using since the beginning of your career. It is also lazy to offer up the same unconvincing justifications for those slurs when you're confronted by people who are hurt by them. It's doubly frustrating precisely because Eminem is capable of so much better — and instead of treating The Marshall Mathers LP 2 as a chance to reverse the attacks he used on the original album 14 years ago, he decided to double down on them.
Eminem's defense in Rolling Stone is the same tired line he's trotted out for years now: In the context of a rap battle, "faggot" has no association with homosexuality. That was absurd when he said it before, and it's absurd now. Whether or not you're talking about actual homosexuals, how can you not understand that using the word "faggot" to mean "a bitch or a punk or an asshole" is still deeply and inherently homophobic? There's a reason Eminem associates weakness with the word "faggot": Because gay men have routinely been stereotyped and marginalized as weaker and less masculine than straight men.
I understand why Eminem is exhausted by answering these questions. It must be frustrating to be attacked for homophobia when you don't think you're being homophobic. But Eminem doesn't get to tell gay men what "faggot" means, because he's not a gay man who has had that insult — and countless others — used against him. I don't care that Eminem is close friends with Elton John, or that he's expressed support for gay marriage in several interviews. I care about the contents of his lyrics, which make up the vast bulk of his cultural imprint, and his lyrics are indefensible.
The thing about writing an attack on Eminem's homophobia is that it leads hundreds of people to throw homophobic slurs at you. As someone who ended up on the receiving end of so much hatred, don't tell me that Eminem's words have no impact on his listeners, or on culture as a whole: I can now attest very personally to the size and strength of Eminem's fan base, and to the power his words have over them.
Whatever Eminem believes in his personal life, he's equally responsible for the work that he puts out into the world — and every time he uses a homophobic insult in his lyrics, he's spreading ugly prejudices to millions and millions of listeners who won't question them. It's not unreasonable to expect better from a man who is routinely held up as one of the most talented and successful rappers of all time — and until he gives us better, he deserves to be called out for it.