I was not convinced he had it in him. But Eminem took the opportunity during the recent BET Awards to reacquaint hip-hop with its core tenets. He free-styled a brutally impassioned topical discourse. And he did so for no personal gain that I can readily ascertain. In fact, the superstar risked alienating a healthy portion of his fan base.
Or maybe not. Perhaps the people Eminem alienated via his elegantly flowing anti-Trump rant were people who don’t listen to hip-hop anyway. Perhaps these are some of the very people who get their knickers all knotted up every year, right around the time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announces its list of nominees for the incoming class, and a rap legend makes the cut.
I'll paraphrase, because I've received so many letters and had so many real-time conversations with folks of this persuasion that I know what's coming before they even start. "Hip Hop is not Rock 'n' Roll, and doesn't belong in the Rock Hall." Yadda Yadda Yadda.
Technically, they're right, I suppose. But unless the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was going to limit itself to a cut-off point of, say, 1965, this was never going to be solely about the strict definition of rock 'n' roll.
At this point, we have jazz, blues, folk, country, singer-songwriter, metal, alternative, pop, progressive rock, funk, soul, R&B and reggae artists in the Hall, none of whom could, strictly speaking, be said to be purveyors of rock 'n' roll. And yet, I've heard very few complaints about any of this.
Once hip-hop got in there, people started freaking out, however. Ask yourself why that might be. Come up with your own answer. Hopefully an honest one.
The backlash against Eminem's "The Storm" was immediate and severe, as one would expect. The man's rage was palpable, and if it crept into the great American living room, it quite likely scared the hell out of a lot of people.
It's my guess that most of the people so offended by Eminem's words didn't catch the initial BET broadcast, however. They likely saw it in snippets, after it had already been digested, decoded and re-contextualized by a partisan talking head of one variety or another. The fact that he is white, not African-American, might have been confusing for them, but the message this white rapper delivered was not.
This vicarious, second-hand mode of interacting with American culture that is so pervasive tells us a lot about the anti-hip-hop mentality. By the time this music is reaching the mainstream via secondary sources, and those who are unfamiliar with the form are fomenting a bit of righteous rage regarding something they quite likely know nothing about, it's already too late.
Hip-hop doesn’t need the approval of people who have never listened to it, and are still leaning on the old "It's not even music, it's just talking and a beat" standard. Hip-hop doesn't need the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, either. What it needs is for a major artist like Eminem to do exactly what he did during the BET broadcast.
Rock once performed the role Eminem inhabited the other night. In the dawning days of the form, your Perry Comos and Pat Boones and even, unfortunately, your Frank Sinatras were railing against rock, claiming it wasn't music at all, but rather, the beat-driven anti-society rantings of a tribe of ruffians out to destroy the country. Sound familiar?
The hard truth is that, with few exceptions, rock and pop have become today's version of Perry Como. And hip-hop is taking over rock 'n' roll's role. At its best, through the work of the genre's finest artists, it's the culture-shaking sound of resistance, rebellion, reinvention and rage. It seeks to speak truth to power. And that is totally rock 'n' roll.