Each year, the BET Hip Hop Awards breaks away from its ceremony to showcase a number of cyphers, mostly between rising artists, though established ones are occasionally given the floor as well. At the 2017 Awards last night, some of the best efforts came from South Central Dreamville signee Cozz, London’s Little Simz, and native Atlanta standouts Cyhi The Prince and J.I.D.. But the bulk of conversation around Tuesday’s cyphers has been about Eminem’s attention-grabbing, politically-charged freestyle.
Em’s appearance was rightfully anticipated with excitement. By most followers of rap, he’s lauded as one of the all-time greats for his lyrical prowess and serving as a pioneering lens into the poor, white American story. For the cyphers, artists are usually pulled together in small groups under some overarching theme. Last night’s included a Young Miami cypher, Fire Femcees, and Young Spittaz. But Em was given a special, stand alone “cypher,” devoid of a backing beat and he dedicated the whole four minutes to disavowing current president, Donald Trump.
He used his time to rap about Trump’s neglect of Puerto Rico, fixation with NFL protests, and the orange tint of his skin. In the way that most pressing topics circulate in an endless continuum online, praise and criticism started to flow in all over social media. The praise mostly focused on the bravery it took for Eminem to speak out and his status as an ally to the black community was paraded throughout the night. Political writer Keith Olbermann went as far as to say that the Detroit rapper’s takedown was the best political writing of 2017 and was enough to dispel his “27 years of doubts about rap.” The Colin Kaepernick-funded Know Your Rights Camp tweeted “no words. All we can say is THANK YOU.” And in an Instagram video post, Snoop Dogg cracked a proud grin before saying,“Eminem, I always knew you was a real nigga.”
Such reactions are bothersome and dangerous on many levels.
For starters, the actual rapping Eminem did was shaky at best. In skill, the aforementioned artists’ efforts were considerably more impressive and engaging. The bulk of Em’s freestyle sounded like a glorified and tired coffee shop spoken word performance. The talky pace of his raps was an anticlimactic downturn from what the rest of the night offered, though some were in favor of the switch. What most people that are deeming his freestyle as an amazing feat are mesmerized by is Eminem being a white man—the group most associated with this country’s racist legacy—speaking out against the nation’s most overtly racist president in generations. That is not even remotely groundbreaking.
Black artists are rarely celebrated this way. When black creatives and public figures are not political in their work, they are often considered disengaged from the real issues plaguing their communities, if not money-hungry and negligent sellouts altogether. When they do speak out, they are marked as divisive shit-starters by conservatives and whites who’d rather go about their regularly scheduled lives than to consider the day-to-day struggles another group of people experiences. Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl performance was unfairly labeled as anti-police. YG’s “FDT” received threats from the Secret Service. Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 BET Awards performance was interpreted as hateful as well. There is no win-win situation for blacks on this front. In 2017, if outspoken blacks have big enough platforms, they may even get an unfavorable tweet from the President.
Eminem’s Trump takedown had no real risk. He won’t lose any money. His employer will not drop him. He won’t be pressured into apologizing. He won’t be labeled as a “black identity extremist.” And without any of those real risks being plausible results of last night’s cypher, how radical is it really?
What Eminem said—and didn’t say—during his freestyle is also the typically questionable, white-liberal, generic-progressive jargon. Not once in his four-minute commentary did he mention a non-Trump threat to non-white Americans, which completely misses the mark of pointing out the root of this country’s issues. He did manage to stress, “we better give Obama props” under a minute into the freestyle, though—a running post-Trump inside joke for black Americans of white Americans’ reactionary politics. Something that many white Americans still don’t seem to understand is that the country was in a state of racial crisis long before November 8, 2016, and it was during Obama’s presidency that we were exposed to the execution of an unarmed black person at the hands of police on almost a weekly basis.
Moreover, two consistently and conveniently demonized movements—Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest—were started during Barack Obama’s presidency. And since Trump has replaced him, he’s made it a top priority to target any black person in support of these movements. On Monday morning, after ESPN suspended black sportscaster Jemele Hill for her continued disapproval of the president and policies being created by NFL teams to prevent anthem protests, he tweeted that Hill’s big mouth was the reason for ESPN’s poor ratings. This is after he called NFL players who protested the anthem “sons of bitches.” What Trump hasn’t done is call Eminem out for last night’s cypher—another sign of its low stakes.
The excitement over Eminem’s freestyle is not unfounded. In a country that does its best to make irrational whiners out of any black person urging to be treated equal to other groups, it can be nice to know that someone from the group that does this framing the most has some form of sensitivity. That appreciation also tends to be heightened when that person, like Eminem, had a disadvantaged upbringing. And he did issue a “fuck you” to any of his own fans that support Trump. But we should not be parading, thanking, or granting blackness to someone for being a decent human being, even if we’re not used to being treated with decency. In the current struggle against racial injustice in this country, we do need as many voices as possible from as many supportive communities as possible. But we don’t need a white savior.
Lawrence Burney is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.