Tuesday night during the BET Hip Hop Awards, Eminem essentially initiated a rap battle with President Trump. He also, as he put it, “drew a line in the sand” for anyone who loves his music: You can’t be a Trump supporter and an Eminem fan.
Eminem’s video was part of a BET tradition: the Cypher, a pre-recorded freestyle performance by a rapper that airs during the network’s annual awards ceremony. Introduced as “The Storm” and filmed in a Detroit parking garage, the video went viral before the show was even over. (Eminem grew up in Detroit; it’s a tradition in rap to go back to the streets that made you.)
In the video, Eminem, dressed in a black hoodie and flanked by a line of black men, rips President Trump apart. In the four-minute clip, he calls out Trump for his “support for the Klansmen” and criticizes him for starting Twitter wars with athletes instead of paying attention to natural disasters.
The fact we’re not afraid of Trump
F**k walkin’ on egg shells, I came to stomp
That’s why he keeps screamin’ ‘Drain the swamp’
‘Cause he’s in quicksand
It’s like we take a step forwards, then backwards
But this is his form of distraction
Plus, he gets an enormous reaction
When he attacks the NFL so we focus on that
Instead of talking Puerto Rico or gun reform for Nevada
All these horrible tragedies and he’s bored and would rather
Cause a Twitter storm with the Packers.
Then the freestyle shifts its focus from Trump to Trump’s followers:
Tiki torches in hand for the soldier that’s black
And comes home from Iraq
And is still told to go back to Africa
Fork and a dagger in this racist 94-year-old grandpa
Who keeps ignorin’ our past historical, deplorable factors
Now if you’re a black athlete, you’re a spoiled little brat for
Tryna use your platform, or your stature
To try to give those a voice who don’t have one
He says, “You’re spittin’ in the face of vets who fought for us, you bastards!”
And then comes the kicker: Eminem doesn’t want any fans who support President Trump. “To all my Trump supporting fans, I’m drawing a line in the sand,” he raps. “You’re either for or against.”
While for some artists this might not be a major statement, Eminem is the most popular artist in a heap of red states, including Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Eminem knows a significant contingent of his fan base put Trump in office. BET is a major platform; he’s not wasting it here. He’s showing that he’s serious — and not afraid of risking losing support from his fans in conservative swaths of the country.
This anti-Trump stance may seem a little out of character. It’s not as if Eminem is famous for his progressive politics; his songs are infamously filled with dark references to his ex-wife and graphic descriptions of fantasies involving violence against his mother.
But close listeners will recognize a through-line: Eminem has been mocking, analyzing, and criticizing the ideology for which Trump stands for years.
Take “White America,” from his album The Eminem Show released back in 2002, less than a year after 9/11 and in the midst of George W. Bush’s presidency. In the song, Eminem paints the United States from his point of view: a divided nation tinted in hypocrisy that leaves a white rapper feeling on the fringe. Pressure to appear patriotic was high, yet Eminem saw it necessary to call out Washington — he cites Ms. Cheney and mocks freedom of speech. The song’s name and content also demonstrate that Eminem was increasingly aware of his whiteness and his white fans, and wouldn’t hesitate to unpack the privilege this afforded him.
So he addresses misunderstood and lost, young, white men in songs like “The Way I Am,” released in 2000. But at the same time as he empathizes with these boys, he challenges and questions their behavior, and what he perceives as the failure of their parents to take responsibility for how they’re raising their sons:
When a dude’s getting bullied and shoots up his school
And they blame it on Marilyn /and the heroin
Where were the parents at? And look where it’s at!
Middle America, now it’s a tragedy
Now it’s so sad to see.
This character — a frustrated, young, white man fuming in his parents’ basement — is at the center of “Stan,” a eulogy of a rap song that chronicles the growing anxiety and rage of an Eminem superfan who finally snaps, taking his own life. In the song, Eminem ultimately responds. But it’s too late.
This narrative continues with “The Storm,” the urgency stronger as the stakes have gotten as high as the presidency.
Many of the same people who saw themselves in Eminem’s music are drawn in by Trump’s promise to make America great again (for white dudes). But instead of shirk away from this complicated truth, Eminem put it on blast. The overlap between Eminem’s fans and Trump’s supporters is clear to the rapper. And it’s one he can no longer tolerate.