From sinner to saint

Once reviled, now acclaimed, Eminem has become the planet's biggest music star. As praise for his new movie rolls in, will the man who unites black and white America be able to keep his cutting edge?

George Bush called him 'the most dangerous threat to American children since polio'. For the past few years, he has been the bête noire of the Right and the Left alike, a performer with a talent for provoking that is as finely honed as his skill in shifting units. With songs like 'The Real Slim Shady', 'Kill You' and 'White American', he has earned the vilification of politicians, parents and teachers alike, while simultaneously becoming the most idolised figure in contemporary pop music. Right now, he is not just the biggest rapper in America, but the biggest pop star on the planet. He is Marshall Mathers II aka Slim Shady aka Eminem, and he is coming to a neighbourhood near you real soon.

Next week, the film 8 Mile opens in cinemas across Britain. It stars Eminem as Jimmy Smith Junior, a slight variation on his real self. Ironically, Eminem's entrée into the mainstream occurs right at the moment when rap music, his chosen form, is being censured on these shores for promoting what Culture Minister Kim Howells last week called 'a culture where killing is almost a fashion accessory'. Rappers, according to Howells, were 'boasting macho idiots', which, by extension, makes the world's biggest rapper the most boastful macho idiot. Eminem would no doubt agree with all but the last part of that triple billing.

But hip hop is also, despite Howells's patronising and potentially racist dismissal, an American art form, as potent as film or fiction, which currently communicates with a huge constituency way beyond the reach of most novels or all but the successful movies. If that form has a poet laureate, a voice that speaks off and from the streets, and connects with that huge audience like no other, it is Eminem. Revealingly, and some would say problematically, hip hop's biggest star is white. Like Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger before him, he has adopted - and adapted - a black form, earning, in the process, the kind of global celebrity - and infamy - his black contemporaries can only dream of (true to form, he has anticipated and deflected any colour-coded criticism in rhyme: 'I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/ To do black music so selfishly/ And use it to get myself wealthy'). Cultural appropriation, though, is not the main issue in the complex problematics of Eminem.

'We are long past the point in American culture where anyone can hold the copyright on anything in terms of authenticity,' says Paul Gilroy, professor of sociology and Afro-American studies at Yale University, and author of Ain't No Black in the Union Jack . 'Everyone is being paid in full now. There's a different debate today than the old one about whites appropriating black culture, and it revolves around the notion that what makes something like rap especially Afro-American is also what makes it especially American. That's a complex dynamic. In a country that is still, to all intents and purposes, segregated, you could argue that one of the most profound aspects of Eminem's huge crossover success is that white America is a whole lot blacker than it thought it was.'

That, for American conservatives, might well be one of the more uncomfortable, if seldom voiced, subtexts of Eminem's celebrity. Ironically, as Kim Howells's kneejerk dismissal of rap made the headlines last week, the British media were gearing up for the latest chapter in the continuing saga of the man formerly known as Marshall Mathers III, a name as stately and grandiose as his pseudonym - a play on his favourite brand of sweets - is catchy and disposable.

8 Mile is a musical of sorts, an old-fashioned, redemptive narrative about a young man's struggle to escape his grim blue-collar surroundings by making it as a rapper. It is obviously autobiographical and, like West Side Story and Saturday Night Fever before it, illustrates the enduring mythology of the American Dream. Eminem, though, is a young man who has found fame not by evoking the myth of the American Dream, but by describing, often in graphic detail, the reality of a relatively unarticulated American nightmare: the dark underbelly of the same poor, white, urban America that Michael Moore exposes on film. It is not overstating the case to say that Eminem is as reflective of his time as Bob Dylan was of his; and, in his own way, just as trenchant a social commentator.

'I'd say that Eminem is one of America's more acute social critics right now,' says Gilroy. 'He is one of the few voices that is telling the truth about the implosion of white family life in America. Everything he says runs contrary to the all-American mythology of Mom and Pop and the happy children that Bush still propagates. And he speaks directly to all those other kids who are the product of broken homes, domestic violence and parental neglect. Those images are there in all his videos, in the anger of his lyrics. Eminem is the bard of the destruction of the all-American family.'

For precisely that reason, he is also the most problematic pop star of our time, a deeply troubled, and troubling, figure who alerts us, like the shootings in Columbine, to just how discontented, dysfunctional and prone to murderous rage some young, white alienated Americans are. His songs are fuelled by anger and hate, often towards women and gays, as much as any sense of social protest.

And what antagonises his critics most is the way in which he seems to revel in that anger and hate. On the now infamous The Marshall Mathers LP, where he created his alter ego, Slim Shady, to vent his murderous feelings, he fantasised about murdering his estranged wife and dumping her body in a lake, with the help of his infant daughter, whose actual voice, God help us, appeared on the gleeful chorus. This was as hardcore and, many argued, as wilfully irresponsible, as pop music gets. Some, like Percival Everett, black American author and professor of English at the University of Southern California, view him not as a social critic but as an ignorant reactionary.

'If Eminem s music and lyrics are any indication of his intelligence, then I am mystified,' Everett says. 'The man is too dumb to be radical, too derivative to be threatening and too predictable to be seminal. The sad thing is that an untalented, homophobic man who abuses and hates women should be popular at all.'

That is a view shared not just by the Right but by many liberal parents who have found that Eminem's music has a particular fascination for not just impressionable teenagers but youngsters more usually drawn to the harmless inanities of manufactured pop puppets. The only thing more disturbing than horror-show violence, misogyny and homophobia, it seems, is horror-show violence, misogyny and homophobia welded to the most compulsive beats and pop melodies in contemporary music. The hysteria around Eminem's lyrics reached a climax of sorts with the release of The Marshall Mathers LP, when he managed to unite in disapproval the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ('the most blatantly offensive homophobic lyrics we have ever heard'), the Sun ('it promotes torture, incest, murder, rape and armed robbery'), and Christine Aguilera, who was targeted in typically offensive fashion in the line: 'I'll show the world how you gave me VD'. The Osmonds' Family Christmas Album this wasn't.

With producer Dr Dre at the helm, though, Eminem's songs possess a pop sensibility that is currently second to none. It is there in the wonderful rhyming schemes, the taut melodies, and the flowing, often involved, lyrical wordplay that reached an apogee of sorts in 'Stan', a song delivered in the voice of an obsessive fan who ends up committing suicide when the object of his devotion does not return his affection. Having exposed the dark heart of American suburban society, Eminem cast a similarly cold eye, and keen intelligence, on celebrity culture.

Almost simultaneously, though, that same celebrity was wreaking havoc on his personal life. After being torn to shreds verbally throughout the Slim Shady album, his long-suffering mother sued him for 'emotional distress' to the tune of £7 million. (She was awarded £1,000.) In one volatile week in 2000, he was arrested for waving a gun at a rival rap posse, and for pistol-whipping a man he thought had been kissing his now estranged wife, Kim, in the car park of a Detroit club.

In performance, he had taken to dragging a blow-up doll on stage and stabbing it repeatedly with a knife while singing the aforementioned 'Kim', which ends with the lyric: 'Bleed, bitch, bleed.' Their turbulent on-off romance ended messily after she attempted suicide by slitting her wrists in July 2000 (Eminem is also believed to have twice attempted suicide). With each outrage, his ascendancy has continued apace, the ire he fuels in his detractors only shoring up his iconic status among his devoted audience.

Two years is a long time in pop music, though. Enough time for opinions to change, for yesterday's anti-hero to metamorphose into tomorrow's lovable role model. Ask Mick Jagger. Ask Ozzy Osbourne. And so it is that Eminem suddenly seems to be undergoing a rehabilitation of sorts in the same media that once called for his lyrics to be censored, his records and concerts to be banned. Recently, the New York Times ran an 8,000-word essay by its august cultural critic, Frank Rich, reappraising the unrepentant rapper's cultural impact. His name was invoked more than once last week in the debate about rap and violence, but there was an air of going through about it all. Perhaps he is now simply too big, too mainstream, to be the kind of easy target he was when his music was new and potent and effortlessly provocative. Whatever, with the release of 8 Mile, the man that American critics are calling 'the new James Dean' has proved himself to be not just a pretty face and a foul mouth, but an actor of some skill and credibility. In the process, his unstoppable global ascendancy continues apace.

Born Marshall Mathers III, to a 22- year-old father and a 15-year-old mother, Debbie Mathers-Briggs, he grew up in the deprived suburbs of east Detroit, a landscape that, in Curtis Hanson's film, looks like the most forlorn place on earth. His early life was unsettled, his ill-matched parents playing in a band called the Daddy Warbucks which toured the Ramada Inn cabaret circuit. When his father split to California, the pre-pubescent Marshall and his mother settled in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Detroit, and there his half-brother, Nathan, was born in 1986. Bullied at school and beaten up by local hoods for being white, the young Marshall ironically found solace of sorts in the rap music played on the local black radio stations. Later, he would write 'Brain Damage', a graphic recreation of a beating by a school bully that caused cerebral damage and put him in a coma for five days.

While his mother attended bingo, he sat at home writing down rhymes which he then tested on the audience for the local rap contests at the nearby Osbourne High School. At the weekends, accompanied by his fellow rapper, who traded under the name Proof, he attended open mic contests at a local record store, the Hip Hop Shop. 'It was like White Men Can't Jump,' Proof told Rolling Stone magazine in 1999. 'Everybody thought he'd be easy to beat and they'd get smoked every time.' From the off, though, his colour was an issue. Rap, at street level, is the most brutally competitive of music forms and, time after time, his rivals would call him out for being white.

One of Paul Gilroy's students at Yale remembers witnessing a local rap throw-down in which Eminem was defeated 'despite easily being the best rapper'. (The student supposedly told him: 'If you can't make being a white rapper work for you, you should retire right now.') What worked for him ultimately was his sense of grievance at not being taken seriously. 'The rhymes I wrote got angrier and angrier,' he told Rolling Stone. 'A lot of it was because of the feedback I got... "You're a white boy, what the fuck you rapping for? Why don't you go into rock and roll?" All that type of shit started pissin' me off.' He has been pissed off ever since.

Some of the most evocative scenes in 8 Mile draw on Eminem's early grounding in these local Detroit hip-hop battles. The nearest analogy is the boxing ring, with words rather than punches being exchanged, and with all the same kind of ritualised male camaraderie, machismo, and latent homo-eroticism that attends the fight game on display in the rap arena. One of the most surprising elements of screenwriter Scott Silver's hard-edged narrative is just how central he makes the issue of race. It resounds through the story louder even than the brutal beats that punctuate the tale. Each of the black rappers that Jimmy goes head-to-head with on the cramped stage of the Shelter club homes in on his colour, employing a whole host of coded epithets to disrespect him, including 'wigger' (wannabe nigger) and Vanilla Ice (the pseudonym of another, altogether less talented white rapper whose rhymes were as asinine as his name). The one word more they use more than any other, though, is 'Elvis'.

In real life, none of this mattered to the man without whom Eminem would have almost certainly remained another angry loser who could have been a contender. He was discovered at one such rap contest by Dr Dre, the most influential producer in recent hip-hop history. Dre had already orchestrated the original gangsta rap sound of west coast rap crew Niggaz With Attitude - their biggest hit was called 'Fuck the Police' - and later, the often crude and puerile sexual fantasies of Snoop Doggy Dogg, and thus was no stranger to controversy. When he first saw Eminem perform, he recalled later, it was 'some very awkward shit... like seeing a black guy doing country and western'. He nevertheless saw talent where others saw only front, adding: 'I don't give a fuck if you're purple. If you can kick it, I'm working with you.' Eminem, as events have proven, could kick it with the best of them. The rest is history.

In the pale, baby-face of Marshall Mathers III, America sees itself in stark relief. If he embodies the American Dream - you, too, can be pop president of the United States - he is also a mirror, reflecting back all the scars of race, class and poverty that continue to disfigure that dream. In his shrill, brattish whine, and his wilfully offensive lyrics, he embodies all the simmering anger and discontent of that vast, relatively unseen continent that is poor, white America.

What really distinguishes him from his black peers and contemporaries is not his colour so much as his subject matter. No black rapper, however badass, however steeped in real-life gangster culture, however messed by his upbringing, would write a lyric disrespecting his own mother, would perform a song as driven by familial hatred as the recent hit 'Cleaning Out My Closet'. Here is a taste: 'You're getting older now/ And it's cold when you're lonely/ And Nathan's growing up so quick he gonna know you're a phoney/ And Haile's getting so big now can't you see that she's beautiful/ But you'll never see her, she won't even be at your funeral [Ha Ha]_ you selfish bitch, I hope you burn in hell for this shit.'

It's a song that is chilling in its vengeful conviction, disturbing in its attack on all we hold sacred about the ties that bind, about family and bloodlines, and the sanctity of filial relationships. (Though there is something vulnerable in his recent admission that he records separate 'clean' versions of his songs for his beloved daughter, Haile.) It is also an indictment of an American society that has let those ideals of family and belonging fall into such disrepair. And, whatever else it is, it's real; it evinces real rage, real pain. As such, and no doubt to his disgust, Eminem has more in common with Kurt Cobain than Ice Cube. In a form that sets so much store by 'being real' and, paradoxically, indulges in so much empty posturing, Eminem is an exception in more ways than one. It is not the whiteness of his skin that should concern us, though, but the black, bottomless depth of his rage. He is telling us something we may not want to hear, in words we might not approve of, but he is telling us some kind of truth.

It will be interesting to see if he can succeed where Presley and Jagger failed - where poor, doomed Cobain couldn't bear to fail - and win the approval of the mainstream without losing his voice.

Word up

I am the ringleader of this circus of worthless pawns, sent to lead the march right up to the steps of Congress, and piss on the lawns of the White House, to burn the casket and replace it with a parental advisory sticker, to spit liquor in the faces of in this democracy of hypocrisy, fuck you Ms. Cheney, fuck you Tipper Gore, fuck you with the freest of speech this divided states of embarassment will allow me to have, fuck you, he, hahaha, I'm just playin' America, you know I love you... © Eminem


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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