Eminem’s anti-Trump rap, deconstructed

What the rapper meant in his freestyle attack on the president – and what it says about the culture war raging in America.

Eminem’s freestyle rap about Donald Trump, which aired earlier this week during the BET Hip Hop Awards, is something of a curiosity. In some ways the performance is vintage Eminem – searing, rage-fuelled and packed with ingenious lyrics that highlight the absurdity and moral bankruptcy of the incumbent president.

In other ways it’s strange to see a figure like Eminem deliver what ultimately amounts to a rather conventional critique of Trump. At the peak of his career in the late 90s and early noughties the rapper was the scourge of middle-class liberal America – an arch controversialist who delighted in attacking politically correct sensibilities about everything from sex to gun violence.

With this freestyle performance he stands shoulder to shoulder with the people he once mocked in order to condemn the new, much more powerful provocateur occupying the White House. It reveals the extent to which Trump has divided America into two binary camps – for or against the president.

Protests against injustice are to be welcomed, of course, particularly when expressed in a creative way that resonates far and wide. But Eminem’s intervention should also be seen as an intensification of the existing culture war in America, and the heightening of rage and division.

It is worth having a closer look at some of the key lines in the rap to better understand its deeper meaning.

Obama nostalgia

we better give Obama props

‘Cause what we got in office now’s a kamikaze

That’ll probably cause a nuclear holocaust

And while the drama pops

And he waits for shit to quiet down, he’ll just gas his plane up and fly around ’til the bombing stops

Early in the rap Eminem broaches the idea that to oppose Trump is also to support what came before in the form of Barack Obama. It reflects the general sense of nostalgia for the Obama presidency among most Trump opponents, who have been so disturbed by the current reality – such as the threat of nuclear war – that they crave the steady hand of the former Democratic president. That’s logical, but in some cases it has led Trump opponents to conveniently forget many of the deep-rooted and systemic problems that were present during the Obama era and that arguably contributed to Trump’s ascendancy, from economic inequalities to endemic racism.

Tired of Twitter

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

Here Eminem’s freestyle frames a series of different criticisms of Trump in a brilliantly concise way. The point has been made plenty of times by other critics that Trump uses Twitter as a way of controlling the news headlines and distracting attention away from other issues. In two lines Eminem highlights this pernicious strategy with regards to Trump’s current attacks on NFL players who have made silent protests during the pre-game national anthem. Trump’s decision to focus on this issue has coincided with his failure to take substantive action in response to the Puerto Rico hurricane crisis and the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week.

Racism in all its forms

From his endorsement of Bannon

Support for the Klansmen

Tiki torches in hand for the soldier that’s black

And comes home from Iraq

And is still told to go back to Africa

In one of the best sequences in the rap, Eminem brings together many of the racial tensions that have boiled to the surface since Trump became president. It begins with a name-check for Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser and editor of the alt-right website Breitbart. Then Eminem goes on to directly reference the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia in August when alt-right sympathisers assembled at night carrying tiki torches in an apparent imitation of the Ku Klux Klan. The reference to the treatment of returning black soldiers seems particularly pointed given that Trump famously avoided army duty during the Vietnam War.

Solidarity with Kaepernick

This is for Colin, ball up a fist!

And keep that shit balled like Donald the bitch!

‘He’s gonna get rid of all immigrants!’

‘He’s gonna build that thang up taller than this!’

The Colin here is Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started kneeling during the national anthem last year to draw attention to racism and police brutality. Kaepernick has become a symbol of resistance for many anti-Trump protesters, with his actions sparking wider protests by other athletes across American sports. In the following lines Eminem mocks the accent of a person from the deep south of America – a startling moment that adds to the sense that the country is dividing not just on political lines, but geographic ones too.

A line in the sand

any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his

I’m drawing in the sand a line: you’re either for or against

And if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split

On who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this:

Fuck you!

The rest of America stand up

We love our military, and we love our country

But we fucking hate Trump

Here that division is made explicit as Eminem challenges his fans to choose between himself and Trump. It’s an incredible ultimatum – and one that confirms the idea that America is now a nation openly at war with itself.

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