Is Eminem a product of white privilege?

Here’s some food for thought: Dr. Boyce Watkins, a political analyst and social commentator, recently gave an interview in which he stated that Eminem was a product of white privilege.

Speaking to YouTube channel Vlad TV, Dr Watkins spoke about the idea that Em is the “king of rap.”

Watkins said, “Eminem is as true of a lyricist as you’re gonna see,” Watkins said. “And he’s also great because he shows respect to those who came before him. So, he’s not Iggy Azalea or whatever. He’s a guy that I think at the core of his heart, he’s not a wigger, but he’s not a white boy. He’s just who he is.”

Dr Watkins sang Eminem’s praise, but also went on to describe him as “a product of white privilege.”

“I think that Eminem to some extent is a little bit of a product of white privilege for two reasons. One, he does get a little bit of that Elvis effect,” he added. “You’re a white rapper. You’re as good as the black guy. People are gonna love you more because you’re white.”

“The other thing about Eminem that I think is an artifact of white privilege is that Eminem gets something that a lot of black artists don’t get: he gets to be a pure and true artist. Eminem, if you listen to his music, he raps about everything that’s in his soul and in his spirit. There’s not sort of this very programmatic, predictable, continual music that comes from him.”

It’s a really interesting set of points, and I can see where he’s coming from. For starters, I’ll happily admit that Eminem was my first initiation into rap music. It may have been because he received more radio play than most other rappers at that time, sure, but as a little white kid growing up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, I could relate to him more. Not on a lyrical level (I don’t know any pre-teens who can relate to the violent anger of Eminem’s early lyrics,) but I could certainly understand him more than I could some other rappers. I COULD understand the angst and comedy and aggression that Eminem banged on about, far more than any black rapper talking honestly about growing up in the projects or on the streets. The same goes for other white rappers like Beastie Boys.

This goes beyond simply skin tone of course, extending to the context that surrounds it. It’s more a case of what they didn’t rap about, than what they did.

For instance, a lot of the best rap from black rappers, is about black culture, black life, black history. It’s educational if nothing else. I’ve learnt A LOT from listening to rap, learning about the artists and their stories, reading up on their history and the lyrical relevance in their songs.

Eminem is white, and therefore he didn’t rap about black issues. So while I couldn’t necessarily relate to his violent imagery and drug references, I could certainly relate to that more than I could a more specific or culturally-focused rapper. When you’re 11 or 12 years old and you’re living in a white neighbourhood in Australia, chances are you don’t know about gun violence and housing projects and ghettos. Eminem was funny, pop-culture oriented and aggressive. At that age, I could certainly relate more to lyrics about him sitting in a chair next to Christina Aguilera, than a track about Compton. 15 years ago, there’s no way I could’ve even tried understanding something like King Kunta. And with Eminem, I didn’t have to.

I also agree about it being easier for Em to commercialise himself. As a white guy, Eminem isn’t as traditionally constricted to the idea of what a rapper is, as many black rappers are – at least back when he was first emerging. It was far easier, then, to market him to young girls, or to slap on a Rihanna chorus and market him in the pop world too.

I don’t think this is a bad thing or a criticism about Eminem, by the way. He is whoever (he says) he is (if he wasn’t, then why would he say he is…?) Sure, he’s reaped certain benefits, but that’s not to say that black rappers have been less successful. Look at Dre, look at Kanye, look at Jay Z, look at Puff Daddy, look at 50 Cent, look at Birdman, look at Drake. And that’s just a handful.

While I’m not necessarily on board with the idea that Eminem is a product of white privilege, I would certainly agree that Eminem has enjoyed the relative ease of widespread, immense success, that his skin tone has provided him.

Anyway, watch the whole interview here.