Slim Shady: Slim Chances in a Black Art Form

Shannon Thomas

Slim Shady: Slim Chances in a Black Art Form



Marshall Mathers III, more popularly known by his stage-names “Eminem” and “Slim Shady,” is a wayward American. Because he was born into a low-income family, his early life was centered on escaping poverty and he struggled with his own identity as he tried to find a societal niche he could fit into. His father abandoned his family when Marshall was several months old; as a result, his single mother was forced to constantly uproot the family so they could live with various relatives when she was unemployed. This forced Marshall to transfer to different schools every few months and often led to him being bullied in these new schools. He spent much of his teenage years in Detroit, Michigan, where he adopted rap and where his foundations in hip-hop arose. In the part of Detroit where he was raised there were distinct lines between black and white neighborhoods and, oftentimes, racial clashes. It is in this aspect of his life that he would be considered wayward – he embraced the lifestyles and hobbies of his friends who were almost exclusively black. To this extent, he was often an outsider in a world that was predominantly black. For example, whenever he would participate in rap battles in underground clubs, people would exclaim their surprise at the color of his skin by calling him things such as “white boy.” Eventually, he struck a few key record deals and then, with the help of Dr. Dre, rose to fame (and sometimes infamy) in the hip hop world.

Eminem’s waywardness began as a child because he could not fit into any of the schools he was dropped in and, as a result, could not fall into the social norms of the time. His early life was difficult and he was often beat up for simply being the “new kid” at school. A line from one of his songs titled “Beautiful” exemplifies his identity struggle: “I just wanted to fit in in every single place and school I went. I dreamed of being that cool kid even if it meant acting stupid.”

When Marshall and his family finally settled in Detroit, Michigan, he had still been searching for his identity. He soon discovered that he could fit in with his black friends although his skin color set him apart from them. As he grew up, his company reflected his neighborhood; he experimented with rap, a predominantly African-American art form. Rap and hip hop are widely considered African American art forms because of their roots in African traditions and history. For example, rap is often closely compared to the spoken word of the Griots of Africa, who told stories in a rhythmic manner with sparse percussion in the background. Rap and hip hop also have roots in jazz and blues (which are forms of music that were created by the African-American populations of Mississippi, Louisiana, and other Southern states) that include the instrumental tracks and spoken poetry of jazz songs. Just as jazz and blues artists sang of their troubles and hardships, the first rappers such as Tupac Shakur did the same (Hare). 

Eminem’s deviance from the social norms that were dictated by race where he grew up makes him an exemplary wayward American. In Detroit, where he spent his teenage years, there is a street with the name “8 Mile Road,” which served as a rigid barrier between the white suburbs and the black city.

The street in Detroit, Michigan where teenage Marshall Mathers grew up. This symbolic street separated the rich, white Detroit suburbs from the poor, black city.

Teenaged Eminem lived on the black side of 8 Mile Road, and from this location came his integration into the black lifestyle, the most significant aspect of which (to him) was hip hop. In an interview in 2000 (at the age of 28) with Spin magazine, Eminem was asked if being white had really affected the way he saw himself as a rapper. He responded: “In the beginning, the majority of my shows were for all-black crowds, and people would always say, “You’re dope for a white boy…””

Eminem sporting a durag, an article of clothing that was characteristic of
African-American rap and hip hop artists of the 1990’s

Later in life he would go on to question what that meant, and he would take the stand that rendered the race question irrelevant of a person’s own inclinations. In that same interview he was asked a question that would test his maturity and identity as a white performer on an African-American stage: Spin asked him if he had ever wished that he was black. He answered:

“There was a while when I was feeling like, ‘Damn, if I’d just been born black, I would not have to go through all this shit.’ But I’m not ignorant…. Music, in general, is supposed to be universal; people can listen to whatever they want and get something out of it.”

Through his own personal struggle, he encourages young people to be a little wayward themselves: if rich white children enjoy rap music and aspire to become rappers, he states, then they should be able to do so regardless of the social norms of the time.

Eminem’s upbringing in a trailer park and in a low-income area gave him the “ammo” for his music: by being able to rap about how difficult his life was, he could relate to the audiences of the rap battles he partook in. In an interview with Anderson Cooper on the television show 60 Minutes, Eminem describes how he was often put down and insulted in terms of not being successful or even being able to participate in the rap world on the grounds that he was a white person in a black person’s game. He goes on to explain how he used such slight as fuel for his rhymes and lyrics – to show the audience that he was capable of beating his African-American counterparts.

This perseverance and success in the face of adversity allowed him to successfully defy the social norms engulfing the rap genre. Many consider Eminem to be a forerunner in the art of hip hop as an artist of non-black descent; he is often thought of as the most well-known and earliest white artists to succeed in the hip hop world. Eminem believes that the songs that he and others like him create will serve in the end only to further integrate the world. He believes that rap and hip hop are art forms that could bring all the different races of young people a little closer together and lessen the racism that he encountered as a young man. As such an influential wayward American, Eminem has challenged and continues to challenge the social norms of our time, encouraging his listeners to disregard the racism and stereotyping of the past in their lives so that they may, in a sense, be more wayward, like him, so that people can do anything and become anything they wish to be despite what the history of their race in America dictates.

Suggested Readings

Aaron, Charles. “Chocolate on the Inside.” Spin, 2000.

Esling, Isabelle. Eminem and the Detroit Rap Scene: White Kid in a Black Music World. Phoenix, AZ: Colossus, 2012. Print.

Hare, Deborah. “01.03.08: Poems, Prayers, Promises, and Possibilities: The Music of Poetry.”01.03.08: Poems, Prayers, Promises, and Possibilities: The Music of Poetry. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, n.d. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.

Watkins, S. Craig. Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Boston: Beacon, 2005. Print.

This entry was posted by sct45.

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