Guest writer Marcia Alesan Dawkins’s new book on rapper Eminem, Eminem: The Real Slim Shady is now available. We here at Sounding Out! are thrilled, so for this week’s post we asked Dr. Dawkins to give us a glimpse into a side of the notorious rapper that few may have heard: the intersection between artist and spirituality. This comes just in time too, considering Kanye West’s latest release, Yeezus, not to mention Touré’s recent biography of Prince, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon (2013), which examines the confluence of celebrity and spirituality for a generation of Prince fans. Without further ado, give it up for Dr. Dawkins! Pump it up pump it up pump it up! —Liana M Silva-Ford, Managing Editor
Eminem caught my ear a year before The Slim Shady LP hit record stores in 1999, when I came across a single released by Rawkus Records called “5 Star Generals” (1998) on which he made a guest appearance. I would later learn that this was an old track the rapper recorded for cash while he was unsigned and then forgot. Nevertheless, Em’s first lines about sinning boldly, shooting nuns in Bible class, and damning hell itself hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that lines like his, which were sure to enrage anyone within earshot, would make him (in)famous.
To my surprise, I learned a year later that my 89-year-old Cuban American grandfather, a poet and a reverend, had been listening to Eminem too. This struck me as strange for two reasons. First, my grandfather wasn’t fluent in English. Second, he’d never expressed much interest in rap music other than commenting that he noticed kids rapping in the parks near his house in Hollis, Queens every now and then. Of course, I knew that many of those boom-box-toting kids were now superstars like Run-DMC and LL Cool J, but my Grandfather didn’t.
When I entered the living room to the sound of Slim Shady, my grandfather sat transfixed. After the song ended, I asked him if he knew what he was hearing. Sitting up in his blue La-Z-Boy recliner he said, “I’m listening to some guy who calls himself Eminem. I can tell he’s probably a heathen and I don’t care. I love what he’s doing with his words.” I was shocked. My grandfather went on to tell me that despite the obvious language and experiential barriers that stood between him and Eminem, he was in awe of the way the rapper was using his voice and his words as instruments. What really got me was when my grandfather said that Eminem’s unapologetic tone reminded him of many preachers’ fiery delivery over the years. I could not believe it. Grandpa’s encounter with Eminem was not just sonic. It was spiritual.
Fifteen years later I am still listening for what my grandfather heard. In the process, my ears have been captivated by Eminem’s sonic spirituality, open to its every sound. So open, in fact, that I dedicated three chapters in my forthcoming book to understanding how his music can be seen as a dynamic sphere of spiritual activity in terms of guilt-purification-redemption, love-hate, and relationship-awareness. While paying attention to Eminem’s sonic spirituality began as a personal exercise, it now represents an important part of understanding how spirituality operates culturally and is just like sound: recognizable, uncontainable and elusive.
In other words, I’ve finally understood what my grandfather was trying to tell me — how, rather than simply what, he heard in Eminem’s music. Here’s the revelation: sonic spirituality is a listening attitude, a personalized relationship with music that allows us to mark time, experience the intangible, track movement, engage otherness and, in the end, encounter more honest versions of ourselves. Sonic spirituality, then, might be characterized as open instead of closed, exploratory and experimental rather than static. Eminem’s spiritual themes play out in terms of solidarity with the supernatural, a mistrust of organized religion due to its inherent hypocrisy, a desire for redemption from guilt through purification, and an intense personal battle between love and hate. Following are two potent examples of what I’ve found in Eminem’s oeuvre from 2009’s Relapse: Refill, examples that showcase the development of his sonic spirituality over the decade since my grandfather first introduced it to me.
In “Beautiful” (2009), Eminem poses a powerful question: What would you think if you saw someone important, like a government official or celebrity, digging around in the trash? The answer: you’d probably think that this kind of behavior was suitable for beggars only and certainly not for yourself or someone very important. But this is exactly what the rapper does in “Beautiful.” He looks for himself, others, and their fallen world or Eden (aka Detroit, Michigan) and finds everyone and everything in the garbage. In this way, “Beautiful” is a lovely parable. As with any parable, its objective is to illustrate a moral or a spiritual lesson using a simple human relation. The lesson in this case is looking for something or someone that has been lost. In Eminem’s parable, there are seven ideas expressed about how to find what we have lost and develop our spiritual selves along the way: loss (the starting point of humanity’s spiritual condition), light (a force created through words), movement (standing in another person’s shoes), discovery (finding what’s lost in low places), salvation (anyone can be redeemed), connection (exchange traditional religion for a new culture of communication with the supernatural), and celebration (that everyone can be made beautiful again).
These seven images are evoked by the lyrics and music. The slow and deliberate beat invites listeners to connect the subject and object; the song and themselves, the song and the rapper. The release provided as Eminem sings the chorus doesn’t just change the course of the song, but converts the shared loss into an opportunity for discovery, salvation, connection and celebration. Just as the discovery begins, the drums suddenly increase in volume; the bass and guitar begin to cry out as a background harmony in a major key builds and adds to the intensity. The sounds remind us even if we choose to shield our eyes, we cannot shield our ears from the plight of our fellows and that this is a call to action, salvation and celebration. In “Beautiful” Eminem listeners become aware of others’ oppression while remembering that they are no stronger or more beautiful than anyone else. In this way listeners are engaged not just with the sounds, but also with the spirits of the people who produce them in active relationship.
The experiences and encounters inherent in Eminem’s alternative spiritual portrait, “My Darling” (2009), still emphasize the same spiritual themes I pointed out earlier: personal struggles between light and darkness, finding a purpose in suffering, and seeing a connection between societal and supernatural powers. Only this time, the supernatural power belongs to the Devil. Yet, unlike other songs in which Eminem does battle with the Devil or suffers for his sins through eternal damnation, “My Darling” is about a soul living in hell on earth. In this way, “My Darling” is both a lamentation and a dark parable whose moral complements that of “Beautiful.” Eminem shares this moral in “My Darling” through six ideas about what happens when a person is losing his or her battle with the demons he or she carries inside. These ideas are uncertainty (never being sure about redemption), possession (selling one’s soul), darkness (force maintained by the absence of words), harm (effects of love turning to hate), wholeness (spiritual relationships based on labor and exchange rather than on salvation and forgiveness), and lament (mourning one’s losses of self and loved ones).
As in “Beautiful,” the lyrics and the music evoke spiritual elements. The song is set to a minor key, which communicates penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with the Devil, and echoes with sighs of disappointment, divorce and disillusion. Possession, darkness and harm are communicated through call and response between Eminem and the Devil, who hears and accepts Eminem’s invitation and appears in his mirror where he whispers seductively for Eminem to draw close. The increasing intensity and harm of the spiritual exchange between Mathers and the Devil is reflected in their verbal back-and-forth. Their “souls, minds and bodies” are increasingly connected as they exchange more and more words. And the words become more desperate and cruel. At the end of the song, Eminem submits. Listeners come to understand that Eminem and the Devil are one and whole as the Devil’s final solo becomes the pair’s solemn duet. The two have become one spirit through a relationship of exchange and possession.
The recurrence of spiritual themes in Eminem’s soundscape suggests that music is a way to communicate with the other who is both present and hidden. Sometimes the other is God. Sometimes the other is the Devil. Sometimes the other is other people. Sometimes the other is the other within. The tones, rhythmic patters, key changes, intensity and release patterns combine with Eminem’s lyrics to create an experience within which listeners can be still, in which their souls can take refuge, and the other can be encountered. However, though sonic spirituality exists in Eminem’s music, and rumors abound regarding his “born again” status, it cannot be argued that Eminem adheres to a particular religion. Rather, the sonic spiritual element suggests that Eminem communicates a genuine awareness of supernatural powers, guilt-redemption-purification and love-hate that allows him to relate to the world at large. In this way Eminem is one of many artists whose pop culture content carries a strong spiritual dimension that is sonic, confirming results of Chris Rojek’s study, entitled “Celebrity and Religion,” which argues that “celebrity culture is secular society’s rejoinder to the decline of religion and magic” (393).
As “Beautiful” and “My Darling” demonstrate, the spiritual reflections heard in Eminem’s music are not just harmonic, they are also discordant, revealing how conflicted we often are about ourselves and the supernatural. Just as Eminem walks with God in “Beautiful” and dances with the Devil in “My Darling,” audiences listening to his music are able to escape from their own worlds and find temporary refuge in sonic spirituality. This idea didn’t start with Eminem, or with the Judeo-Christian tradition, as many faiths across time and space utilize the power of music to evoke higher powers and acquire spiritual insight through prayers, storytelling, meditation, chanting, mantras, singing, silent vows, etc. But Eminem has added his own unique touch by using his personas Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers to speak with demonic and godly authority, respectively. As Peter Ward writes in Gods Behaving Badly, the spiritual power of Eminem’s music for audiences lies in its representations of a “conflicted and complex self clothed in the metaphors of the divine and reflected back to us” (107). In other words, sonic spirituality is about engaging with something beyond the world around us while grappling with the personas and situations into which we’re immersed. As the music plays we are challenged to develop a listening heart.
The popularity of Eminem’s music supports the conclusion that his brand of sonic spirituality is set to the same rhythm as the hearts of fans that buy and listen to his messages. But his work can also speak to those who consider themselves spiritually committed, even if that commitment is often not manifested in traditional religious activities. In this way the dynamic nature of sonic spirituality manifests as a way of listening that allows for communication and communion through music and language. If the above is true, then we can take Eminem’s claim, expressed via tweet, that “music has the power to heal” as a spiritual declaration. And we can also take a fan’s response to this tweet as an Amen: “All Eminem songs has [sic] a spiritual connection… you have to have the ear to find that for yourself.”
Featured Image: “Slim Shady” by Flickr user Walt Jabasco, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Marcia Alesan Dawkins, PhD is an award-winning writer, speaker, educator, and lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She is the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (Baylor UP, 2012) and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady (Praeger, 2013).
Marcia writes about racial passing, mixed race identities, media, popular culture, religion and politics for a variety of high-profile publications. She earned her PhD in communication from USC Annenberg, her master’s degrees in humanities from USC and NYU and her bachelor’s degrees in communication arts and honors from Villanova. Contact: www.marciadawkins.com
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The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and the Soundtrack of Desire–Marcia Alesan Dawkins
Last February, Chrysler premiered during the Super Bowl its “Imported From Detroit” campaign with a stunning 2-minute ad that showcased Detroit to the soundtrack of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Helen Freund and David K. Li at The New York Post called Eminem the star of Super Bowl XLV’s ads. MyFOXDetroit.com mentioned how the people of Detroit showed their love for the ad on social media. Jeff Karoub and Mike Householder from The Associated Press said the ad “sent shivers of pride through the battered city.” Although the ads are, ultimately, about cars, they also sell us stories of the Motor City.
The commercial starts with scenes from a grey day in Detroit. We see streets, factories, and street signs. The voice-over helps weave a story of a working-class city: “What does this city know about luxury? What does a town that’s been to Hell and back know about the finer things in life?” From the vantage point of a Chrysler, we see shots of Detroit as it drives through the city and the suburbs. At the end, Eminem, a Detroit native, parks the Chrysler 200 in front of the Fox Theater and walks in to finda choir singing along to “Lose Yourself.” Ultimately, the video is a declaration of pride in American craftsmanship but also a statement of the strong will of an American city with working-class roots; this is emphasized when Eminem looks straight at the camera and states, “This is the motor city. And this is what we do.”
Although I tend to be critical of the messages advertising sends viewers, this commercial drives chills up my spine every time because it shows pride in an American city. However, what moved me to write this post was one of the most recent ads from the “Imported from Detroit” series. The commercial for the Chrysler 300 (2012 model) uses a sample of Bobby Blue Bland‘s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” (Dreamer, 1974) from Jay-Z’s 2001 hit “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” (found on his album The Blueprint). The commercial starts with a panoramic view of Detroit, followed by the Chrysler 300 emerging from an underpass. The camera moves on to shots of different areas of Detroit as well as people on the street and street signs (for example, one of the signs we see is the sign for 8 Mile). Also, whereas most car commercials show cars without license plates, this ad proudly display the cars’ Michigan tags.
The music in both of these ads acts as a way of reminding us about Detroit (the first a song by a Detroit native, the second a song that makes us think about cities), but the music also calls into question the luxurious excess of the automobile. The ads try to draw attention away from the automobiles and toward the working-class community that keeps Chrysler running; they emphasize their ties to the Motor City. However, as Angie Schmitt points out in her blog post “The Hypocrisy of Chrysler’s ‘Imported from Detroit’ Campaign,” the ads betray the viewer:
Chrysler is selective about the Detroit it celebrates. Absent is the ruin that now accounts for a large share of the city. Invisible is the crushing poverty, constantly present in the urban landscape. The driver in the most recent installment, traveling out from the center of Detroit to its suburbs, is in control of his fate (thanks to his snappy ride) in a way few in the region really are.
Despite the defiant sentimentality of its ads, Chrysler, as well, is selective about its commitment to the city of Detroit.
Although the ads are visually stunning (but many of the ads produced by Wieden+Kennedy advertising company are–just look at their roster of clients and click on some of the brands), the ads also stage a conflict between race and class through the soundtrack. What is the message these commercials are trying to communicate through their music and their cars? On the one hand, they affirm the presence and reemergence of an American car company, one of the major car companies that was hit hard in the most recent U.S. recession. On the other hand, the ads use a discourse of class (also race) to sell a luxury product. The commercials want to connect Chrysler to Detroit’s working-class identity, and the soundtrack is supposed to act in service of that through the choices of artists and music.
A good example of this is the John Varvatos “Attitude” ad for Chrysler (less popular than the Eminem ad and the more recent Chrysler 300 ad).
Varvatos is a designer from Detroit, located in New York. The commercial shows us Varvatos at the Dope Jams record store in Brooklyn, on his way to his Manhattan studio. The voiceover tells us the key to his success is that he was “surrounded by the perfect combination of rock and roll and heavy industry.” The working-class theme is emphasized in this commercial, especially in the last line uttered by the narrator: “that’s what a blue collar attitude can do in a white collar world.” (It also creates a dichotomy where New York is the “white collar world” to Detroit’s “blue collar attitude.”) Unfortunately, the ads commodify class struggles and class values. The ads use working-class values to appeal to the consumer.
Music is not far removed from the automobile industry in Detroit. The Motor City not only exports cars, but is also an exporter of music. Suzanne Smith, in her book Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (2000), traces the development of Motown within the sociocultural context of Detroit in the 1960s. She explains how the automobile industry in Detroit benefited from African American labor, meanwhile excluding them from “controlling the means of production” (15). On the other hand, Smith also points out that Motown profited from the introduction of the transistor radio in 1953, for drivers could now listen to music in their cars. Motown execs were very aware of the new market that this would provide them. “Both the musical form and the audio fidelity of Motown hits such as ‘My Girl’ and ‘Shop Around’ were well suited and often produced with a car radio audience in mind” (123). The ads remind us how listening to music has become part of the experience of driving–and how that was not coincidental.
Ultimately, these ads remind us of how sound can act as a door into the social and cultural context surrounding the cars. However, I want to leave my readers with a thought: the ads are also about Detroit. If car ads require, in general, remarkably non-specific setting, Chrysler goes in the opposite direction and makes it all about the location. The ads, although problematic, remind us of the power and importance of place, whether in its Detroit ads or in its Portland, Oregon ad or its Los Angeles ad. If Jay-Z and Bobby Blue Bland sing “ain’t no love in the heart of the city,” these Chrysler ads show that the city has plenty of love to give.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.
“The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself” –bell hooks, quoted by d. Sabela Grimes at Show and Prove, 9.18.10
This past Saturday, I got up before dawn and bussed it into New York City to attend Show and Prove , a conference on “the tensions, contradictions, and possibilities of hip hop studies in practice,” organized by my friend and colleague, Imani Kai Johnson. The conference was excellent—intense, earnest, and busting at the seams with ideas—and was one of the few in recent memory that left me energized and ready to put pen to paper ASAP. In fact, I scratched out the rough draft of these lines in my notebook on the bus ride home, all Eminem 8 Mile-style. So embedded somewhere in my words will inevitably be the thick chug of the engine, the squeaky bounce-bounce of the shocks, the ocean-like roar of (the)17, and the steady tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk of hip hop pumping from my fellow commuter’s earbuds. Across the bus aisle, this secondhand beat called to me and challenged me to think about ways that sound studies can reach across the (inter)disciplinary aisle to hip hop (and vice versa). So that’s where my head’s at right now: what does sound studies bring to hip hop’s platform? And what does hip hop offer in return?
I should say first off that I don’t necessarily see an intellectual conflict between these two fields—although Norma Coates’ 2008 Cinema Journal piece, “Sound Studies: Missing the (Popular) Music for the Screens?” makes a compelling case for institutional turf wars on the horizon between sound studies, media studies, and popular music study writ large—I actually came to sound studies through hip hop, and obviously haven’t left hip hop behind (and neither has Sounding Out!: peep Liana Silva and Scott Poulson-Bryant’s recent posts). Among the many things that hip hop has done for me and to me—personally, socially, and politically—was to open my ears to all sorts of amazing and important sounds, which eventually translated academically into frustration with the limits of popular music study back in the early 2000s. I found many texts that deconstructed hip hop lyrics and visual imagery, parsed MC’s personas, dropped some socio-historical science, and traced capitalist networks like you wouldn’t believe, but when it came down to the constitutive element of the medium itself, the sonic art through which it devoted itself to moving heads, hearts, and butts simultaneously, there was silence (and not because Doug E. Fresh said so).
Outside of Tricia Rose’s landmark chapter on “flow, layering, and rupture” in 1994’s Black Noise, I found precious few texts that were willing or able to engage with the primary way in which hip hop put in work “if not in the word, in the sound” as Frederick Douglass once put it a long time ago. Hip hop was, true to its word, bringing the noise, and traditional music studies wasn’t making meaning of it in even part of the way that hip hop audiences were. To signify on Shante Smalls’s comment at Show and Prove in reference to trying to teach Murs’s “Dark Skinned White Girl” to an NYU class, hip hop sounded to popular music scholars just like a guy talking over some beats—all flattened out. So I strapped on my headphones night after night, trying to fill this void by listening and writing, writing and listening. You can read my early attempts in a discography of Los Angeles hip hop called “Audible Angels” I published online in 2004, in which I tried to capture the sonic signature of each artist I wrote about, integrating it with their vocal style, lyrical themes and historical and regional context. The fact that one of the artists in the discography sent me a remastered version of their record based on some of my commentary not only suggested that I did a halfway decent job, but also that the artists themselves are clamoring for scholars to take their sound as seriously as they do.
Because of the bus, my experience at the conference was shorter than I would have liked, so I can’t remotely claim full coverage (I am especially sorry to have missed Antonio T. Tiongson, Jr.’s talk on Filipino DJs and contemporary U.S. racial formations, which I know would have (re)mixed sound, race, and hip hop, hamster style), so I will have to sample the bits and bytes that I did hear.
In a panel on “Methodology, Pedagogy, and Educational Practice,” M.C. K-Swift talked about the sonic differences between standard English, Black English, and Hip Hop English and what it means to code switch between all three. Johan Söderman discussed similar issues about hip hop in Sweden, especially the way in which hip hop enables marginalized Swedish youth to sound and signify differently in the same language.
In the panel I moderated, “Aesthetic Dimensions of Hip Hop”—in which there were amazing papers by Naomi Bragin on popping in Northern California’s East Bay and Jessica Pabón on the “feminist masculinity” of female graffiti in Brasil, Mexico, and the US—sound was largely a shadow presence, animating limbs, accompanying film, and being punctuated by muscle pops and krylon hisses. Jens Althoff discussed 1970s samples briefly in his talk on the influence of blaxploitation cinema on hip hop but there was really only one paper that explicitly addressed sound, Joshua Bennett ’s “I Love it When You Call Me Big (Poppa).” Bennett used Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” to give an evocative and nuanced reading of the “palpable sense of surplus” in Notorious B.I.G’s voice, the way in which his heavy timbre comes together with his “wheezing undertone” to re-present his corporeal body as superabundant rather than substandard.
Finally, in the afternoon, I was fascinated by Nicole Hodges Persley’s exploration of the sound of cross-racial appropriation both in her paper, “People in Me” and in her performance, in which she used both voice and gesture to represent a white suburban teen, a young Asian graffiti writer from Silverlake, and a Senegalese student drawn to the U.S. by hip hop. Persley raised important questions about who has “the right to talk black” while addressing the pleasures and the politics of using the body as a remixing agent and translator of hip hop, accent, culture and immigrant experience.
So of course I came to Show and Prove eager to take in some talk about sound—and I wouldn’t say I was disappointed. Surprised (slightly) and challenged (totally), but not disappointed. Sound wasn’t as center stage as I expected, but it certainly wasn’t marginalized either. Instead, it was ubiquitous; sound in hip hop studies seems to be taken for granted in the same way that vision is just about everywhere else. Although hip hop is understood to be an audio-visual art, its organizing metaphors are sonic: remixing, sampling, scratching, and Dj-ing all describe sonic phenomena as well as aural frameworks for understanding the world. The way in which hip hop studies take sound for granted presents both a lesson and an opportunity for sound studies.
While I had been hoping to hear more papers that brought the conversation back around to the beat, I felt that all the papers spoke through it, even if the topic reached beyond it to bodily movement, visual culture, theatre, and pedagogy. And that is where I think hip hop studies asks sound studies to step up its game—to take seriously sound’s intersection with the other senses, using sound as a jumping off point and not always a final destination. In Jeff Chang ’s Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip Hop, dancer Rennie Harris described bodily movement as “just the last manifestation of sound,” which blew my mind, because even though sound and motion are so fluidly entangled, we usually talk about them as if they are separate entities.
On the flip side, one of the things that distinguishes sound studies from popular music study is its methodology—the way in which sound is treated as an active process, a way of thinking and being, rather than solely an object of study. And this methodology is what I think sound studies can offer hip hop studies—a sustained conversation on listening in a multiplicity of forms. Listening practices are what knits the different elements of hip hop together, what links artist to producer to audience, sometimes in the very same body at the very same time. What happens when we think of hip hop artists as listeners? What if we viewed them not only as producers of tracks but also of listening practices? Is there such a thing as hip hop listening? If so, what are its ethics and aesthetics? How might hip hop listening practices impact and feed into the various modes of hip-hop performance in music and beyond: dance, cinema, theatre, literature, graphic design?
So, while hip hop studies and sound studies have quite a bit to show and prove to each other, I can’t be the only one eager for the collabo.