There have always been two Americas. There is the America that believes in progressivism, equality, and an understanding and acceptance of the United States’ worst transgressions as a country as the blueprint for how we should conduct ourselves moving forward. There is also an America steeped in “traditionalism” and status quo, with an underbelly painted in racism, sexism, patriarchy, and countless forms of bigotry at every turn.
The former is less concerned with the abstract notion of change, and more directed at incremental but constant reform that allows all American citizens the opportunity for a true pursuit of happiness, and not just for the rich, white, and male. The latter is a much more shadowy figure, often disguising itself in the notion of “American tradition,” while aiming to protect the dominance of others over the less privileged. It's a defense mechanism. These two Americas have mostly weaved in and out of each other since birth, each evolving over the years and neither completely disrupting the other.
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States was not just an example of this deep and ingrained dichotomy of American society, but a watershed moment for where, and whom, this culture war was headed. Trump’s America is one built on that very same “traditionalism,” and one that uses coded phrases like “Make America Great Again,” “Blue Lives Matter,” and “Law and Order” to entrench itself within the public eye while serving as a rallying cry for the most ignorant, morally inept, and possibly evil among us. In Trump’s America, the very identity of true American values is at stake, and it has merged sectors of our society—such as sports, entertainment, and music—in ways that challenge how we contextualize their importance.
Hip-hop, specifically, can see that conflict on its horizon.
On Tuesday night, during the BET Hip-Hop Awards, Eminem spit a freestyle in which he spent almost the entirety of his verse going after Donald Trump. It wasn’t the first, the best, or even the most remarkable attack on Donald Trump by a rapper, as everyone from YG, Snoop Dogg, Mac Miller, J. Cole, and JAY-Z have all taken aim at our commander-in-chief. Eminem’s flow was awkward, his cadence sporadic and forced, and even the anger towards Trump he displayed felt devoid of nuance considering his stardom and all that had spoken up before him. Yet, for as unspectacular as his lyrical rant against Trump was, it's important and timely, an encapsulated reminder of the growing divergence between not just hip-hop and Trump, but the “traditionalist” America it has been entangled with for decades.
Hip-hop has never been shy to make political stands and to argue otherwise—as if its growing stance against Trump is new—would be short-sided and wrong. Politics is woven into the very fabric of hip-hop’s tightest strands, with each decade providing examples of black plight and struggle in America. No matter the president in office, rap has always stood as a mostly neutral force that could embrace a president like Obama while condemning one like Bush, without turning a blind eye to issues like racial equality, police brutality, the war on drugs, and countless other topics.
Yet, with Trump, there is nuance found in the way hip-hop is positioned culturally in America compared to where it was even at the beginning of Obama’s first term. Hip-hop isn't just the most popular music genre on the planet, it has been injected into almost every aspect of American culture, from internet memes to advertising campaigns to watching Ellen Degeneres learn how to whip and nae nae on daytime television. While there are arguments to be made that many of the core characteristics of hip-hop have been whitewashed to become more marketable to mass audiences, its voice in everything from corporate America to professional sports is unmistakable. With that has come a political seat at the table, and a power amongst its artists and listeners never yet wielded at this capacity.
However, a prophecy of war against Trump is much less important than the discussion of that power, and the ensuing responsibility that hip-hop now has to understand in order to exist and eventually combat the values of Trump’s America. Trump’s America, to this point, has amplified a nativist agenda that has been present but often overlooked and undervalued, with code words such as walls, order, and respect serving as triggers for white supremacists, even if Trump’s own administration has chosen to deny it. Trump has taken aim at everyone from Colin Kaepernick and NFL players who have chosen to kneel during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, to ESPN’s Jemele Hill, who chose to speak out against Trump.
To Trump, the players (who he referred to as “sons of bitches”) and Hill were “disrespectful” to the country; to many of Trump’s followers, they were black people stepping out of place.
In contrast, hip-hop has always been the serum to the poisonous notion. This stems as far back as Reconstruction and Jim Crow, when black citizens in America were said to be asking for more than they deserved, and that what they were given by a white-dominated society was all that they were due. That type of institutional racism exists at the very core of what hip-hop has always chosen to combat, and as the genre has expanded into virtually every sector of American culture, its ability to fight has only improved.
Hip-hop, with its exponential growth as a movement, has dealt with unfortunate circumstances not far removed from the NFL. It is a black-dominated culture with a very large white fanbase, which is what makes Eminem's freestyle so much more interesting. At one point Eminem raps, “And 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!” It's hard to accurately predict what the actual impact of a statement like that will mean, but the substance of Eminem’s lyrics does represent a multi-dimensional reckoning that reflects upon everyone involved in hip-hop in a Trump America.
For artists, similar to the players protesting in the NFL, it articulates a realization that must be had; if Trump and the values he represents are going to be the enemy, then artists within hip-hop can no longer allow themselves, or their fanbases, to passively interact with what’s happening in this country. Before, evils like white supremacy were hard to understand and contextualize in terms of their size and scope, and while rappers could make political statements against them, the unknown magnitude of such despicable entities allowed the artists—both white and black—to weave in and out of that particular battle. While the number of hip-hop artists speaking out against Trump has only increased, thanks to the 24-hour cycle of social media, figures like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopolous, Steve Bannon, and countless others who have unsheathed the true force and scope of the white supremacist movement, the satisfaction of watching Eminem call Trump “Donald the Bitch” or hearing YG perform “Fuck Donald Trump” is, frankly, short-lived.
For hip-hop, or more specifically its white base, passive interaction with the culture is diminishing at record speed. White listeners, much like myself, have always been guests in hip-hop, and with that has come a very particular component of white privilege. White hip-hop fans have always had the privilege of acknowledging and appreciating the political stances of their favorite black and Hispanic artists, without actually having to contribute to the cause. Fans, much like myself, can admire Kanye West’s sentiments about George Bush not caring about black people, or albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, while also having the luxury of walking away from those discomforting truths of being a person of color in America whenever we please. It's a privilege that allows us to chant along with songs like “Fuck Tha Police” or lines like “We gon' be alright” without having to actively combat police brutality or understand who the “we” in that particular line should actually signify.
It’s a political compartmentalization that, with the full weight of white supremacy pressing on the throat of American values, can no longer continue to happen if hip-hop is to maintain its growing power. That isn’t to say that white people hold the keys to hip-hop’s future, but it is to say that white passivity and indifference may bring unprecedented detriment to a culture that white America chose to adopt on its own terms. As can be seen in the NFL, the two Americas have been unearthed by those on both sides, and statements made like the one delivered by Eminem only proves that hip-hop is dealing with much of the same identity crisis.
Yet, hip-hop’s role and increasing responsibility in Trump’s America don't end at only racial conflict. One of hip-hop’s biggest upcoming challenges is its reckoning with the characteristics that it actually shares with those like Trump. For as much of an enemy as both hip-hop artists and many of its fans want to make Trump, the misogyny and bigotry on display when it comes to sexual orientation are present on both sides.
Many of Trump’s biggest evils have involved his treatment of women, his initiatives to remove people of different sexual orientations from institutions like the military, and countless other atrocities ranging from carelessness to outright hate speech. Hip-hop has always shared a large number of those same atrocities, with many of its most prominent artists often depicting women, especially black women, in an unfavorable light. This has been a systemic hypocrisy in rap music that, as it grows, only seems to show its face even more. While artists like J. Cole, YG, and Eminem have taken an outright stance against Trump, with Cole and Em even throwing clear support behind those like Kaepernick, you'd be hard-pressed to find a rapper that either doesn’t have a problematic, unrectified past with their depiction of women, people of different sexual orientations, or both, or a negligence to address those issues at all.
These systemic issues are why artists like XXXtentacion continues to receive praise from fans and artists like Kendrick Lamar while the pregnant girlfriend who he allegedly beat multiple times is often treated like an afterthought. They are why artists like Chris Brown continue to be massively successful despite every inclination that they are undeserving of our time and money. It is a systemic failure of equality that stops at neither the artists nor the fans, and as hip-hop continues to neglect its own shortcomings, it continues to possess many of the same atrocities that exist within Trump's ideologies.
As Trump’s agenda continues to push forth a sexist, and culturally-enclosed vision for America, rappers and fans alike, those much like myself, have to ask ourselves what exactly separates us from that vision and what can we do to progress. Although a statement like Eminem’s seems powerful at the moment, its ultimate effect is dependent upon how far removed an artist like himself chooses to be from every aspect of Trump’s America, and not just the ones that seem the most obvious or convenient.
Moving forward, the role and responsibility of hip-hop will be complicated and tumultuous. It is simultaneously an entity that cannot exist alongside many of the ideologies pushed by Trump and those pushing for a “traditional,” regressive America, and one that has progressed to a point where many of its own skeletons line up with those same, regressive values. As a social movement, hip-hop will undoubtedly do battle with the America that Donald Trump envisions. That fight will be between artists and fans, as well as hip-hop’s most privileged listeners who will no longer be shielded from the discomfort enmeshed in the music they love.
The real dilemma remains, however, with how much hip-hop culture is truly willing to understand and change in order to fight against Trump.