Poor White Blight: How Rapper Yelawolf (and Eminem Before Him) Turns Hip-Hop's Eye to the Trailer Park
Photo Credit: Interscope Records
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Trailer parks are more American than apple pie. (The English invented that.) The trailer park, populated by mobile homes, has its roots not in its mobility, but in its birthplace: Mobile, Alabama. At their outset, mobile homes helped a flood of GIs get affordable housing without enduring a lengthy construction time. Now, the mobile home and trailer parks have become another way to say poor.
The rapper Yelawolf, another product of Alabama, is lately adding to the American vernacular for destitution. Yelawolf is a lanky white rapper with an elevated verbal flow. He raps with vivid concision and celerity. He distinguished himself with an artistically accomplished 2010 that saw the release of an inspired mixtape, Trunk Muzik. In 2011, Yelawolf was on the cover of XXL and found himself signed to a major label, by Eminem himself.
Eminem is, of course, the controversial rapper who, after receiving Dr. Dre’s blessing, used his considerable wit, talent, and skill to sell millions of albums. The most compelling thing about Eminem, though, is that this is just one iteration of him; he’s also the deeply misogynistic homophobe who brought hip-hop’s radio-unfriendly politics into suburban homes; he’s also the best rapper alive; he’s also a symbol for poor white America, hailing from Detroit, one of America’s most deeply fucked up cities.
Eminem’s multi-faceted presentation has made him something greater than just a great rapper. Consider fellow Detroiters Insane Clown Posse. While no one would claim they’re great rappers, they have inspired a great following by trading on similar personal politics. This past year marked something of a critical mass for the group; they recorded a one-off single with Jack White, a certified Real Musician. Their annual music festival the Gathering of the Juggalos got written up in Deadspin and the highbrow leftist journal n+1. ( I found this latter essay particularly ignominious.)
Unifying virtually all media coverage of the Gathering of the Juggalos is a faux-naive, wide-eyed gawking at the types and varieties of overweight, destitute, fucked up (on drugs and alcohol) white trash. Almost every commenter on the Gathering seems to miss the point that it’s not just Juggalos, but simply most of America that’s overweight, destitute and fucked up (on drugs and alcohol). Or, in the only slightly self-aware words of Kent Russell, "If you’re white in this country, it’s taken for granted that you’re part of We." The music of Eminem, Insane Clown Posse and Yelawolf is a huge middle finger to that notion.
A white rapper is an odd sort of creature. A brief survey of the media tells us that, culturally speaking, there’s no higher accomplishment in America than being a white entertainer. Unless, that is, you’re a rapper: there’s a line of embarrassment spanning generations from Marky Mark, Vanilla Ice and Snow to Tommy Hilfiger’s kid, Tom Hanks’ kid and Bob Dylan’s grandkid. Apparently, it’s still too soon for rap to have its "stealing from Robert Johnson" moment. White rappers start with one strike, but that perfectly suits an artist like Eminem. Even though his talent places him toward the top of the 1 percent, his politics and fan base are bringing up the rear.
Eminem has always been a populist rapper. That his best (and most popular) work centers on drug-fueled hedonism, homophobia, misogyny, and domestic violence says less about him (and even his fans) than it does about America itself. When he says on "The Real Slim Shady" that there are "a million of us just like me/who cuss like me; who just don't give a fuck like me/who dress like me; walk, talk and act like me," he probably lowballed his influence by a factor of 20.