An Open Letter to Keith Olbermann:

Hip hop has a history of being political. Eminem’s rap is nothing new.

While Eminem is no stranger to politically-charged raps, the seemingly endless blunders of the current presidency have prompted him to release his perhaps most pointed and vitriolic political diss-track yet, sparking heated debate that ravaged the timelines of Twitter users over the past weeks. Sports commentator Keith Olbermann weighed in on the controversy with an enthusiastic and emoji-laden tweet announcing to the world that “after 27 years of doubts about rap I am now an @Eminem fan. Best political writing of the year, period.” Pause.

Dear Keith,

I’m sure you composed this tweet with good intentions—you were, after all, praising a freestyle denouncing Trump—yet other than my obvious concerns regarding your taste in music up until this point, I find myself seriously questioning whether, over the course of this oddly specific 27-year period plagued by uncertainty, you had ever actually listened to any rap music. I’m left contending that your seemingly harmless change of heart toward rap betrays either blatant ignorance or willful disregard of the entire genre. Or both.

You see, Keith, hip hop music emerged in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a culmination of decades of frustration, humiliation, and subjugation suffered by the African American community at the hands of a system that left little room for recourse. Even as the genre took its first teetering steps through the bustling streets of the South Bronx, it did so with an underlying purpose in mind: to give a voice to the voiceless. And through a newfound generation of mainstream rappers such as Public Enemy, N.W.A, Ice-T, and Common, it succeeded.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Hip hop is inherently political, an indelible form of social commentary that has evolved and expanded to encompass a wider range of music without compromising its loyalty to its roots.  By crediting Eminem for doing exactly what hip hop artists have been doing for decades before him, you effectively discredit their entire body of work. It doesn’t require much searching to find overt examples of current political hip hop albums and songs—Kendrick’s album “DAMN,” Joey Bada$$’s album “LAND OF THE FREE,” Run the Jewels’ “RTJ3,” Vince Staples’ song “Hands Up,” Kanye’s “New Slaves,” J Cole’s “Be Free”—much less over the past 27 years. In fact, finding any prominent hip hop artist whose songs lack any social critiques would pose a much larger challenge.

And I get it: It was just a tweet. 140 characters or less. Harmless. Yet this tweet indicates a larger societal phenomenon in which the work of black artists is regarded as “ghetto” and “trashy” while the work of their white counterparts is applauded and universally accepted. While Eminem released an admirable diss-track, he should not be viewed as a pioneer of political hip hop, rather just another voice chiming into a long-standing chorus of predominantly black hip-hop artists calling for social change.

So Keith, I mean this in the kindest way possible: stick to sports commentary.

Lots of Love,
Tala Alfoqaha