Image credits: C Flanigan/FilmMagic
If a white megastar gets in before so many of the Black pioneers whose work came first, what message does that send?
When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame released its list of nominees for 2022 induction, the debate we’ve come to expect given the institution’s history wasn’t far behind. There’s no shortage of gripes from fans, many having to do with the Hall’s apparent blind spot for Black female artists and post-disco R&B acts. What happened to Chaka Khan, nominated several times in the past but conspicuously absent this year? Why has it taken Dionne Warwick so long to get in? Sade’s never even been nominated. How about groundbreaking Black punk outfit Bad Brains? And surely George Michael deserves a shout, right?
But the most head-scratching news of all is the first-time nomination of Eminem, whose inclusion this year highlights, once again, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s rather disrespectful treatment of hip-hop.
Let’s get this out of the way. Marshall Mathers, taken on his own merits, has a strong case for the Hall. He’s one of the best-selling artists of all time, and in his prime years he was one of the genre’s defining talents — an obscenely skillful lyricist who for decades has played the role of jokester, storyteller, every parent’s nightmare, respected rhyme tactician, and devoted hip-hop fanboy.
It also hasn’t hurt him that Eminem is white in a majority-Black genre, a factor that has helped him reach certain platforms his peers could never imagine. To his credit, he has made note of this fact several times throughout his career. (He once mocked rock stations for playing his blistering manifesto “The Way I Am,” despite Slim Shady being about as “rock” as Redman.)
So the question isn’t whether or not he deserves to be placed alongside his idol LL Cool J, whom he performed with during last year’s induction ceremony. It’s whether he should be voted in ahead of all the other deserving hip-hop pioneers who just so happen to be Black.
Since the 2007 induction of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five — the pioneering group that pushed rap forward from its “yes, yes y’all” party origins with the gritty, socially conscious landmarks “The Message,” “New York, New York,” and “White Lines” — there have been a grand total of eight hip-hop inductees. And many of them have faced long odds to get there.
LL, who kicked off one of rap’s greatest and longest runs with his 1985 debut, Radio, met the 25-year eligibility requirement in 2010, but he had to wait more than a decade before the Hall let him in. The multi-platinum superstar who provided the template for all modern solo MCs sat and watched the same artists he made history with in the Eighties — Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, N.W.A. — be inducted before him. Nineties hip-hop behemoths Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. got in before James Todd Smith, too. And when LL was finally ushered in last year alongside towering mogul Jay-Z, it wasn’t in the artist category: The Hall put him in the Musical Excellence branch, more often reserved for exceptional music sidemen like Billy Preston, King Curtis, and Glyn Johns.
The Rock Hall has a hip-hop problem. The idea that Eminem will get in before the likes of Eric B & Rakim (who have disappeared from the ballot after their first nomination in 2012), Ice T, De La Soul, Snoop Dogg, Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, and the Roots, opens up a problematic can of worms. Salt-N-Pepa, the first female hip-hop act to go platinum, multi-platinum, and command headlining status beyond the confines of rap, haven’t even been nominated. All of these acts are pioneers who paved the way for Eminem’s success, but they’re going to have to wait at least another year to be honored.
To put it in simple historic terms: How would it have looked if the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame had inducted Gladys Knight before Aretha Franklin; Prince before James Brown; Green Day before the Ramones; Nirvana before R.E.M.; or Kenny G before Miles Davis? Laughable, isn’t it?
Eminem is one of the best to ever do it, and he’ll get his day. Until then, as always, hip-hop is watching.