Dear Sir Elton John,
There have been a lot of open letters this season, but I'm not here to criticize you for twerking up against Robin Thicke on the VMAs. I am here to talk seriously to you about a performance on another music awards show that was far more inappropriate and damaging: your 2001 performance with Eminem at the Grammys. Eminem had appropriately come under scrutiny for lyrics like, "Hate fags? The answer's yes," and you chose -- against the wishes of GLAAD and many in the LGBT community -- to perform with him, embrace him, and issue statements absolving him. Recent events have made me realize that your actions over a decade ago are even more problematic today and can't be ignored. I think you owe the gay community an apology, and it's time that you stood up and denounced Eminem's derogatory lyrics, which continue to demean us as human beings and commercialize the very attitudes that cause hate crimes.
The reason I'm bringing this up now? Eminem has released a new album that, yet again, contains violently homophobic lyrics, and his fans are citing your 2001 collaboration as proof that he can't be homophobic and therefore bears no responsibility for spreading hateful rhetoric. In his new song "Rap God" Eminem boasts to his fans, "I'll still be able to break a motherfuckin' table over the back of a couple of faggots and crack it in half." And I ask you: How is this good?
I recently got into an internationally reported debate on Twitter with another queer-identified singer/songwriter, Sia (who collaborated with Eminem on the song "Beautiful Pain," from the same album containing "Rap God"), questioning why she would participate in an album containing such homophobic lyrics. In the midst of our conversation, Eminem's fans on Twitter attacked, leveling at me (and Sia) the very words I was objecting to -- "faggot," "fag," "pussy" -- along with hate-filled lines from his songs. And they also curiously tweeted me pictures of you embracing Eminem at the Grammys in 2001 (the same year you wrote a Matthew Shepard tribute song, incidentally) and said declaratively that you are cool with Eminem's words, so I should be too. Your words and actions became Eminem's pass -- and their pass too.
But what's also interesting was Sia's reaction to Eminem's lyrics. While she initially used justification very close to yours in 2001 -- "I know personally that he is not homophobic, but a performance artist" -- she later owned the fact that she had "a lot of anxiety" about how the lyrics of "Rap God" would affect vulnerable gay youth and their straight counterparts. I explained, "The most vulnerable kids don't necessarily recognize the difference between nuance of a 'character' vs. the celebrity saying and validating stereotypes." Sia saw the truth in what I was saying. And as a result of our lengthy interaction, she's donating her proceeds from the Eminem duet to the LGBT Center of Los Angeles. Her impressive sensitivity, understanding and desire to do the right thing renewed my respect for her.
The whole experience puts your duet with Eminem in a new light. The fact is that you are a high-profile gay man in the music industry who used your iconic status and actions to inoculate Eminem against a growing controversy in the media over what many deemed a justifiable criticism of his lyrics. After your performance the music industry followed suit in 2001, and the conversation vanished. You gave Eminem -- and arguably the entire hip-hop community ever since -- a big green light on degrading us in songs with words like "faggot."
"Sorry, Lance [Bass], Mr. [Adam] Lambert, and [Clay] Aiken ain't gonna make it. They get so mad when I call them both faggots."
--Eminem, "Elevator," 2010
"Faggot" is quite possibly the last word Matthew Shepard heard before he was beaten unconscious and left to die. It was the last word Mark Carson heard before he was shot dead at point-blank range in Greenwich Village this summer, just like countless others who've been killed in violent hate crimes. Think about that. I can attest firsthand: When a group of misguided kids gay-bashed me with beer bottles in a gay neighborhood of New York City some years back, that was the very word they were using.
Eminem recently excused his use of "faggot" in a Rolling Stone interview, explaining, "That word, those kind of words, when I came up battle-rappin' or whatever, I never really equated those words [to actually mean "homosexual"]. ... I still look at myself the same way that I did when I was battling and broke." And, "I think people know my personal stance on things and the personas that I create in my music." But the fact is that Eminem is not that broke teenager anymore. He is a grown man -- and a privileged, straight, white celebrity worth an estimated $140 million at that. Using the word "faggot" at this point in his career should be intolerable.
And while he might say he's like a "character" in a movie, whether he believes that or not, you and I both know that music is a different medium than film. It's far more immediate. We listen to music on personal headphones pumped directly into our heads, hearts and personal worlds. Literally words in our head. It becomes a visceral part of us. Pop and hip-hop music in particular are consumed repeatedly; we might listen to our favorite song thousands of times. The lyrics and their messages become mantras. I know from my experience as a musician and DJ how much kids love to memorize all the lyrics to their favorite songs and sing along. The words bypass their sense of right or wrong and can become ingrained in them for a lifetime.
The lifespan of a huge hit or album can be decades, as I'm sure you recognize from so many of your own classics. Eminem's album featuring "Rap God," The Marshall Mathers LP 2, sold almost 800,000 copies in just its first week of sales. Now imagine all the ears that those hate-filled words are seeping into. Songs containing hate speech can echo for years, continuing to affect the psyches of those who may feel empowered by their words to justify committing violence against us or our children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that eight out of 10 LGBT students are verbally harassed in school, that one in five has been a victim of physical assault, and that gay teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other teens. Eminem is a verbal abuser. And an abuser will keep on abusing until the cycle is broken -- until someone stands up and says, "No more."
"You fags think it's all a game till I walk a flock of flames off a plank, and tell me what in the fuck are you thinking."
--Eminem, "Rap God," 2013
Maybe you thought that befriending Eminem might help him change his ways. But it's been more than 12 years now, and he hasn't stopped. If Eminem indeed has gay friends, why are they enabling him? Even Boy George didn't stand by and let "Rap God" fly, tweeting at Eminem, "Fag? Is this really recovery talk or are you running your own program these days? Really unhelpful." And isn't it interesting that Eminem doesn't -- to my knowledge -- used the "N" word in his songs? Is it because his self-respecting black friends, mentors and producers have taught him lines he shouldn't cross? (And if you had a song featuring the "N" word and attributed it to a "character," shall we ask Paula Deen what would happen to your career?)
A different artist, Macklemore, illustrates another contrast: As a straight, white rapper he doesn't need to denigrate gays to show street cred, score a sizable hit or make money. With "Same Love" he showed that today's artists can instead demonstrate sensitivity and lyrically lift us up. That might just be the most authentically "hip-hop," rebellious thing someone can do. He makes Eminem look old, dated and out of touch by comparison.
Which is my point: It's 2013. Maybe Eminem hasn't "evolved" since 2001 or even since his teen rap battling days. But I want to believe that you have. There's a saying by the wise Maya Angelou: "When you know better, you do better." Unless you still support Eminem's hate speech, it's time for you to make a course correction on behalf of our community.
I pray that this request doesn't fall on deaf ears. As a father yourself, I hope your recognize that inaction on your part would be irresponsible to the young people damaged by such lyrics. And knowing the incredible work you've done on behalf of HIV/AIDS charities for decades, I think you understand the importance of standing up for imperative issues. You have the opportunity and responsibility to make a difference now. It might not be in the "character" of Eminem to do so, but I hope that it's in yours.