As the news of American rapper Eminem's February/March 2014 tour of South Africa spread through media outlets recently, press releases rushed to list the artist's successes, but made no mention of renewed accusations of homophobia following the release of his latest album.
This is a glaring omission in a country where homophobia continues to be a heated issue.
Across South Africa's media, mention was made of the rapper's 13 Grammy and Oscar wins, and of the 80-million albums and 120-million singles he has sold. Eminem's eighth solo album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, was released on November 5 and debuted on the United States charts with the second-largest opening sales of the year so far, going to the top of the weekly Billboard 200 music chart on November 13. But the album has been hitting headlines of a different kind abroad for its lyrics.
The single Rap God has the words: "I'll still be able to break a motherfuckin' table/ Over the back of a couple of faggots and crack it in half." And: "Little gay-looking boy/ So gay I can barely say it with a straight face-looking boy …" And so on.
Homosexuality is still illegal in 38 out of 54 African countries. South Africa stands out as the only African country where gay marriage is legal. But homophobia is still widespread here. In 2006, before he became president, Jacob Zuma said that same-sex marriage was "a disgrace to the nation and to God". He has since made more encouraging statements on the subject. In 2012, for instance, he said that we are "building a nation that does not discriminate against other people because of their colour or sexual orientation".
Zuma's 2006 comments on gay marriage pale in comparison with the lyrics of Eminem's song The Real Slim Shady on his 2000 album The Marshall Mathers LP: "But if we can hump dead animals and antelopes/ Then there's no reason that a man and another man can't elope/ [Ewwww!] But if you feel like I feel, I got the antidote/ Women wave your pantyhose, sing the chorus and it goes …" Many did not feel as he did.
Although the performer won a Grammy Award for that album, he faced protests at the awards ceremony on February 21 2001 – where, bizarrely, he performed a duet with Sir Elton John. An activist group, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, decried Eminem's anti-gay lyrics and condemned the openly gay John's willingness to perform with him.
In a Rolling Stone magazine cover article, published on November 22 this year, Eminem answers accusations of homophobia in Rap God thus: "I don't know how to say this without saying it how I've said it a million times, but that word [faggot], those kind of words, when I came up battle-rappin' or whatever, I never really equated those words [with homosexuals] … It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole. That word was just thrown around so freely back then."
The word is always offensive to gay people, so why would it be okay to use it in a rap context, even if spoken by an alter ego? Rappers and the hip-hop genre in general have long been accused of homophobia, but opinions are changing: one of the genre's successes in the past year or so has been the song Same Love by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, which promotes gay marriage and acceptance. Jay-Z and Kanye West, among others, are on record as supporting gay marriage and gay rights in the US.
Eminem seems intent on being the last homophobe in hip-hop.
And using the word "faggot" to mean "bitch or punk or asshole" is not okay, because even if the word was not already charged, it would be wrong to conjure negative associations with being gay. There is already a worrying trend in popular culture to use "gay" as a negative descriptor. For example: "That's so gay!", meaning "That's uncool", was recently used in the soap opera Isidingo.
In a recent report highlighting homophobia in Africa, Amnesty International said that at least seven people, five of them lesbians, were murdered in South Africa between June and November 2012 in what is thought to be violence related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. South African gay rights organisation Triangle deals with many cases of so-called "corrective rape" every week.
We should address existing homophobia in South Africa, instead of promoting the homophobic ideas brought by visiting artists.
Eamon Allan is a freelance journalist.