By Aaron Foley
It is satisfying and terrifying seeing so much of Detroit outside Detroit these days. Detroiters on the small screen, the Comedy Central series about, well, Detroiters, coupled with Detroit, the much-debated Kathryn Bigelow flick meant to inspire conversation about police brutality through a 50-year-old lesson learned during our riots.
Rare are the times when we see ourselves on a larger platform; rare also are times when we get to speak for ourselves. Which is why when we do speak, America needs to listen.
I’m happy to see Detroit in the spotlight, but uneasy about how we’re interpreted. I still shudder thinking of the Dateline report a few years back that showed us all eating raccoons for survival. For years, I’ve watched this city be defined by outsiders; even Detroit lay mostly in the hands of non-Detroiters. Rare are the times when we see ourselves on a larger platform; rare also are times when we get to speak for ourselves.
Which is why when we do speak, America needs to listen. This month, two Detroiters from very opposite professions, viewpoints, even the parts of town they hail from, have captured the country’s ear. Are you listening?
Jemele Hill, hardly home but always reppin’, was a westside Mumford High School graduate before going to work for a sports network that clearly values her face (and marketability) over her opinion. In short, she criticized the unfair position Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones put his black players in when Jones said that any player who “disrespects the flag” will not play. She commented that black Cowboys players who do not kneel when the National Anthem is played prior to NFL games may be seen as sellouts, and that the burden should be placed on NFL advertisers rather than the players themselves. Eminem is from the eastside — yes, primarily Macomb County, but did live in Detroit during some of those early years and could only hone his craft here as opposed to anywhere else — and let us know, again, exactly how he feels about the president in a four-and-a-half-minute freestyle rap delivered at the BET Hip Hop Awards. After eviscerating President Trump and offering support for President Obama, Colin Kaepernick, and the military, Em went on to say that any fan of his that also supports the President shouldn’t be a fan at all; “fuck you.”
Their approaches to commentary on the current state of politics are markedly different — one tweets, the other offers expletive-laden raps — but they both sting, they’re both spot-on. They both give it to you straight, as only Detroiters can do.
In a town without much to lose, what sense does it make to hold back? Detroit is a place where you don’t think twice about what you say, a defiance borne from people who’ve always had to fight for what we want. Higher wages? We wanted them, so we organized. Don’t like our skin color? Fuck it, we’ll do our own thing without you. It’s the opposite here: Respect is given, and doesn’t necessarily have to be earned.
As the country still grapples with “how to cover the Rust Belt,” we’re right here in your face. Give us the damn microphone and let us speak.[
While the rest of this state gradually turned red, we remained solid blue — even last November. We tried to tell you, and you didn’t listen. That two Detroiters — Hill, whose thoughtful commentary on race, sports and politics have always been on point, and Em, whose raps now come seasoned with age and wisdom — now have this country’s attention is our chance once again: Please, listen to us.
As the country still — still! — grapples with things like “how to cover the Rust Belt” and “where are the voices of the Midwest,” we’re right here in your face. Do more than hover over our towns, dissect our pancake breakfasts, and make your cornfield analogies. Give us the damn microphone and let us speak.
Otherwise, we take the microphone, just like Em and Jemele did. I couldn’t be more proud of having two Detroiters have everyone’s attention like this. The question is, how long will they have it for?
Aaron Foley is the chief storyteller at the City of Detroit. He is the author of BELT’s “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass” and editor of “The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook.”