By Trevor Bach

By 5:30 p.m. on September 12, Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main downtown boulevard, had transformed into the latest battleground of America’s seething culture wars. A sea of 300 or more protesters choked traffic, chanting and waving Black Lives Matter signs, Rainbow flags, an enormous paper maché rendering of the president’s head. They were met by an angry man waving a Confederate flag, “Make America Great Again” hats, a roaring, black leather-clad motorcycle club.

The protesters were marching past the Hockeytown Cafe, a popular Woodward Avenue sports bar, when insults started raining down from the rooftop: Go hoo-ooome! Go hooo-ooome!

Prostell Thomas, a 40-year-old African-American teacher with an athletic build who grew up in Detroit’s North End, stopped and craned his neck upward. “I live here,” he shot back, indignant. “I was raised here! You go home!”

The marchers’ destination was Little Caesars Arena, the celebrated new home of the Red Wings and Pistons and, on this beautiful late summer evening, the musician turned cultural provocateur turned would-be politician Kid Rock, whose high-profile arena-opening concert series drew outrage from city residents deeply troubled by the rocker’s political aspirations, which are very much entwined with the political ascendance of Donald Trump.

Around 7, as tensions boiled and fans streamed toward the gates, dozens of demonstrators descended on a streetside security check, effectively forcing concertgoers to walk through a barrage of verbal harassment on their way into the show: Go back to Livonia! Go back to Westland! Kid Rock is a racist! Gentrification! Gentrification! Fuck You!

* * *

Kid Rock has long been Detroit’s most polarizing celebrity. In a decades-long, genre-bending career, the pop star made his name and considerable brand largely by associating with the Motor City’s rich musical legacy and famous blue-collar image, with songs like “Detroit, Michigan” (Ya heard about Marvin Gaye, we got him) and “In Detroit” (That’s how we do it in Detroit…With the big brown fist, with the ‘can’t stop soul’) driving home the point.

For a proud, majority-black city, Kid Rock has proved a problematic ambassador.

But for a proud, majority-black city, he also proved a problematic ambassador: For nearly a decade he ostentatiously flew the Confederate flag, giving up the practice only to emerge as an outspoken right-wing culture warrior and a full-throated supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy. In July, he began teasing a political run of his own, with an ostensible U.S. Senate campaign website referencing “blue-collar folks that are just tired of the extreme left and right bullshit” and opening concerts by rapping political diatribes that included riffs on “lazy” welfare recipients and rants against transgender bathroom rights.

On Tuesday the rocker declared the campaign had all been a prank. “Fuck no, I’m not running for Senate,” he told Howard Stern. “It’s been the most creative thing I’ve ever done,” he added. “And I’ve gotten to see everyone’s true colors.” Indeed, Kid Rock helped bring to the fore the stark political and cultural divisions between Detroit and the suburbs that surround it. If Donald Trump inspired the the country’s right and left factions to live their politics out loud last November and in the ensuing protests surrounding Trump’s inauguration; Kid Rock sustained that dynamic here in Southeastern Michigan throughout the summer and into the fall.

* * *

Bob Ritchie, the future Kid Rock, grew up in Romeo, Michigan, a semi-rural, predominantly white village in suburban Macomb County, some 40 miles north of Detroit city limits, where his father owned a successful Lincoln Mercury dealership. (Last year, the family’s 5.5-acre estate, featuring a 5,600-square-foot home, apple orchard, and indoor Jacuzzi room, was listed for $1.3 million.) Donald Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes, a difference of less than a third of one percent, Trump’s smallest margin of victory in the country. In Wayne County, home of Detroit, Clinton won by 37 points. In Macomb, where Obama won twice, Trump won by 12 — a swing that proved as consequential as any in the country.

Protesters outside Kid Rock’s September concert series at Little Caesars Arena. [credit: Trevor Bach]

On January 19, the day before the presidential inauguration, Detroit held one of its own: After some 20 months and $860 million of construction, Little Caesars Arena was finally ready to announce its opening act. Inside the chilly, still-unfinished stadium, flanked by neon-vested construction workers, Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg and former PIstons star Rick Mahorn, Kid Rock stood at a microphone wearing a brown leather jacket and his trademark fedora. “It means a lot to be stepping in here as the first act,” he said, sounding uncharacteristically subdued. “It hopefully means a lot to the people that built this place, and for our whole city and state in general.”

The arena, part of a 50-block redevelopment of prime Detroit real estate, represented the new jewel of the city’s celebrated resurgence. It also became its biggest flashpoint. Just four years removed from bankruptcy, Detroit’s surging development, driven mostly by a small club of billionaires, has given rise to a dramatically revitalized downtown. But the development hasn’t expanded to the neighborhoods, where residents are mostly still struggling. With a poverty rate of 36 percent, Detroit remains the country’s poorest big city. In its eagerness to promote growth, the city has also afforded generous corporate incentives: the new arena was subsidized with over $320 million in public funding, including $34.5 million in bonds that were originally intended for Detroit’s cash-strapped schools and parks; contractors were also criticized (and fined) for failing to hire enough city residents.

To many, the decision to book avowed Trump supporter Kid Rock in the aftermath of the most divisive election in memory amounted to the latest and most painful example of, at best, corporate indifference to the concerns of a city that remains 80 percent black. “The Illitch family” — whose business empire, in addition to Little Caesars, includes the Red Wings and Tigers — “chose economics over respect,” said Rashida Tlaib, a former Democratic state representative. “It tells you their character.”

In 2008, Tlaib, representing southwest Detroit, became the first Muslim woman to serve in the state legislature. The nastiness she felt at September’s protest from some Kid Rock fans — people in her group heard the N-word and one man came uncomfortably close, threatening violence — reminded her of the extreme vitriol that recently plagued the debate over a proposed new mosque. Except the mosque controversy played out in suburban Sterling Heights; not the heart of urban Detroit. “It’s interesting to me that Kid Rock, this white male who didn’t grow up in the city … it’s interesting to me that he doesn’t fully understand why we were so angry.”

Kid Rock has repeatedly mocked his detractors. Ahead of his opening Detroit concert, he touted his philanthropic record in the city, daring “anyone talking trash to put theirs up against mine.” (The same screed cursed anyone who kneels during the national anthem before declaring, “I LOVE BLACK PEOPLE!”) Speaking this week to Stern, the rocker mentioned, as further evidence of his local credibility, that he owns a home in a historic district along the city’s riverfront: “I’m a fucking taxpayer in the city of Detroit, by the way…. Stop fucking with me!”

* * *

Recently I asked David Bullock, a Detroit civil rights activist and pastor at Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, if Kid Rock should actually be considered a Detroiter.

To many, the decision to book avowed Trump supporter Kid Rock in the aftermath of the most divisive election in memory amounted to the latest and most painful example of, at best, corporate indifference to the concerns of a city that remains 80 percent black.

“He’s a ‘New Detroiter,’” Bullock answered. “He’s a Mike Duggan Detroiter. He’s a Dan Gilbert Detroiter.” Despite any homes he may own, and even his oft-cited NAACP award, Kid Rock, Bullock continued, would never be a son of the city that produced the Shrine of the Black Madonna, Berry Gordy, and the Nation of Islam. “There’s two Detroits. He’s the hood ornament of the affluent white Detroit…. What did Kid Rock do, during the bankruptcy, for Detroit?”

Metro Detroit, perhaps as much as any metropolitan area of the country, has long existed as a highly segregated area, with an inner city and suburbs that may share sports teams and freeways but otherwise bear little resemblance to each other. The disparities — racial, economic, political — are rooted in a uniquely contentious racial history, but the ongoing revitalization has thrust the dynamic into new relief. For the first time in decades downtown is booming, but the new money — and new class of educated workers who are frequenting businesses and driving up rents — is mostly white. City services have improved, but schools are closing and thousands of poor residents are facing water shutoffs. Downtown has a new streetcar — the Q-Line, financed largely by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert — that’s useful for tourists and shoppers, but the suburbs voted down a levy that would expand sorely needed regional transit.

In this context, the question of who and what is for or against Detroit has emerged as the region’s central debate — with Kid Rock serving as a kind of Litmus test.

Mark Hackel, Macomb County’s chief executive, and a potential gubernatorial candidate, falls somewhere in the middle.

“I don’t think he’s anti-Detroit,” Hackel told me. “To say that he doesn’t like African Americans … I’m not buying that.”

Hackel is a native of Warren, the large suburb that borders Detroit along Eight Mile Road. A moderate Democrat, he attributes his Macomb election success to his nonpartisanship. He saw Kid Rock’s political teasing as an attention-grabbing gimmick, and is still a fan of his music, particularly the songs “Cowboy” and “All Summer Long.” He attended one of the Little Caesars opening concerts, but lost his tolerance halfway through, turned off by the rocker’s political diatribe, which included a racially coded tirade against “deadbeats” milking the Affordable Care Act, single parents receiving government assistance who “can’t even take care of themselves but keep having kid after fucking kid,” and an anti-LGBTQ rant that started with the rhetorical question, “Why these days is everything so gay?”

When Mike Duggan, Detroit’s mayor, was asked about the controversy by a local TV reporter, he dismissed it. “He’s an entertainer,” the mayor said. “My feeling is, if you don’t like Kid Rock’s politics or music, don’t go to the concert.”

Duggan, Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years, is a development-friendly executive whose current reelection campaign, in which he’s heavily favored, is focused on expanding the comeback to the neighborhoods. His challenger, Coleman Young II, is a populist state senator who promises a $15 minimum wage and decries the city’s black underemployment as “a special type of oppression.”

To him, Kid Rock’s presence in downtown Detroit was “shameful,” “wrong,” and a “disgrace” — and his opponent’s failure to speak out on it was evidence of a lack of spine. “That’s why I’m running,” Young II told me recently, after delivering an impassioned polemic on the endemic racism of the country’s justice system. “Because we need a mayor that’s going to at least speak out to that — but he can’t even denounce Kid Rock!?

* * *

In late July, after the rocker began teasing his U.S. Senate run, one right-leaning poll found Kid Rock had a 54-46 edge over his potential competitor, Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow. Another, from Target-Insyght, gave Stabenow a 50-42 edge. It was enough for the Senate Leadership Fund, a national super PAC, to declare its interest in Rock’s potential candidacy, lending the rocker his first hint of real political momentum.

“I’ve gotten to see everyone’s true colors,” Kid Rock said of his Senate run prank. Indeed, Kid Rock helped bring to the fore the stark political and cultural divisions between Detroit and the suburbs that surround it.

“If Kid Rock runs he remains the prohibitive favorite,” Dennis Lennox, a Michigan GOP consultant, told me earlier this month. “None of the other existing or would-be candidates can clear the field, elevate the race to national attention or appeal to the Trump coalition that turned Michigan Republican in a presidential election for the first time since 1988.”

It was a coalition, the consultant continued, that included many “God and country” voters along the I-75 corridor that spans from the Ohio border up through Detroit’s working-class suburbs — traditionally Democratic strongholds that nonetheless identified with Trump’s “drain the swamp” messaging.

“We’re done with career politicians,” Peter Lucido, a Republican state representative for Michigan’s 36th District, which includes Romeo, said. “They’ve done us no good.”

I spoke with Lucido the day before Kid Rock announced he wasn’t actually running. The second-term state rep, who had organized a large Trump rally during the presidential campaign, also publishes Macomb Now magazine, and quickly told me he had put Kid Rock on the cover in 2014. Lucido didn’t believe the rock star would actually run — he has too much going on that would keep him away from Washington — but if he did, he said, he would wholeheartedly support him. Like Trump, added Lucido, Rock would be a candidate who was in it for the right reasons and didn’t need the money.

“He knows the pitfalls that Detroit has had, that Michigan has had. He knows that we’ve struggled,” Lucido continued. “The people are the ones that you go into government to serve — you don’t do it to serve yourself. And I think he’s got that attitude…. I think there’s hope with somebody like Bob Ritchie.”

* * *

The scene outside Kid Rock’s September concert series at Little Caesars Arena. [credit: Trevor Bach]

In the minutes leading up to Kid Rock’s opening concert at Little Caesars Arena, I walked up and down Woodward Avenue observing the crowd. A majority of venue employees — ticket collectors, security operators — were black; virtually every fan walking toward the stadium was white. My small sampling of attendees found fans who had travelled from Livonia, St. Clair Shores, Center Line, Frasier, and “the Grand Rapids area”; some fans I talked to worked in Detroit, but none actually lived in the city.At one point I struck up a conversation with a ticket hawker, a middle-aged black man, and asked what he thought about the concert and the controversy it inspired. “All I’m saying is you got a lot of Trump supporters out here,” he said. “They don’t care about the inner city — they want us to move out so they can move in.”I asked him if he had sold any tickets to black people. He contorted his face. “Blacks ain’t going to this shit,” he answered. “That Confederate flag? Racist, man.”A few minutes earlier, when Thomas, the teacher, and a few other protesters had stopped in front of Hockeytown, they were met with another angry command raining down from the rooftop: Support this city! Support this city! But that was the whole point. To them Kid Rock had shown, over and over, that he didn’t actually support Detroiters, and now the city’s power structure — Olympia Entertainment, the billionaire developers, the mayor — was showing that it didn’t, either. “It’s a very clear message,” Thomas said, his voice rising above the chaos of the street. “This isn’t for the people who are from here.”___
Banner photo credit: Larry Philpot of Bach is a journalist based in Detroit.