For a kid growing up without a dad, Eminem was a perfect role model.
Father's Day is a yearly reminder that, somewhere, my biological father sits with his three children, the ones he still communicates with, getting breakfast in bed and possibly a high powered drill. He left when I was less than a year old, and, at this point, I don't need some cheap, forced reconciliation. I'm a perfectly fine individual without him. In my father's absence I resorted to replacing him with other male role models—my stepfather at times, Will Smith circa Big Willie Style, but, most of all, Eminem.
Eminem's The Slim Shady LP dropped in 1999, when I was 10 years old. It was practically marketed to kids, with crayon lettering on the cover and a first single, "My Name Is," that was almost like a children's sing-a-long. With his catchy choruses and appealing rhyming technique, Eminem had me hooked instantly. He may not have looked liked me, but he detailed the inner fury that my fourth grade self was unable to articulate. Em's grasp on my insecure sensibilities quickly pushed him to the top of that role model list.
When you don't have a father, you lack a lot of guidance early on. I'm not talking about how to throw a baseball or some shit. You don't understand the concept of what it is to be a man, in every sense—how to deal with rage, self-doubt, and fear. Most importantly, you don't know how to express those feelings. For better or worse, Eminem gave me a means of expression for all the shit I couldn't handle alone.
I wasn't just some stan. I didn't just think Eminem's music was exciting. His words alleviated my anxiety. No other male figure seemed to give a fuck about me. Certainly not my dad.
On "Rock Bottom," Em ends the hook with, "when you feel like you've had it up to here 'cause you mad enough to scream but you sad enough to tear." That line did more than resonate with me: It tapped into my fierce dissatisfaction with everything and everyone. I had had enough of the constant moving, of being shipped to my uncle or grandma for however long until my mom could take me back again. I was sick of being the only black kid at my school in the name of getting a better education. I was sick of teachers giving me some stupid glare when slavery came up because they were inexperienced and had no business leading a classroom. I was sick of everything and everyone, and Eminem seemed to get that.
What was so powerful was Em's ability to hit that intimate note and then turn around on the next track and drop a song like "Just Don't Give A Fuck.” That became my manifesto. I'm sure a lot of other kids felt that way or pretended to not give a fuck to be cool, but I sincerely took that song to heart: "Talkin' that shit behind my back, dirty mackin' telling your boys that I'm on crack. I just don't give a fuck." All the kids who made fun of me for not having a father or being poorer than them or having nappy hair—it was an answer for them. I owned myself and what they perceived to be my faults, and that allowed me to not care about their opinion. Other children may have had their dads telling them to ignore kids' insults on the playground. Eminem was telling me to give those kids the finger. I liked Em's style better.
By the time I was in middle school I had absorbed this new approach that Eminem had taught me, and it was working. I didn't look at the situation as if he was fathering me, but I was definitely growing up Shady. I was going through all of the feelings that come with being an outsider, but instead of suppressing my emotions, I would tell people exactly how I felt.
In seventh grade, while reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my class spent an entire period talking about the word nigger. My teacher was in way over her head. She'd decided to explain the severity of slavery by asking the other students what it would be like if they owned me, their friend. When she looked at me after saying those words, I said, without hesitation, "How could you say something so fucking stupid?" Before, I might have sat in that anger, biting my lip, thinking about how much I hated going to school. Instead, I spoke my mind because Eminem showed me that I could. Fuck a detention.
It's important to note that I've always known the difference between art and reality. When Em went off on "Kill You," I didn't fantasize about killing women. I wasn't actually tempted to act out any of his deranged scenarios, and I've never thought to blindly mirror what a rapper says. I realized that it was just music, a way to vent and ultimately feel better about frustrating circumstances. Eminem clearly used his music as a journal, holding nothing back. I was fortunate enough to take what I wanted from that and apply it to my own life.
I was feeling much better about myself, and I was able to handle situations that would have left me in tears before. I had never had confidence, in large part because my pops left almost immediately. Eminem gave me boatloads of it. But my insouciant attitude didn't come without consequences. I consistently pissed off superiors like coaches and teachers, and I sometimes suffered because of that. You can't go around as a black teenager in a largely white community not giving a fuck and expect people not to want to knock you down a few pegs. Shit happens, but I came out fine. Many of those “superiors” are still mired in ignorance in suburban Massachusetts. I can live with that.
Now that I'm a real adult, kind-of-sort-of, I have been able to put that fuck you attitude to bed while maintaining the ability to speak my mind. I don't need to be as brash anymore, but I can be if it's warranted. I know that having taken some of that advice from Eminem may seem juvenile, but it worked when nothing else would. Em gave me the textbook on how to survive my teenage experience, kind of like your dad is supposed to.
Eminem's current music has a tone that's more representative of a typical father figure. Songs like "Not Afraid" and "Headlights" are inspiring in a conventional sense, and they also hold a special place in my heart. But the dude who spazzed on tracks, the dude who, after he told you he didn't give a fuck, told you that he still didn't give a fuck, that dude raised me. In hindsight, Eminem was probably a better father than my dad would have been anyway.
Brian Padilla is a writer living in New York. He's on Twitter - @NYCbros