When rapper Eminem dropped the smash hit “My Name Is…” in 1999, the world became instantly obsessed. The video—featuring Slim Shady in a variety of personae including a pissed-off McDonald’s worker—became inescapable for a season, just as Mathers’ Slim Shady LP instantly rose to the top of the charts.
Meet Marsha Mathers.
But you know how it goes: behind every successful white artist is a Black performer who they directly stole from. And Eminem is no exception, as absolutely no one should be surprised to learn.
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When creating what would become the megahit “My Name Is…,” the rapper sampled a song from the Black queer poet and musician Labi Siffre. A prolific UK songwriter penned a number of hits in the 1970s and 1990s, it was Siffre’s was the beat to 2003’s “I Got The…” that gave Eminem’s rap single its iconic sound.
According to public queer historian Amanda W. Timpson of the fantastic Yesterqueers TikTok account, Siffre was a major figure in 70s music, as well as living a proud, happy queer polyamorous life in a time when the cards were stacked firmly against queer happiness.
Siffre’s music combined folk, dance, pop and soul throughout the 70s. By the late 1980s, Siffre put out “Something Inside (So Strong)” a melancholy track inspired by a documentary about South African apartheid that Siffre had seen. It became an instant hit, and Siffre kept making music (as well as putting out volumes of poetry) through the 90s. During that decade, Dr. Dre came to Siffre asking for the rights to sample his 1973 song “I Got The…” But Siffre wasn’t interested at first. He thought Eminem used too many slurs in his song, and found the writing not up to his standard of quality. Not only that, but he found Eminem’s method of punching down to be distasteful, stating that he felt the rapper was “attacking the oppressed” rather than the powers that be. Siffre withheld the rights to his song until Eminem and co. rewrote the song—but the fact that he only signed off on the radio release version of the single meant that Siffre’s hopes for a better song were still overwritten in the end. Which, honestly, sounds a whole lot like the music industry.
So why don’t more folks know about Siffre and his legacy? Well, to paraphrase the great Ayo Edebiri, the answer starts with a “r” and ends with “acism.” To this day, Siffre’s powerful songs keep getting sampled and covered by huge artists from Jay Z to Kanye West to Kelis. Not only that, but the recent Alexander Payne hit The Holdovers features a new song by Siffre in the soundtrack.
As for Siffre, he’s alive and well and thriving in Spain, and his music continues live on.
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