A Tale of Two Cities: How Kid Rock Symbolizes Detroit Gentrification

Last week saw the official opening of Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The new home of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons was celebrated with a set of six concerts by Kid Rock.

The sports arena is highly symbolic of Detroit’s resurgence. For years, two of the four major sports teams had played in Oakland County, well north of the Detroit city border. The Lions moved back in 2002. In 2013, the city declared bankruptcy, and many see events like the return of the Pistons to Detroit, as well as the solidification of a distinct sports district (Little Caesars Arena is a short stretch of the legs from the Tigers’ Comerica Park and the Lions’ Ford Field), the opening of a trolley line, the revitalization of Belle Isle, and other growth as evidence that Detroit is moving beyond its past woes.

Others are less convinced, concerned that the regentrification of the city welcomes white suburbanites back into isolated regions of Detroit while the poor community, who are predominantly POC, gets shoved aside.

In this climate, Kid Rock proves to be the perfect symbol for the psychological spirit of the city.

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Politics aside, Kid Rock was a natural choice to headline the grand opening.

He was raised in southeast Michigan, and still maintains a presence here. He raised the Made in Detroit brand out of bankruptcy, and it has become synonymous with his roots. He has also been generous to the Detroit Historical Museum, financially supporting a significant overhaul which includes a hand’s-on music exhibit. While many Detroit-bred musicians have left the city behind, Kid Rock is among those who continue to visibly support the city.

There were certainly other choices to open the arena. Eminem’s draw remains high. Jack White and Big Sean remember their roots; Aretha Franklin still lives in the area, and continues to tour. But if the goal were to identify a well-known name that could fill a sports arena for multiple shows, Kid Rock certainly fits the bill.

Politics aside.

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However, Detroit is a city where you can’t simply set racial politics aside. We are routinely near or at the top of lists of “most segregated cities,” as reported by sources such as The Huffington Post, MSN, and Brown University (black household isolation metric).

Little Caesars Arena was already attached to controversy: A significant portion of its funding is coming from school property tax revenues, money many residents feel should go to funding Detroit Public Schools.

School taxes funding sports arenas is hardly a new controversy, but it’s especially painful for Detroit. Detroit Public Schools has been the center of a controversy over state control for decades now, but Governor Rick Snyder has been particularly aggressive in controlling the district.

First he established the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, which closed this year. Through the EAA, the state of Michigan took multiple schools out of city control, including the brand new Mumford High School building, and placed them into a charter system.

When the EAA faltered and Detroit Public Schools continued to struggle as well, Snyder’s next move was to replace the educational services of the city with a new system, called the Detroit Public Schools Community District. This new district has already been fraught with complaints, with many Detroit residents feeling that the state is refusing to acknowledge how its decades-long meddling with the district has created a mess. The new Superintendent is a community outsider, while DPS Interim Superintendent and lifelong Detroit resident Alycia Meriweather wasn’t even considered. (Disclosure: The author is a friend and former student of Meriweather.)

The EAA closed this school year. The DPCSD is official this school year. Even if city residents and the state governor largely disagree on strategies, I’d like to think that they all have the same goal: Providing quality education to Detroit’s school children.

Meanwhile, though, money sorely needed to help straighten out an educational quagmire is being used to build a sports arena which residents outside of the regentrified downtown will struggle to pay to attend.

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In this context, the most reasonable political act for the owners of Little Caesars Arena would be an olive branch of selecting a celebrity that truly represents the city itself. Eminem might have been a challenging act for many suburbanites, particularly in a state that surprised pollsters by going to Trump last year. But his support among the hip hop community, his use of his podium to support other Detroit rappers, and his large fan base could have been presented as a compromise for such a symbolic event as Opening Day.

I don’t know whether Eminem was considered, but the choice was Kid Rock. Kid Rock is not an olive branch; for a city already stinging from white people from other places acting like the concerns of the long-term residents can just be brushed aside, he is salt on open wounds.

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To begin with, Kid Rock is not from the city of Detroit. He grew up on a rural six-acre estate in Romeo, more than twenty miles north of the city line. His projected image as a tough Detroiter, and his rise to fame as a rapper, is symbolic of white appropriation of black culture and struggles. On the cover of his breakthrough megahit, “Devil Without a Cause,” his hair is braided.

As Kid Rock changed his style from fusing rap and metal and established himself as a country rocker, he started touring with a Confederate Flag on stage. While he stopped using the flag several years ago, his use of it for a decade is not something that will be casually forgiven.

Last year, Kid Rock said “F*** Colin Kaepernick” in response to Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem. Kid Rock also openly criticizes White Nationalists, but his insistence that he doesn’t need Black Lives Matter to remind him that black lives matter and his apparent equivocation of BLM with White Nationalism sounds too much like the “color blindness” exhibited by whites who are avoiding accepting their privilege.

Then there’s a problem with Kid Rock that the Illitch family, the owners of Little Caesars, might not have anticipated when they first booked him: He’s apparently considering a run for the Senate, facing off as a Republican against incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow.

He is running for Senate with the same attitude that he uses for everything: Unapologetically, defiant, party-minded, and with indifferent use of vulgarity. The first words on his website are “Are you scared?”

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Genre shifts aside, Kid Rock’s public persona hasn’t really changed that much. Even when he was still just a wannabe white rapper wandering the streets of LA, he presented himself as brash and arrogant on a Jaywalking segment of the Tonight Show. While I hope that Senator Stabenow (D-MI) easily beats him in her re-election bid, I would be fine with otherwise mostly ignoring him.

But by choosing him for the symbolic opening of Little Caesars Arena, a message was sent about who the arena is for. A very clear message, a very large message.

This summer, a white movie maker marked the semicentennial of Detroit’s most painful month, an inflection point for a region that continues to struggle with racial tensions.

As a resident of the region, I fear that we are moving towards another confrontation, this one between white regentrifiers who want the cachet of Detroit’s grit and rebirth but who shrug off the struggles, and the people who have been here all along and aren’t willing to give up their city as easily as that.

In this context, this weeklong concert by Kid Rock is a sadly perfect symbol for that direction.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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