Hitting ‘play’ hit hard.
Bryan Hopkins is talking about first seeing the video for rapper Eminem’s new single “Darkness,” which re-creates the Route 91 Harvest tragedy from the shooter’s perspective in graphic detail, the clip ending by advocating for stronger gun control measures.
Hopkins didn’t want to want watch it all, wasn’t even aware of the video until a reporter reached out to him for comment.
He’s a survivor of the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting, having met his future girlfriend, Nicole Ruffino on that night, by helping usher her to safety.
They decided to brave it together.
“The first time I watched it, I was listening,” recalls Hopkins, whose band was the very first act to play the Route Harvest 91 fest in its inaugural year of 2014. “The next time, I was shaking, because I knew what I was about to see.”
The video is a polarizing one: By revisiting the Oct. 1 tragedy so viscerally and vividly, Eminem has stirred plenty of emotions among members of the local music community over whether the video crossed a line in terms of taste, tone and content.
Is it a case of an artist using his platform to call attention to an issue important to him in brutal, unflinching terms?
Or is he guilty of exploiting a tragedy to make a point, doing so in a way that’s insensitive to the many affected by the worst mass shooting in U.S. history?
There are no easy answers to such hard questions.
A divisive video
For his part, Hopkins was initially hesitant to even share his thoughts on the video publicly.
“I was going to decline saying anything,” he acknowledges, “because I didn’t want to upset anybody by voicing an opinion. All I have is respect for the people who were there, who went through stuff that I didn’t see, because it was awful. All of it was awful. But what I saw in that video, what I heard in the words, was that he was just bringing up a discussion that needs to be had.”
For Ruffino, this discussion extends beyond the hot-button issue of gun control.
“In my opinion, it was more about mental illness,” she says of the video. “That was the underlying theme, because he mentioned schizophrenia. I just think it’s a huge problem, and people don’t really address it.”
To Vegas country singer Dez Hoston, though, it all felt like grandstanding by the superstar rapper, especially considering some of the violent themes expressed in his past works.
“I find him ironic,” says Hoston, a veteran performer who regularly plays clubs such as Gilley’s, Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill and at the Fremont Street Experience. “This is the same guy who’s made a living off rapping about killing his mom, and now it’s the same guy who’s telling people they don’t need their guns anymore?”
In Hoston’s eyes, the video smacked of exploitation, a ploy for attention from an artist who’s been out of the headlines of late and is now promoting a new album.
“I think it’s a guy who’s been out of the spotlight and is trying to find a way to stay relevant and is going to against everything he’s been talking about his entire career,” he says. “Using the kind of tragedy that happened at Route 91 to make yourself relevant, I think it’s a stupid move.”
Tough topic, tough watch
While acknowledging how unsettling the video will be to some, longtime Eminem fan and local hip-hop DJ Mikey Porter feels that Eminem’s methods are justified by his ultimate intent.
“He’s picking a scab and he’s probably triggering a lot of people right now,” says Porter, who performs as Mikey V.I.P. at Golden Knights games, House of Blues and other venues, “but don’t forget what happens at the end of the video where he’s saying, ‘This is a problem; let’s fix it.’ He’s not glorifying it, I don’t think.
“He’s using his platform,” Porter continues. “That’s what hip-hop’s all about. We’re supposed to be taking care of our culture, to make a change, to help and not hurt. So, good for him.”
Michael Streeter, another Vegas hip-hop mainstay who raps as Mr. Ebranes, says that while he may not share Eminem’s view on the need for stricter laws, he doesn’t take issue with the rapper using his music to address the topic.
“If anything, he’s raising awareness for a cause he believes in,” Streeter says, noting that the “Darkness” video has ramifications beyond Oct. 1. “It wasn’t just about the Vegas shooting. It was all mass shootings.”
For a survivor of one of these shootings such as Hopkins, processing the emotional aftermath of tragedy is an ongoing endeavor.
To hear an artist like Eminem address some of these issues in song may be difficult, but not without purpose.
“All he did was touch on all these problems,” he says. “I go to a movie now, and I want to know where the nearest exit is. These are the things I think about because of what has happened in the past, what we went through and what continues to happen.
“I don’t want to upset anybody,” he adds, “but this is what I think Eminem is trying to do.”