Yes We Kanye
Barack Obama doesn’t care about black people.
That’s the position taken by Toby Harnden of the Daily Telegraph – Britain’s highest-circulation daily – who believes that Obama has neglected the well-being of his own minority group: “It will take [a new voice] to break down the racial barriers in America that the first black president has been content to leave in place.” The Telegraph is a conservative paper, and Harnden is an unabashed Tory/GOP apologist, so the extreme rhetoric here is a bit unsurprising. What is surprising, at least to me, is how many Americans agree with the sentiment.
It’s no secret that Obama’s honeymoon regarding race is over. Gone are the days of glowing magazine features boldly proclaiming him “the best thing that’s happened to African-Americans, and to race relations, in more than 50 years.” Still, it is incredible to realize just how disenchanted people have become. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 36 percent of voters think relations between blacks and whites are improving; 27 percent believe the situation is actually getting worse. Even among Obama’s most ardent supporters, there is a growing sense that the president has not made racial equality a priority. Some civil rights leaders have complained that his Administration treats race as a “third rail,” to be avoided at all costs. Obama, for his part, has done little to dispel this notion. Indeed, when asked last year for a reaction to Eric Holder, the first-ever black Attorney General, calling the U.S. a “nation of cowards” on race, Obama’s now-infamous response was: “I’m not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions.”
Yet to those who feel disillusioned by Barack Obama’s failure to use his presidency as a bully pulpit – to those who believe he’s given up a crucial opportunity to explicate the particular pitfalls of racism in 21st century America – to those people I say: spare yourself the dissatisfaction. There’s another public figure far more worthy of your disappointment: Kanye West.
Throughout his career, Kanye has shown an oft-ignored ability to speak intelligently about issues of race and class. Like Obama, he exploded out of Chicago’s South Side and into our collective consciousness in 2004, heralding hope of a new way forward. Prior to the debut of Kanye’s The College Dropout, a seemingly unbridgeable chasm had existed between mainstream hip-hop and so-called backpack rap: the former dominated the airwaves with graphic paeans to money and sex, while the latter attempted to deal with politically and culturally pertinent issues but failed to achieve much success commercially. This dichotomy was most famously elucidated by mainstream megastar Jay-Z’s admission that he didn’t write socially conscious rhymes because they simply failed to make money.
What Jay didn’t foresee, when he wrote that song in 2003, was that his skepticism about the commercial viability of such music would be disproven mere months later – and by his own protégé. Kanye was an old pal of Talib Kweli and Common – both backpackers, mentioned in the Jay-Z song above, appeared on The College Dropout – and Kanye could even be seen sporting a backpack himself on occasion. Yet he’d also spent the past several years honing his skills as an in-house producer for Jay’s Roc-a-Fella label, and it showed: Dropout was eminently catchy and danceable throughout, a veritable cornucopia of readymade radio hits. The songs certainly didn’t feel stuffy, self-righteous, or condescending the way backpack rap sometimes did – they were playful, boastful, full of sex and swagger. Kanye had successfully tapped into the mainstream aesthetic, and he was rewarded: the album sold over four million copies worldwide.
But beneath the enjoyable production values and references to “get[ting] your grind on,” a backpack ethic of social commentary remained – especially on Dropout’s third single, “All Falls Down.” The song is super fun: it contains some of Kanye’s most quotable one-liners (“Couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis”). And with its bold declarations of self-consciousness, it served as our first foray into Kanye’s emotional vulnerability – a territory Yeezy has returned to often throughout his career. At its heart, however, “All Falls Down” is a penetrating exploration of the rampant materialism Kanye believed to be plaguing a large swath of the African-American community, and its troubling roots in notions of racial inferiority.
Kanye argues that the self-consciousness of the woman who names her daughter after a luxury automobile – or the up-and-coming rapper who spends his first big paycheck on a diamond chain instead of a house – stems from a deep-seated insecurity about being black. In his assessment, this absence of – or at least, uncertainty regarding – one’s own self-worth as an African-American is the product of centuries of racial oppression, segregation and degradation: “we shine because they hate us / floss cuz they degrade us / we tryin’ to buy back our forty acres.” Yet tragically, by attempting to prove their value as human beings through material accumulation, black people in Kanye’s reckoning are only propagating the very capitalist system by which their oppressors maintain authority over them: “they made us hate ourselves and love they wealth / that’s why shorties holler ‘where the ballers at’ / drug dealers buy Jordans, crackheads by crack / and the White Man gets paid off of all of that.”
“All Falls Down” contains a complex, nuanced argument about race and class in America – an argument that Kanye was, and is, perfectly positioned to make. Growing up, Kanye’s parents were educated and politically-active members of a growing black middle class: his mother was an English professor, his father a photojournalist and former member of the Black Panthers. Between working in a suburban shopping mall, taking art school classes, coming up in the Chicago hip-hop scene, producing for Jay-Z and DMX, and finally coming into his own as a famous and wealthy rapper, Kanye interacted with a dizzying array of people from diverse socioeconomic circumstances. Clearly, he had some insights into the way these different populations interacted; and just as clearly, he was willing to speak out about what he had seen.
Then in 2005 came the moment that brought him into the greater public eye: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” What’s telling about this incident isn’t so much the infamous final line, but what came before it: Kanye rambling – not particularly eloquently, but in earnest – about the racial component of the tragedy, and admitting – again, as in “All Falls Down” – that he himself was also to blame, because he had “been shopping before even giving a donation.” The critique was sloppy but effective: media outlets across the country picked up the story, and anyone who hadn’t previously been thinking about the correlation between the government’s slow response and the racial and economic background of the Ninth Ward’s population was far more likely to be considering it now. President Bush wasn’t the only one to take notice: suddenly, an older cohort who had never heard his music became familiar with Kanye West – and some of them, at least, agreed with what he had to say.
Unfortunately, taking a long view of his career as a mainstream icon capable of insightful social criticism, the Katrina telethon merely serves to highlight Kanye’s repeated failure to live up to his potential. On NBC and on “All Falls Down,” Kanye used his own failings as a way of talking about the issues facing contemporary African-Americans. But in the years since, he has increasingly done the opposite: using racial oppression as a way of discussing his own adversity. This distinction is subtle but crucial, and nowhere is it more apparent than on his new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Race is clearly still an important issue for Kanye, yet his discussion of it has become curiously reductive. Consider the song “Chain Heavy,” for example. Kanye makes a powerful allusion to slavery, with an implicit analogy between the chains of that imprisonment and the chains of a very different nature worn by Kanye and others today. Yet the move now is from racial oppression to his own oppression: “Y’all forgot I got called n**** on Twitter so many times,” he spits. Similarly, on “Power,” Kanye opens with a concise summary of institutional racism – “the system broken, the schools closed, the prisons open” – only to conclude that “in a White Man’s world,” he and his friends are “the ones chosen. ” Again and again, he uses race as a way to lash out at his detractors, whether it’s sarcastically joking that dubbing him “the abomination of Obama’s nation” was “a pretty bad way to start the conversation,” or memorably comparing himself to the Beatles (“what is a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach? / I guess that’s why they got me sitting in fucking coach”). The lyrics are still clever as ever, but their target has shifted: instead of a young kid struggling to understand his own culpability in a system of capitalist oppression, Kanye has become a bitter superstar eager to point out the ways in which this system has oppressed him.
Which, one might argue, he is perfectly entitled to do. Surely Kanye has felt the sting of racism throughout his life – how he chooses to express the resulting anger and resentment is his prerogative.
And yet, watching the recent interview with Matt Lauer, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of regret. Kanye actually begins to speak about the effects of institutional racism in this country – at which point I began rubbing my hands together, like an excited cartoon character – but ends up abandoning the subject in order to express his empathy with President Bush, “because I labeled him a racist and years later I got labeled as a racist…” (from his Twitter feed). And yes, Lauer and the Today show handled the whole interview poorly. But it’s telling that what could have been a thoughtful response to Bush’s recent comments – a nuanced opinion that revisited the government’s failed response to Katrina and discussed, say, the state of racism under Obama’s administration – became, first, a pseudo-apology to Bush stemming from Kanye’s own feeling of being under attack and, ultimately, an angry assault on Lauer and the media via Twitter.
As with his other recent comments on race, the whole episode felt, at best, like an empty gesture to drum up publicity – and at worst, like a justification for his own martyr complex.
All of which is, frankly, disappointing.
To be disappointed with President Obama’s record on race is, I think, to misunderstand the situation of minority representation and leadership in America today.
With the rise of Obama and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick among others, there appeared to be an opportunity for a new wave of politicians to step into leadership roles in the black community. Yet these politicians succeeded in large part by avoiding such labels. Obama and Patrick styled themselves as “post-racial” for a reason: in order to win large-scale elections, they had to prove they could faithfully and fairly represent broad, diverse electorates, and not just the interests of a single minority community. This didn’t mean eschewing their African-American identities – but it did mean emphasizing the “American” part of the hyphen, the part that stressed “togetherness” and asserted a “common purpose.” Obama employed his own racial identity to this effect time and again throughout the presidential campaign – beginning with his revelatory speech at the ’04 Democratic Convention and continuing with the announcement of his candidacy in ’07, his much-hyped speech on race during the General Election, and his victory speech in Grant Park.
Leonard Moore has argued that Obama and other “de-racialized politicians… need to understand that [race] still matters” – but I think Obama does understand that. And I take the president at face value when he says he doesn’t believe “that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions,” especially in light of what he went on to say immediately afterwards: “I think what solves racial tensions is fixing the economy, putting people to work, making sure that people have health care, ensuring that every kid is learning out there.” Obama is a successful politician – the leader of our nation – and he can make a very large and very real impact on racial inequality simply by making the laws of our land a little better: a little more equitable; a little more just. What he can’t do is speak truth to power about the unique plight of African-Americans in our contemporary society – can’t, because to do so would endanger his ability to pass those laws that could actually make their lives better. He has great power to act – but his ability to speak is, and has been, and will continue to be, fairly constrained.
Kanye West, on the other hand, faces no such constraints. He is free to speak his mind – and he does so, seemingly every hour of every day. He’s not a politician, he’s an entertainer. This means his opinion will be given less deference – but not necessarily less attention. Millions of people – young and old, black and white, rich and poor – listen to Kanye’s music; tens of millions more read or hear what he says on the internet, in newspapers, and on TV.
And sure, we can write Kanye off. We can decide that celebrities don’t have an inherent responsibility to use their fame for the promotion of social causes. It’s clear that some people ought to just stick to what they do best. And it’s also clear that, if you’re a minority group concerned about social equality, you’d prefer to have the President of the United States be your spokesperson and not a flamboyant, neurotic, at times seemingly insane hip-hop artist/entertainer.
Yet if we can take anything away from Bush’s comments about Kanye, it’s this: in our contemporary culture, perhaps more than ever before, entertainers have the power to influence how we think. We hear about them and from them around the clock, and what they say seeps into our collective consciousness – for better or worse. Kanye has the background, the intelligence, the platform, and – at least sometimes – the willingness to make us rethink issues of race and class in America. To say that he bears no responsibility to follow through on this opportunity – that he should stick to making music, and let more serious political leaders give voice to the black community – seems both naïve and wrong.
I like Kanye. I like his music. And I think it’s clear he cares about black people very, very much. But I can’t help feeling that much of his anger, of his popularity – of his formidable power – is being squandered. And I find myself being convinced by his biggest fan who, discussing the infamous Taylor Swift attack, had the audacity to hope for more:
“There’s just so few black men [who] make it that far. That’s a responsibility, that’s why so many [fans] were upset because they’re like: ‘Man, you’ve got a powerful situation where you can put your music out like that and do award shows and everything. You can’t be so reckless with your opinion… you can’t throw away the opportunity.”
The speaker? Kanye West.