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.

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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.

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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.

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Comments
4 Responses to “Yes We Kanye”
  1. David Milton Brent says:

    Thanks for the comments as always, Jonah. Not sure about your first two posts, but I do think this last point is worth clarifying. I don’t think all “black men of power” necessarily have a responsibility to speak out on issues of race and class – that was my argument regarding Obama, after all. Nor am I arguing that Kanye be someone he isn’t. My point is merely that he has proven to be a person who can speak eloquently on the subject, that he has the power to influence people’s opinions, and that to dismiss these two facts because he’s an entertainer is narrow-minded. If he had no inclination to use his platform, it’d be one thing; but he does have that inclination. And as he proved on “All Falls Down,” he can be funny and goofy and cocky – he can maintain the “persona” to which you allude – while still saying something meaningful.

  2. Sam G. says:

    It certainly was awkward watching Kanye sit in that chair next to Matt Lauer. (Yo, how you gonna run this thing in the middle while I’m talking?)

    Yes, entertainers have the power to influence how we think, and yes, Kanye is to be applauded (supported?) for his efforts at provoking a national dialogue on race. But reading your article and recalling the experience of watching him on the Today Show (the image of Kanye in the chair continues to haunt me), I can’t help but think that perhaps the fashion-forward Kanye discourse overlooks one important possibility: what if he isn’t writing–nay, isn’t even performing–for white people?

    Sounds silly, I know. We love to latch onto his infusion of white cultural references with the West African backbeats–not just when naming a daughter Alexis but then when he put her on a workout plan and sent her back to Michigan. But despite the cross-cultural hat tipping, Kanye is for my money the most important Black performer of his generation. That’s not a reflection about race, but one about culture and music and place and beats and values and rhymes. The genius of Kanye is that he has crossed into the white market without, for my money, whiteifying himself.

    Kanye looks stiff as hell with Matt Lauer. He fumbles to navigate the white media, and ironically empathizes with Georgie’s ostracization. He fucked up with Snow White (I mean Taylor) and dropped out of the class on how white people use the “n word.” But he has also preserved the most important black musical form of this century while keeping it contemporary, he beat the Real Slim Shady’s recent single sales on iTunes, and produced more insight on the failures of Black education in one album than truckloads of TFA corps members have in a decade.

    Sure, he raps about Alexis. But he also raps about his grandmother and her unrecognized decades of church service, about the messy entanglement of ambivalence and love, and about the familial bonds which undergird his life and work. Read Haley. Read Morrison. Read Asante. In Kanye’s rhymes lies real and meaningful exploration of the themes that have mattered to great African American minds for generations.

    So yes, you’re right. Kanye gave soccer moms a backpack that they could dance with. But he didn’t just do it, he did it right—he held on and still, after over 16 million albums, looks uncomfortable across from Matt Lauer. And in the paparazzi plastic world of pop-driven commercial music, thank god for that moment of authenticity.

    Hell, thank god for Kanye.

    • David Milton Brent says:

      Sam, this is a really thoughtful reply. Thanks sincerely.

      The question of who Kanye is rapping “for” is a fascinating one, but I believe it’s a bit more difficult to answer than you make it out to be. Clearly Kanye is literally speaking “to” certain communities when he spits things like:

      And all my people thats drug dealin jus to get by
      Stack ya money till it gets sky high
      We wasnt supposed to make it past 25
      But the jokes on you we still alive

      I don’t think “my people” here refers to soccer moms, whose life expectancy is, for better or worse, fairly long. On the other hand, do people “drug dealin’ just to get by” really give a damn that Kanye is mad at the cast of Saturday Night Live?:

      Fuck SNL and the whole cast
      Tell ‘em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass

      What about when Kanye compares himself to Michael Jackson and critiques Lindsay Lohan’s fashion line? http://www.showbizspy.com/article/215176/kanye-west-wants-to-replace-michael-jackson.html

      I do think Kanye can be admired for never “scrubbing away…his blackness,” as the recent Pitchfork review put it. But isn’t that kind of a low bar to set for someone with intelligence and social insight? My disappointment with the Lauer interview isn’t based on a desire to see Kanye smile and play nice with the “white media” – in fact, I agree with him that many in the media are probably biased against him (although his album has been getting overwhelmingly positive reviews); I just regret he no longer seems to have meaningful things to say.

      Your comment also brings up an important distinction between speaking”for” and speaking “to” a specific minority community. I think you’re correct to say that if all Kanye does is the latter, and not the former, than he’s accomplishing something important – although I believe his mainstream success makes him capable of doing both. But I would still argue that lately, he’s been speaking ABOUT himself without maintaining some of the more interesting and complex thematic material which you hit upon above. And that, I think, doesn’t really benefit anyone – black or white.

      Then again, it’s certainly possible I’ve simply failed to read between the lines. Perhaps when Kanye says…

      So mommy best advice is to get on top of this
      Have you ever had sex with a pharoah
      I put the p-ssy in a sarcophagus
      Now she claiming I bruise her esophagus
      Head of the class and she just want a swallowship

      …he is actually articulating a really important message to the black community?

      I know that sounds glib – really I just wanted an excuse to quote that hilarious sarcophagus/esophagus rhyme – so let me put the question more seriously: does anyone see evidence of Kanye speaking TO the black community about important issues lately – in a way as meaningful as he did on, say, “All Falls Down”? Please share!

      -DMB

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