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Kanye represents what happens when the liberties of artistic genius are confused for political insight.
You can now listen to a reading of Christopher Lebron’s essay by clicking on the “Play” button above! Audio courtesy of curio.io.
I first listened to Kanye West’s The College Dropout (2004) while walking from my Section 8 housing complex to the financial district—a sketchy mile long corridor of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I had just graduated from college, and I was transfixed by the album. Its musical production was both mainstream yet artistically distinct and divergent. More compelling were the album’s provocative messages: college degrees were only useful because college loans made you broke; education for its own sake was a waste of time; and, crucially, racism was alive and well, still actively harming black Americans’ welfare in a multitude of ways. While I bristled at Kanye’s digs at higher education, I got the point: do something in life. Plus, Kanye’s persistent critique of racism thrilled me.
Deep in Kanye’s music is a genuine concern for blacks’ well-being, but he is unable to separate the tragic that can make art beautiful from the tragic that makes politics ugly.
Critiques of racism had long been a tradition in hip-hop, from Grandmaster Flash to Boogie Down Productions to N.W.A., but Kanye brought them to the mainstream. At the time, Sean Combs and Jay-Z had firmly established hip-hop as a showcase for conspicuous consumption. If a song wasn’t all about the Benjamins, it was all about the Benzes. But Kanye makes his critical point in The College Dropout when, in the gospel-inspired “Never Let Me Down” (produced in collaboration with Jay-Z), he raps:
Now niggas can’t make it to ballots to choose leadership
But we can make it to Jacob’s and to the dealership
That’s why I hear new music and I just don’t be feelin’ it
Racism’s still alive, they just be concealin’ it
This was a relatively radical lyric in 2004, but Kanye saw Jay-Z’s obsession with material success as the ticket to freedom. The College Dropout kicks off with a parody of a pejoratively “tired” black university administrator asking Kanye to be a model of racial uplift for the kids. Instead, with the background hook celebrating “Drug dealing just to get by, stack your money till it gets sky high,” Kanye sets the agenda that defines what I call his Neo-Woke cycle: when it comes to racial uplift, the U.S. dollar is all mighty. Any action not taken for the good of economic empowerment, he argued, is for suckers, including getting an education. In his follow-up album, Late Registration (2005), the idée fixe is captured in a series of skits interspersed throughout. A group of young black men who are members of the fictional fraternity Broke Phi Broke replace the sellout dean. In each skit they portray the richly educated living poorly. They don’t have money to put gas in their cars, and they have to share the same clothes. By Kanye’s standards, their lives are disgraceful.
Jay-Z has never been confused about what he is—he’s not a businessman, he’s a business, man—and his art has always been in service to his hustle. (It is worth noting that 4:44 came out only after Beyoncé had proven that a certain kind of black radicalism could be profitable.) Kanye, however, wears the mantle of the suffering artistic genius. As a result, Kanye’s commitment to a romantic notion of art has, over the course of his career, pulled him in two different directions. He believes, as Jay-Z does, that material success is fundamental to freedom. But Kanye also seemed to embrace the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, which showed that despite the anti-black racism that has defined the United States for most of its history, the country’s love affair with black art has endured. The Harlem Renaissance highlighted how black art could both refigure for white Americans the souls of black folks and could affirm for black folks the beauty of soul.
Whose view of his worth matters most to Kanye? The question is damning.
Indeed, Kanye’s career exemplifies how art can break barriers to entry to spaces previously denied black folks, from high fashion to corporate boardrooms. But the lessons he’s taken from the Renaissance extend beyond the imaginative power of art to the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar. Unlike Zora Neale Hurston, Kanye does not intend to die broke. As his Neo-Woke cycle shows, Kanye confuses the romantic notion of the artistically productive life with capitalism.
In the past decade, the thrill around Kanye has faded. Most recently, he has publicly expressed a soft spot for Donald Trump, possibly the most racist president in U.S. history, and the reactions have poured in. Conservatives use Kanye’s statements to show that mushy liberalism offers something of a new plantation for black voters. And liberals, especially blacks, consign Kanye to the dustbin of racial sellouts, similar to Mike Tyson or Ben Carson. Neither view is right, though his behavior (even though he later seemed to disavow it) should concern us. Kanye represents what happens when black creativity dances rhapsodic with U.S. capitalism, when the liberties of artistic genius are confused for political insight, and when we dismiss the deep problems of mental health in the black community.
On November 19, 2016, two days after he publicly declared that if he had voted, he would have voted for Trump, Kanye interrupted his Sacramento concert to pick a bone with everyone from Jay-Z (his mentor) to Mark Zuckerberg for not lending him money. After an excruciating seventeen minutes, he dropped the mic and, to vigorous boos, called an end to the show. Two days later, on November 21, Kanye was taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and reportedly placed on psychiatric hold.
Given what we know about the obstacles to decent mental health treatment in black communities, we need to resist writing Kanye off as “kray.”
Twelve and a half years after the release of College Dropout, it became publicly apparent that Kanye needed psychiatric help. I note the distance between his first album and this meltdown for a reason. In a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Kanye said he had his first blackout when he was five years old and that it had long been clear to those around him that there were issues surrounding his mental health. But it only became evident to the wider public very deep into Kanye’s career. By comparison, the general public dove into Eminem’s mental health—he is thought to be a victim of his mother’s Munchausen syndrome by proxy—around the release of his first major-label album. Eminem’s struggles with abuse and its psychological impact became part of the public conversation and also fueled fascination with the artist (who is white). So, when we think about Kanye’s career thus far and about his most recent album release, Ye—which has the subtitle: “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome”—we have to think about what it is Kanye is asking for.
A pair of 2017 documents issued by the American Psychiatric Association paints a grim picture of mental health care according to race. For example, in 2015, 48 percent of whites receive mental health care compared to 31 percent of blacks. In addition to receiving less care overall, blacks, when diagnosed, tend to receive the more chronic diagnoses. They are more likely than whites to be labeled schizophrenic rather than suffering from mood disorders. According to a 2001 study, blacks are also more likely to receive care through an emergency room rather than through a specialist, which is itself the result of less access to health insurance. Given what we know about the obstacles to decent mental health treatment in black communities, we should avoid seeing Kanye’s pleas for help as mere pleas for attention. And we need to resist writing Kanye off as “kray.”
It would be wrong, though, to succumb to the temptation to assign Kanye’s recent love affair with Trump simply to mental instability. I believe that deep in Kanye’s music is a genuine concern for blacks’ well-being. His Trump moment can and should be understood as an aesthetic decision, not a political insight. Kanye likes new sounds and unexpected aural twists in his artistic landscape, and no one can deny that Trump, in the most basic sense imaginable, compels your attention. West’s Neo-Woke Cycle is characterized not only by his critique of racism and the call for economic uplift, but also by sound. The first three albums constructed a canopy of sound under which blues and Daft Punk-ian electronica and doo-wop and gospel sat alongside each other, all in service to hip-hop. This wasn’t wholly original. Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival (1997) was an early contender for breaking down a multitude of the supposed sound and groove barriers in traditional hip-hop such as when he sampled Danielle Licari’s “Concerto Pour Une Voix” for “Apocalypse.” But Wyclef could only do it well once. Kanye had the unique ability to mash up sound consistently and brilliantly.
Kanye’s aesthetic ambitions have often been tangled with the desire for affirmation, especially from white elites.
Now, Kanye correctly sees great power in Trump’s capabilities, even as he fails to distinguish between the power to create and the power to destroy. Kanye, it seems, is unable to separate the tragic that can make art beautiful from the tragic that makes politics ugly. One need only consider Kanye’s path to success to see the conflict. Kanye’s aesthetic ambitions have often been tangled with the desire for affirmation, especially from white elites. After Graduation (2007), Kanye suddenly charted a new course with 808s and Heartbreaks (2008) his first album that was received with a bit of hesitation. The problem with 808s was not the quality of the production so much as Kanye’s putting hip-hop to the side to make a bid for the high-brow pop and electronic music crowd typically populated by white artists. He seemed to be privileging a new audience over his hip-hop fan base.
Yet Kanye, ever the suffering artist, appeared to be aware of the tradeoffs required. On the track “Welcome To Heartbreak” he laments:
My friend showed me pictures of his kids
And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs
The pursuit of material success as a marker of personal freedom now seemed to alienate him from things that mattered. Kanye spent his next two albums zig-zagging between sounds. He returned for a flirtation with mainstream hip-hop in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), then veered sharply towards avant-garde rock sounds in Yeezus (2013). He seemed intent on trying to reconcile the issue of alienation from those that should have been foremost on his mind, but he also seemed incapable of shaking the desire to be accepted by a wider and whiter audience.
West seems oblivious to the difference between blacks and the harm we suffer in a racist society.
Whose view of his worth matters most to Kanye? The question is damning. In an interview this summer with Charlamagne Tha God, Kanye discusses the success of his fashion initiatives. Charlamagne asks how commercial success could have anything to do with broader political good. How can Kanye’s success do anything for high murder rates in Chicago, for instance, a place that Kanye cites often in his political rants as justification for re-thinking allegiance to politics as usual? What good does it do for Kanye’s collaborator, Virgil Abloh, to step back from the up-and-coming label Off-White for the “established” brand of Louis Vuitton? “Does that help Off-White grow any?” “Hell yeah,” West responds, “The price of Off-White went up as soon as he went to Louis Vuitton. Not the price but the value of it . . . The validation of it.” To which, Charlamagne follows up, “Why do we always need validation from white people?” West: “Because our cape got taken away when we was three years old. We’re broken.”
Kanye is fond of name-dropping white men in these instances—Henry Ford, Andy Warhol, Walt Disney, and Bernard Arnault (the head of the luxury conglomerate LVMH, home to Louis Vuitton)—but he rarely stops to question whether or not these men are actually interested in whether or not black folks get their cape. More importantly, he doesn’t stop to question whether or not black Americans are broken in the first place. And herein lies the tragedy that makes his and America’s politics ugly—the supposition that blacks need to be something other than what we are to be beautiful. West seems oblivious to the difference between blacks and the harm we suffer in a racist society.
In a 2006 Rolling Stone interview aptly titled “The Passion of Kanye West,” Kanye proclaims in response to being called a control freak: “If I was more complacent and I let things slide, my life would be easier, but you all wouldn’t be as entertained. My misery is your pleasure.” Yet it seems Kanye’s misery is his pleasure, too. His provocative public behavior can be seen as a badge of emancipated entitlement, a public display of his apparent artistic infallibility and success.
It is why, on a live televised fund drive for hurricane Katrina victims in 2005, Kanye could charge that the sitting president, George W. Bush, did not care about black people. And why earlier this year, on an excruciatingly painful-to-watch rant, he could declare that slaves took too long to free themselves. During his appearance with Trump at the White House, Kanye even suggested the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was itself a form of slavery.
It is not likely that Kanye is making a play for Trump supporters. But we can imagine that his aesthetic ambitions—his control freak misery that has earned him so much—got tangled with the desire for affirmation. This explanation in not an excuse. We must condemn Kanye’s admiration for Trump: we have a president who is an active threat to anyone not rich, straight, a man, and crucially, white. And Kanye, an artist to whom black youth still turn when figuring out the next “big thing,” is playing a dangerous game when he puts on the M.A.G.A. hat and insists that the most important thing in the world is love. “I don’t believe in the concept of an enemy,” he Tweeted this year. “We have been conditioned to always be in competition. Stop looking for something to beat and just be. You don’t have to do all the work. Once you start moving in love the universe will assist you.”
Charlamagne Tha God tried to get Kanye to acknowledge the more immediate problem. As he and Kanye walk a three-hundred-acre lot that Kanye intends to develop luxury homes on, Charlamagne confronted him with the simple question, “You got a guy like [Trump] who’s clearly trying to marginalize and oppress people—people that look like you. He doesn’t want to see people like you come up. Can you still love a person like that?” After a long pause, Kanye responds to a question he wasn’t asked:
I don’t have all the answers that a celebrity’s supposed to have. But I could tell you that when he was running it was like, I felt something. It’s like—the fact that he won—it’s like it proves something. It proved that anything is possible. In America. That Donald Trump could be president of America. I’m not talking about, you know, what’s he’s done since he’s been in office. But the fact that he was able to do it.
It is a disappointing response, stubbornly unaware that as he idolizes a man who did “the impossible,” the same man is making a decent life for people who look like Kanye nearly impossible. It was a moment Kanye should have recognized his pause as pregnant with moral defeat and given us what we often want from him in such moments: silence.
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