Kanye West, New Slaves, And Race Matters In Cultural Criticism

So I came across this blog post today – and started to read it because a few high-minded folks I know were talking about it. It took me a long time to get through it, not just because of it’s length, but also because I got hung up thinking about the below except for a long while.

“He needed to confront white America with what they presumed at the time was their worst nightmare: a young black male who grew up in hell and no longer gave a single fuck, who used unfamiliar words and rapped about guns and money and drugs. You know, rapper stuff. (NOTE: When I say “white America” please know I am not being all-inclusive. Like, fuck, I’m white, I get that there are many white people who fully support and understand the racial and socio-political issues at hand here, and that I am being reductive by dichotomizing it into simply “black” vs “white” to begin with. Consider it shorthand for the type of non-black American unconcerned by or complicit in the perpetuation of these issues.)”

I have questions.

1a) When a white American uses the terms ‘black America’ and ‘white America’ in juxtaposition, while taking the time to describe ‘white America’ as something she does not seem to be a part of – what does that then make her?

1b) And… more importantly, if ‘white America’ is “shorthand for the type of non-black American unconcerned by or complicit in the perpetuation of these issues,” what does that make ‘black America’ in her mind?

2) Does a writer’s self-identification of how much they’ve oversimplified something as nuanced as the intersection of race, politics and popular culture absolve said writer of offense or preempt criticizing the oversimplification as lazy?

3) Should we be offended or just chalk this up to being one of the many annoying byproducts of the nationalization of our cultural creations?

4) Is Kanye’s art worth this sort of in-depth analysis?

It’s that last question that’s been nagging me these last couple days. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Kanye fan. I think he’s created some of the best music to come out of this culture we call Hip-Hop… like ever. I just don’t know that his music is all that “deep”.

Growing up, Hip-Hop music for me, was more than just entertainment. I can remember spending hours dissecting lines from my favorite songs, trying to find hidden meanings, trying to understand different references. I’d scour the music magazine racks in places like Tower Records and FYE, looking for interviews of my favorite artists, hoping to contextualize, and therefore better understand their work. I did it because I was sure that there was something deeper to what I was listening to. I knew that the answers the all of my world’s greatest questions lay between the lines of one of Common’s metaphors or Jay’s similes.

I even remember making one of my more progressive teachers sit down and listen to the words of Rass Kass‘ ‘Nature of the Threat’ – the whole time staring at him like… ‘SEEE… I told you… deep right!?’

Then something happened. I got older, I read a few books, got an education, experienced life as an adult and suddenly I realized – most rap ain’t really that deep. Are there artists out there who have the talent and dedication to craft to make truly thought provoking records – absolutely. By and large however, most rap can be taken pretty much at face value.

Which brings me back to Kanye West. Yeezy is an interesting character. He cares about his music, and no rapper alive takes themselves more seriously than Kanye. This was obviously apparent in him debuting ‘New Slaves’ by projecting its video onto 66 houses across the country, and it was also obviously apparent in his purposefully minimalist, and melodramatic SNL performance. All of this creates the illusion of depth, it’s all serious and dark so you think to yourself, ‘damn… he must be saying something.’

Writing for Noisey, Ernest Baker said this about ‘New Slaves’:

As “New Slaves” makes the rounds, I just want the general population to exhibit the awareness of the song’s objective that comes to me and other blacks so naturally. I know about “broke nigga racism” because I’ve been in the Louis Vuitton store in Monaco where motherfuckers told me not to touch anything if I wasn’t going to buy it. I know that they’re “trying to lock niggas up” because when I got my driver’s license in high school, my mother was just as concerned about my ability to not get my ass beat should I get pulled over by cops as she was about me putting on my seatbelt.

And writing for The Huffington Post, Ernest Owens said this:

Furthermore, this idea of black materialistic adoration is fueled by Kanye West’s very own efforts as well. Just as much as Mr. West speaks on issues such as racism and the paparazzi, he also does not hesitate to remind the rest of the world of his flashy accessories and massive wealth. And yet that is “rich ni**a racism”…the ability to feel the need to go in the store and be told “What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/All you blacks want all the same things”? However, these are the very same things the hip-hop industry continues to perpetuate as “The Good Life.”

And then there’s the blog I referenced above where the writer takes it to the whole ‘nother level with:

No figure in mainstream culture, with as universal and inescapable and unremovable a presence in the average person’s life, has challenged that very culture so blatantly in decades. The ideals of Public Enemy are as relevant today as they were in the 80’s, but hip-hop was nowhere near as dominant and omnipresent a cultural force as it is at this moment; to compare the reach of their messages is silly. Upper-middleclass white families did not have to deal with Public Enemy if they didn’t want to. …

The position from which Kanye is delivering his message is essential to the message’s power; for this same reason, while it may seem crass that a pop star be the one delivering these messages, from a logical perspective it’s perfectly effective (returning to “Crack Music”: “And we’ve been hanging from the same tree ever since/ Sometimes I feel like the music is the only medicine”).

It’s just a song. There is no real message. Sure there are a couple of awesome lines like “The DEA Teamed Up With CCA” but in sum, the song is really just Kanye being provocative – not Kanye being deep or trying to tell us something really important. And even if he is trying to tell us something it’s for the purposes of entertaining us, not enlightening us. Kanye is an entertainer not an activist. Being an activist requires a kind of dedication and commitment to improving the lives of those less fortunate that Kanye has never really shown. And you know what… I’m fine with that because I don’t expect a whole lot from entertainers. When you start expecting your entertainers to do more than entertain, you invariably end up disappointed.

This is why all of this high minded criticism — both positive and negative — of the ‘messages’ Kanye is trying to convey with ‘New Slaves’ is so annoying for me. He’s just a rapper. The idea that rap music would grow into some sort of tool for mass social justice and mass enlightenment was one born in the 70′s and murdered in the 90′s. What we have now, is what we have: a bunch of new slaves… and Yeezy, as great an artist as he is – is one of em’.

But those are just my thoughts. What do you all think? Check out the blog I linked to above. While it annoyed the hell out of me – for stated reasons, it’s still a worthwhile read. What do you believe to be  rap music’s greatest usefulness… entertainment or activism? And where do you think Kanye stands on that spectrum?

Looking out across the landscape of Hip-Hop, it’s hard not to long for the days when rappers gave you solid, real world advice – stuff you can actually use… stuff like:

stay low and keep firing.

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