Kanye West’s comments about slavery – calling the situation in Africans imported to the America’s as slaves a “choice” has sparked widespread controversy in the Black Community. If there’s one thing rappers are supposed to be at all times though – it’s controversial.
Kanye West has not only courted controversy over the years, he’s basically married to it. He married into one of America’s most publicized and controversial matriarchal families, the Kardashians. He interrupted the Grammy Awards by rushing on stage to complain about Taylor Swift having been awarded best album instead of his best friend (at the time) Jay-Z’s wife Beyoncé. He famously accused President George Bush of not caring about black people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He has had well-publicized breaks with sanity, including most recently having cancelled a world tour and entering a mental treatment facility. Most recently, he has buddied up with President Donald Trump, a seemingly controversial choice for a rapper with as much street cred as Kanye.
At the end of the day, Kanye craves attention. He loves this game of public persona building as much as he loves his musical craft. This is the lens through which we should view Kanye’s slavery comments. As Kanye has probably learned from his buddy President Trump, even negative publicity is good publicity when you are a person who feeds on attention. Almost the entire hip-hop community as well as noted prognosticators including ESPN Sportscaster Stephen A. Smith and late night news host Don Lemon have roundly criticized Kanye’s statements, telling him in effect to ‘stay in his lane.’
Wait, haven’t we heard something like that before? When conservative news host Laura Ingraham told Lebron James to ‘shut up and dribble’ and stop poking his nose into politics, she got blasted by the black community for having launched a racist attack on James. It is curious now that the very same community is telling Kanye to in effect ‘shut up and rap’ (a physical impossibility by the way).
Kanye is not new to the slave analogy and actually has a lot to say. He famously talked about ‘New Slaves,’ in a brilliant rambling rap song about the transition from physical slavery to being enslaved by ignorance and consumerism. The former ‘broke racism’ – excluded blacks from equal participation in American life. The newer ‘rich racism’ has blacks being urged by the images in media and rap music lyrics to engage in mindless acts of conspicuous consumption to compensate for the psychological wounds caused by ‘broke racism.’ Forget offering an artist a real contract, he says, imitating a record company exec, ‘you know that blacks can’t read…just throw ‘em the Maybach keys.’
He rapped even on his debut album College Dropout about the journey from ‘slave ship’ to grave-shift. He attempted to juxtapose the decreasing value of college education due to the debt burden and a shifting economic structure, with the dangers consumerism and the pitfalls of wealth. He warned against the pathologies of consumerism – citing the case of an unwed young mother struggling to finish college who “couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexus.” He urged his fans to consider dropping out of college and creating businesses instead. Of course, many of the country’s leading entrepreneurs have urged just the same thing – Steve Jobs, industrialist Peter Theil, and Seth Godin are just a few of them.
Kanye makes no bones about being a capitalist himself. He and his frequent collaborator Jay-Z have frequently rapped about being rich, hustling (both legally and illegally) and helping others to become more wealthy. Kanye’s solution to the problem of black disenfranchisement is not to commiserate with the poor – it is to help them become rich. This is where Kanye fundamentally departs from the liberal mindset. Liberals need the poor to remain poor because they can then use their plight to expiate their own guilt by hating the rich; and they can con the nation into wasting resources on a so-called ‘war on poverty’ that has failed miserably despite hundreds of billions of dollars being thrown at it.
Kanye clearly understands the nature of racism in America and has chosen to adapt by questioning the status quo. He understands that of course physical slavery in America was not a ‘victimless’ crime. But he is asking people to cast off the mantle of victimhood and don the shawl of prosperity. His message is all about freeing ourselves from the mental bonds that have endured since the physical shackles were broken, which is why it is so apropos for this moment.