Music, News & Commentary

Razer: Kanye West is right and we must listen to him

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Kanye West is a dangerous man. I offer this assessment with great admiration, and not without proof — more of Kanye’s latest danger, erroneously reported as “pro-Trump” presently. I also offer it as a middle-aged white lady whose knowledge of hip hop, compromised from childhood by Australian radio whose blackest moment came in the form of Hot Chocolate, largely evaporated with the last great Public Enemy album. No. I don’t know hip hop. But, I do know compelling, clever speech when I hear it. Kanye has provided plenty of that.

support_daily_reviewOne cannot consume Kanye’s work and find it less than remarkable. Not truly. On race, on gender and on money — the planet’s most totalising forces — he has a good deal that is insightful to say. You don’t have to speak fluent hip hop to recognise this.

Of course, he’s Kanye West, not Professor Cornel West, and a lyric on race like, “We shine because they hate us, floss ‘cause they degrade us / We trying to buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper, look how low we a stoop / Even if you in a Benz, you still a n**** in a coop” is more emotional than it is intellectual. But, this is the work of great popular artists. Even if they are unable to point to the scholarly texts that bear out their declarations — and Kanye, a middle-class guy who attended college and read the great black intellectuals, probably could — they succeed in saying something crucial to a mass audience. In this case, that many black Americans are aware that their patterns of consumption will never buy back the past.

For any white liberal moderate who believes that black youth have produced their own poverty by standing in line for $300 Nikes, think again. Kanye affirms to a black audience that such purchase is a strategy for everyday survival, not something done without knowledge and pain. I can’t see anyone else exploring the tradition of black dandyism so succinctly to such a vast audience. To dismiss the power of this, to say that Kanye is not one of the few great mass artists of a generation, is simply not to hear him. 

Along with the Kanye that produces works that will be cherished well into the future — honestly, listen to Runaway, really listen, and tell me you have gained no valuable insight about masculinity and its entanglements with consumption and with race — there is the other Kanye. He’s the one that said, during the televised Hurricane Katrina appeal, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” — in my view, completely fucking awesome and precise. There is no other way to explain the tragic disregard shown for black lives following that disaster, and there is no way on this US-dominated earth that residents of the low-lying Hamptons would have faced the same cruel unconcern. He’s the one that stormed the stage during the VMAs and said, again correctly, that Taylor Swift did not deserve to win the award over Beyoncé. And, really. That some teen doggerel about purity written in the worst traditions of country could have lost to Single Ladies, a fixture at hen’s nights and still a joy, is perplexing. My point being that Kanye the performance, like Kanye the artist, tends to make sense in time.

Of course, it’d be a bit of a culture studies overreach to justify his marriage into Klan Kardashian. But, you know. Not even Kanye is perfect.

But, a lot of the time the things he says, as well as the things he produces, are perfect for the moment. The guy tells the truth, as he sees it, and this has long caused discomfort. More lately, it has provoked many into misreporting or wilfully mauling the true things he utters until they become something we can all disagree with.

In recent days, Kanye has been crammed into thousands of misleading headlines that characterise him as a Trump supporter. While it is true that Kanye told an audience — after the election, mind — that he would have voted for Trump, he makes it clear that he didn’t vote at all. He also says the thing that black and Marxist scholars have said before: it is better if the racism is out in the open than hidden behind pleasant public speech. Now, of course, I can have no opinion about this, and probably, neither can Kanye: I am insulated from vulgar racist taunts by the colour of my skin and Kanye by a chauffeured Benz, his coop. Still. This is a statement, even if you do not agree with its substance, very much worth considering: loathing needs to unveil itself in order to be fought.

To be very clear — as one must apparently be in the present — this is no endorsement of vulgar, injurious acts. This is not to say that there is any excuse for saying or committing horror. It is to say, along with every psychoanalyst ever, that the repressed will return. Kanye asks: would you rather have your racism served up to you by Obama, who deported more than three million, the greatest number in US history, or by an overt horror like Trump? You want the racism in the system, where you can’t fight it, or out there where you can?

To insist that racism can be fought on Broadway by the polite cast of Hamilton in frock coats is what the New York Times believes. Kanye wants to crush it head on. He’s not the only guy who understands history as a case of extreme conflict. He’s not the only guy that doesn’t believe that love and kind words will save us all.

After a speech on Trump, Kanye made a speech on resistance to power. Again, this is characterised by press as “Kanye is an idiot” and “Kanye is a self-hating black”. Again, it is a wilful misinterpretation of what he actually said which is, its un-Australian language notwithstanding, actually a fairly convincing look at how the old ways of holding on to power are beginning to dissolve. “Y’all motherfuckers is behind the times” he says, making his university educated observations about the political class acceptable to a broad audience.

“If you keep following old models, your ass is going to be Hillary Clinton”. Good white writers have said exactly the same thing in Jacobin magazine in recent days. Clinton exercises old power and to believe in this liberal dream of moderate speech that can overcome deep, racial hatred is naïve. Why can mild white Marxists say that, and even be paid to say it, yet when Kanye does, he is presented by press as a racist and an idiot?

For mine, his speeches led credibly to the mic drop that appended them. No, he’s not George Monbiot, but I can’t see George, any more than I can see myself, prompting black teenagers of California to be woke.

Kanye continues to say interesting things that do not serve his interests. We are lucky to have him. He is unlucky to have us, who revile him for being a rich, educated, devastatingly eloquent black monster.

[box]Featured image: Kanye West performs at The Museum of Modern Art’s annual Party in the Garden benefit, New York City. Photo by Jason Persse/flickr[/box]

34 responses to “Razer: Kanye West is right and we must listen to him

  1. I think you just put into words what I’ve thought for a long time about Kanye – especially after Runaway. Many thanks ????

  2. A little more nuance please Helen. To say that Obama deported over 3 million people in 8 years ignores the fact that 90% of these were convicted criminals rather than families. Obama’s attempt to provide legal amnesty to undocumented immigrant families was only blocked by the Supreme Court. To portray Obama’s policy as racist is an oversimplification. As for saying that the Hamilton protest means nothing or that it is better to have racism ‘out in the open’: try telling that to the millions of blacks, Latinos and immigrants who are now living in fear because of the Trump’s victory and the ‘out in the open’ racism it encourages.

    1. I did not say that it was intentionally racist. But, you know, I don’t care. If you are Immanuel Kant, you might care about what the intention was. I am not him.
      The fact is, particular policies lead to very particular kinds of incarceration and particular kinds of deportation. And Obama did more than any other President in history. Did he do it because they were brown? No. Were most of them brown? Yes. Does it matter what the reason was if the result was the same?
      Frankly, I don’t care if my leaders are good people. I only care abut good results.

      1. Again: most of the deportations were convicted criminals (not undocumented immigrants), most of whom were already incarcerated. We can argue about the merits or otherwise of deporting them or leaving them locked up, but Obama’s policy had nothing to do with ‘good intentions’ versus ‘good results’. Incidentally Kantian ethics has nothing to do with ‘good intentions’ but acting in accordance with the moral law he called ‘the categorical imperative’: act in such a way that you would will everyone else to do the same. We can argue about the merits of this too, as opposed to a consequentialist ethics such as utilitarianism which looks at ‘good results’ (however the latter are to be judged, which is the usual flaw in consequentialism). In either case, I’m not convinced that Kanye West’s speech (or inaction by not voting) is either more effective or ethical than Obama’s policies or the actions of the Hamilton cast.

        1. I know the six versions of the categorical imperative, because I had a very cruel philosophy lecturer. All of them mention good will.

  3. JFC this is a ripper. Thank you. Off to listen to Runaway.

    Also, if you are not teaching writing, somewhere, somehow (other than articles like this!), please rectify this. The next generation of writers is in danger of becoming limited to only being able to write throwaway “The top 10 ways to make your face better”, or “Taylor V Katie” crapsicles for the internet.

    Your articles make my head hurt, in a good way, like to remind me my brain is still in there, somewhere, and can think and create in more than 1 dimension. Much like when I hear Kayne.

    1. E. Even if I were to teach writing, there are very few places to actually write critically. That is why I am so glad when places like The Saturday Paper, Crikey and Daily Review allow me to do so.
      And, excuse me here, but I am going to ask, politely and with no expectation, that you consider offering this publication, where I am paid to write so freely, a few bucks.
      Those publications that do not offer the Ten Ways To Save The World With a Facebook Post tend not to attract revenues, even if we get loads of readers.
      (Again. If you do not wish to, that is fine!)

  4. Having now read a transcript of Kanye West’s incoherent and mostly self-obsessed 15-minute rant three songs into his concert – which was mostly about feeling ‘hurt’ by Beyoncé allegedly saying she wouldn’t perform unless she won Best Video over him and Jay Z not returning his calls, and after which he stopped the show – I’m also not sure why it (or indeed the political tactic of not voting) constitutes a more substantial exercise in ‘crushing racism head-on’ than the eloquent protest about diversity by the cast of Hamilton to Mike Pence after their curtain-call; or why the Latino cast of a Broadway musical are somehow less qualified to speak about what constitutes ‘the new world’ than a millionaire black rapper celebrity?

  5. I like the article, Helen, but Kanye uses ghostwriters. For a rapper to do this is basically sacrilege so let’s not place another pedestal under the one he has placed for himself, in regards to his lyrical acumen.

  6. And I thought I was the only one who loved Runaway! 🙂 Thanks for this post, Helen. KW tends to come across as brash & narcissistic, his music isn’t for everybody and he used the language of the underclasses, but his lyrics often have a way of cutting through the BS.

    1. Apparently, I come off as brash and narcissistic, too. People tell me that all the time. Isn’t it funny how certain categories of people are seen as “uppity” 🙂
      I am glad you like his music. I find it very rewarding, too.

  7. Helen, I love that you challenge me to think differently about people like Kanye. I am still not convinced that he is a genius, in a philosophiocal rather than musical sense, rather than a self obsessed loony, (even if I grudgingly like some of his tunes) but you are making me look harder.

  8. I don’t think you’ve convinced me that a privileged black man is any more the voice of the repressed than Trump is the voice of the angry white male. Both are “using” in the same way, and obviously both are good at it, judging by the results.

    I totally doubt “heroes” are going to create structural change – the structures are there to support the underlying tribalism, sadly part of our evolutionary baggage. I anticipate we’ll run out of time as a species before we change that.

    1. You’re saying several different things, here. Let me try to sort them out.
      Let’s go with your claim that Kanye can’t give a voice to the “repressed” first.
      Many artists seek to express repressed (different to oppressed) ideas. I am using repression in the way that Freud uses it, which is also they way most people use it. Something shoved deep inside people. It almost always refers to individuals, or a mass of individuals. It is the thing, the idea, that is hidden.
      Let’s go next with your claim that a black man is protected from racism by money. As I say in the text, he may not experience the raw street racism currently so rife in the US. If you’re saying he doesn’t experience any racism, well, LOL. You have simply decided that racism is not real, that it can be bought out of. Kanye himself disputes this claim very well. So do many scholars.
      Let’s look at your idea that Kanye can say nothing at all because he has money. This means that no successful artist can ever say anything. It also implies that you have no familiarity with Kanye. His first album references his college education in the title. He has never pretended to be a “gangsta”. You might presume that he does, but that says more about your lack of familiarity with him or, worse, your view that any black US artist is always gangsta. A Tribe Called Quest. De La Soul. The Last Poets. Educate yourself just as merely as I have about the traditions of hip hop before you go off thinking that everyone is exactly the same as Notorious BIG. (Not that I mind Biggie. But he is not representative.)
      Then, you say that Trump does not adequately represent the anger of the working class white male. Well, yes he does. He may not have lived it. He does represent it, and certainly shares some of the same cultural prejudices. Even if he has no “right” to. (Frankly, nobody does.)
      As for your claims against the Great Man theory of history. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think art changes the world. It sure helps explain it. I am analysing, on an arts site, the value of what an artist has to say. I made not one claim for Kanye other than his ability to speak about things with clarity for an audience. I believe he does. You are unfamiliar with him, and have just decided he’s posing as a gangsta. Which he is not.
      In short, don’t teach granny to suck eggs based on your very poor reading. And remember, a Marxist critique of the arts is entirely possible.

  9. “Not even Kanye is perfect”. He’s about as close to perfect as I am. In other words – not very close.

    He might however be more delusional than me.

  10. Vincent
    Helen, I have to admit that most of your articles drive me mad – crude and vulgar is an over-simplistic analysis on my part, but you get my drift. However, this article has struck a chord with me, and I will make a point of investigating Kanye further.
    Strange, though, that reading your article made me think of the totally obnoxious rant by Noel Pearson – surely the most pompous, self-serving indigenous spokesman – as reported today in the Australian (where else?), accusing the ABC of endemic racism. The pity is he draws Paul Keating into his analysis, for whom I have unqualified admiration.
    Not sure if my comment has any validity, but I throw it into the mix to see how others reacted to Pearson’s latest grab for publicity..

    1. Look. “Crude” makes a nice change. I usually get “unnecessarily complicated”.
      (Either way, you can be confident that I do not really care.)

  11. I can’t say I’m a fan, Kanye to me always looks angry, and I find that sad, but I suppose if that is what he feels he needs to get his message across, so be it. I find it amazing that you wrote about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this for me highlighted not only the government’s cowardliness in the face of a horrendous tragedy, but also the huge differences in how they view the people in the states of the union, theoretically (it even says it in the title) the states are supposed to be ‘United’, to me that lack of caring by George W Bush, at that time not only showed how unprepared he was for the job, but also that the government was quite happy to take the income that New Orleans rakes in through tourism, but not prepared to put together a proper rescue & recovery set up until weeks after the event, along with an outdated racist belief, and obvious ‘class’ distinction in operation. This shouldn’t exist at government level but obviously does. This is the problem when people go for government often their belief s get set by the wayside due to the need to ‘play well with others’ it just ends up with governments that Humphrey notes, that often their hands are tied like Obama’s that tried to remove people that were convicted criminals, to be sent back to their country of origin. So often it doesn’t seem to make a huge deal of difference whether there is a man of colour in power or a crazy white man (that’s over -done it in the tanning booth) there’s always going to be “racially”controlling processes within their system that have been either ingrained over the years, (hang-overs from the slavery years) or are part of their legal set up. So Kanye rails against the racism in the US, but there are still too many rich old conservative white men who, have way too much money, and power, unfortunately there is still a long way to go before it changes if ever. Like most Australian’s realise it can take a lot to get away from your historical roots then there’s always some smarmy Englishman to rub your nose in it. America’s history is still alive and well, just institutionalised.
    Love your work Helen, it’s always thought provoking, even if others find it repellent, always ensures lively debate.

  12. Kanye fell off with “808s & Heartbreak.” But, unlike LL, he didn’t make a triumphant comeback (yet.) Even his crazy shit has become tired…

  13. He must have something to say, he speaks to my white, privileged son of 19, currently doing his philosophy, economics, social sciences degree and turning nicely into quite the revolutionary. At least I hope.

    But yes, my son tells me he is a genius, and my son is no fool. There might just be something in this.

  14. Sigh…
    He’s just been carted away, by ambulance, in restraints, to have his mental health assessed. After reading some of these enthusiastic comments, there could well be a knock at your door!

  15. Great Article Helen, I always find you delightfully obnoxious. The lyrics you quote are early “backpack” rapper Kanye. I don’t find his new stuff is not as lyrically adept, or insightful.

  16. The Patty Winters Show this morning was on Kanye West, “Tortured genius or insane nigga from da psycho ward?” After a video clip showing Kanye praising Donald Trump I’m almost physically sick, literally gagging over my smashed avocado, because the next clip shows him leaving hospital with a Ralph Lauren Polo camel hair-twill coat draped over him, the exact same coat I was planning to wear today. Kanye’s praise for Donald Trump can never make up for the jarring, antagonistic and contrary musical mess that was Yeezus.

    1. Yes, well, Kanye doesn’t care about the slaves in other countries that make his haute couture wardrobe and $300 shoes either.

  17. Sorry I am late to this piece. Just read it now. I am going to get slagged off in no uncertain terms by what I am about to say but there are a lot of errors and misinterpretations and discounting of errors of fact glossed over.

    First I appreciate philosophical background to this discussion. It’s not every day that you see Immanuel Kant resurrected in online debate.

    Second I cannot see anything to like about Kanye West. His music if it can be described such is shit. It falls into the rap class or at best R&B. His “work” and those of other R&B artists these days is atonal, aggressive, unpleasant, awful and just a collection of baseless lyrics and electronic goose farts. Kanye West is misogynist, self-obsessed and just a bad artist. He targets his work at specific black audience. The fact that there are privileged spoilt rotten white “students” who appreciate him is neither here nor there in the long run. They are just seeking an alter ego in their post puberty experience as they go through their studies and would rather someone else do the dirty talking and not them. Kanye West has replaced his natural teeth with diamonds. He goes off on shambling rants. He is a bad sport. He is a supreme egotist. Witness his self-comparison with Nelson Mandela a few years back.

    Third, it is people like Beyoncé (also of shit music fame) and JayZ who are representative of what is wrong with black music in America. They cost the democrats the election when they threw in their lot with Hilary and rejected Sanders. (I know it probably doesn’t sound like it but I am a Sanders man). The people who supported Hilary against Bernie Sanders were predominantly black and it is fair to say, quite a few Hispanics. These are the same people who turned out to vote for Hilary against Bernie but didn’t turn out to vote for Hilary against Trump.

    Fourth, the music of people like JayZ, Beyoncé and Kanye West is offensive to me. I do not like their music. How is it possible for me to support a political candidate whose music is so bad? Their identity politics was a turn off for not just white people but a portion of their own ethnic or racial groups. Kanye West will always sell records but he just turns most people off. Just foul mouthed, egotistical, aggressive and unpleasant. And he thinks he has presidential credentials. I much prefer the black artists of soul, R&B, disco, rock and roll etc. of the 60s and 70s. Give me them any day of the week. Age is not even really a factor here as even people of the same age group and racial and cultural backgrounds can have vastly different musical or cultural tastes. This must surprise the prevailing millennium leftist Marxian cultural group think.

    I can’t believe that Helen Razer wants to waste space in this online media publication about one of the biggest wastes of spaces of all. What he says is confusing. I see in these posts that Obama deported 3 million people. This is just government procedure. The USA has a population of over 250 million and has land borders to its north and south as well as a troubled region to its south. The fact that these 3 million were brown is neither here nor there. They were criminals who are foreigners and therefore capable of being deported under US law. Most countries in the region of the US are brown skinned. So what. The fact that most criminals in the US are white or black and US citizens and cannot be deported seems to be not acknowledged by these posts who obviously don’t have a clue about governance or politics. Grasping at straws.

    Kanye West is extremely wealthy and privileged. I would hate to be a white store clerk or salesperson when he and his entourage arrives to purchase their boutique status symbols or cheap crappy knock-offs. Imagine the shit they must cop from this self-righteous wanker. I cannot see bad personal traits as worthy of admiration Helen and others and it says a lot about the morals of media and online cultural discussion that this is so like legitimising some form of inverted moralism. What is bad becomes good. It won’t cut much ice but many people white as well as black or other racial groups have to work to get where they are. I know I have and the entire tenor of the article is to denigrate white people from the perspective of a privileged white person who seemingly doesn’t work and earns here keep from dubious sources.

    1. IMHO Kanye’s music is good to great. I’ve spent most of my life listening to Blues, Country, Rock, Soul etc so it’s not as if he’s preaching to the converts only. His work on anxiety and mental health scattered throughout his work is the most insightful I’ve ever heard.

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