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.
One 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.