Oh, Kanye, You Always Know Just What to Say

Kanye West wants to be heard.

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago's Millennium Park

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago’s Millennium Park

He also wants to be seen, hyped, talked about, gathered around,  re-tweeted/tumbled/blogged/televised, experienced. And the man knows how to give us what we want, namely: primary source material. In the era of the chattering classes, when everyone with a BA and a smartphone thinks she’s Roland Barthes reincarnate, 10 minutes of Halftime Beyonce–shit, 10 seconds of “Bow down, bitches”–produces a Talmud’s worth of critical writing.

And into this media environment swaggers Kanye, who knows how to debut a motherfucking album. One tweet:

And then, last Friday, his new video and song debuted in 66 locations across the world–not the country, mind you, but the world–and then on Saturday he was on Saturday Night Live to rearticulate his vision for network TV where your ten-year-old kids could see him, even if on Friday they were already in bed, or, worse, in the suburbs.

As Meaghan Garvey wrote on her tumblr Sensitive Thug (and hers was the best post on the new release, and from it I shall quote heavily),

Chief Keef isn’t white America’s worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him, and avoid him.

Kanye West is white America’s worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him—by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him—you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can’t avoid Kanye. He’s made very sure of that.

And, as Garvey chronicles, commentators high and lo spent the weekend trying to dismiss Mr. West. Garvey sorts their dismissals into three categories: “He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention.” She does a really, really great job of showing how all protestations are leaden with BS – indeed, leave this post now and go leave her post. (And yeah, she beat me to it, and she did a really, really good job.) I’ll summarize her main thesis a bit: Kanye’s been aware of his participation in consumerist culture from the very beginning, all the way back to “All Falls Down” when he rapped, “But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou/ Cuz fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ before I had a house and I’d do it again/ Cuz I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin a Benz” (qtd Garvey).

Now, I’m a little late on the uptake here, so instead of continuing to repeat what others have said I’m gonna direct you to various points in the conversation-thus-far, and then add some thoughts where I can.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Richard Roeper left me missing Ebert all over again when he wrote, “[S]top bitching….nobody embraces capitalism, consumerism and crass commercialism more than Kim and Kanye.”

MTV News actually did a nice job rooting Yeezy’s politicism in his earlier work. And over at Vice, Ernest Baker suggests the song is more trenchant if you’re actually black.

Over at The Week, Keith Wagstoff responded to the political content of “New Slaves,” especially its indictment of government and private sector complicity in a failed drug war. Wagstoff also directed readers to similar pieces in the ThinkProgress, Salon, and the New Jersey Star Ledger, and highlighted Michael Moore’s amazed tweet at Kanye’s political forthrightness on primetime TV.

At the Ledger, Tris McCall did a nice job contextualizing Kanye’s politicization among some of his earlier tracks as well as within contemporary rap reactions to the prison-industrial complex.

And Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece at ThinkProgress was most notable for its failed critique of Kanye’s turn toward misogyny at the end of “New Slaves.” After blasting the DEA+CCA, Kanye threatens to come to “Your Hamptons house/I’ll fuck your Hamptons spouse/Come on her Hamptons blouse/And in her Hamptons mouth.” A more trenchant gloss of those lines might have eschewed mere moralizing and instead noticed that in the face of a faceless war on poor people of color by the most powerful Americans, West’s only recourse is to sexist rhetoric. Indeed, given his reference to himself for dating a white woman as “King Kong” in “Black Skinhead,” West’s lyrics are aware that by resorting to threats toward an implicitly white woman he plays into the very sexual-racial stereotypes white America already wants to hold against him.

What I want to add to this discussion is a focus on this video being projected on walls all over the world, and especially on its appearance on the Crown Fountain at Milennium Park, the flashy civic space in downtown Chicago where white-collar workers can go in the summer after work to see Andrew Bird for free, but which doesn’t have a basketball court.

Because it’s almost like this video was made for that park.

I opened this piece by mentioning that the diversity of media experiences this debut created was an innovation made for the moment. What makes Kanye’s “guerrilla marketing technique” so incredible to my eyes is not that the video was played all over the world–it has been well noted by playa-haters and fanboys alike that after the first thing aired in Tokyo or whatever, everyone could stay home and watch someone else’s iPhone footage from their own boring bedroom.

What’s really amazing here, in this era of critical excess, is that these separate viewings unmediated by a centralized TV camera cockpit created hundreds of individual pieces of primary source material for us aspiring scholar writer types to gush over. We can hear kids react to their first sight/sound of “New Slaves” in New York, Chicago, Toronto, in French, English, Japanese, Portugese, and so on, and we can close read all that shit. That’s cultural innovation that’s not arbitrary but directly responsive to the environment in which it functions.

On the Prada Store in Manhattan, as the video opens up with colorful 1950’s-esque graphics with the words SPECIAL $3.99 printed on a green rectancular background, NOT FOR SALE on a yellow circle, $1.75 NEW handwritten over red, NEW SLAVES like a dog tag, NEW MART $21.86 on a lime-green square, a barcode, and we hear a female spectator ask, quite reasonably, “Is that an advertising spot?”

On the side of Wrigley Field, the image projected over Chicago Cubs graphics, the video’s high-resolution imagery seemed designed for this kind of imperfect medium, especially in a white, wealthy neighborhood like Lakeview. As Kanye’s starkly black face faded into the background, the image asked, can you see me? can you hear me? Or aren’t my white teeth and my chain all you see anyway? “See its that rich nigga racism…all you blacks want all the same things.”

And oh, oooohhhhh, on the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. I remember when this park opened, thinking how dope this fountain was. On either end of a granite reflecting pool in which children play barefoot in the summer are two towers made of glass bricks through which huge videos of Chicagoans play. The videos are one-minute close-ups of Chicagoans of all ages and races, old men and women, kids, teenagers, young people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, looking straight at the camera. At the end of the minute, they purse their lips, and a stream of water comes out of the column where their mouth is and flows into the reflecting pool.

Now imagine that, last Saturday night, in the warm May evening, you stood around the pool under a clear sky and watched this glass tower: a figure of an elderly Asian man appears, then a white teenage boy, then a Latina kindergartner, smiling gently at the camera, blinking slowly, pursing their lips as in a kiss at you, and water pours into the fountain. How delightful.

Then a black man’s face appeared. Oh shit, it’s Kanye West. Kanye does not blow a kiss at you. Kanye starts rapping, and his message is angry. In the context of the Crown Fountain, his language acquires new meaning. It says, “Fuck your pat multiculturalism.” Yesterday the unelected Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to shut down 49 Chicago Public Schools, all in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “Fuck your race-blind rhetoric.”  Now the mayor wants to build a taxpayer-funded arena for the DePaul basketball team and continue opening privately-controlled charter schools. “Fuck your school-to-prison pipeline.”

I know that we the new slaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves…

Get your piece today.

And then, at the close of the song, Kanye stops speaking his own words, which already called on the legacy of black protest music with the quotes from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and begins lip-synching to vocals which to me sound like, “We can’t get too high, we can’t get too  high, again, Oh no, so low, so low…” These words are a clear retort to folks like Richard Roeper who tell Kanye to “stop bitching.” West alludes to  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which opens by asking, “Can we get much higher?” Here he seems to answer, “No.”

Meaghan Garvey decodes Kanye’s attachment to black suffering:

Questioning why a rich black man has a right to express anger at the plight of less rich black people is essentially asking, “Well, you’re gonna be okay, so what’s the problem?” Kanye’s wealth and participation in consumerist culture …cheapens his message to certain critics. This is because they are approaching the hyper-consumerist culture Kanye references when he says “What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things”  as a force that is very bad, certainly; but not as a force that has enslaved them, personally, into a permanent underclass and then gone on to laugh at them for accepting the ideals and signifiers of this culture.

Kanye has transcended the class that is bearing the brunt of the issues at hand in “New Slaves”, and thus is expected to gratefully shut the fuck up and let it slide (“throw him some Maybach keys/ Fuck it, c’est la vie”). He now belongs to the same social class that has essentially trapped his people…. Kanye is not a “new slave” in the same sense as the victims of the prison industrial complex, but he is still trapped in a world that expects him to not only be complicit with the struggle of his people, but to be appreciative that he is not one of them. And on top of all that, while he gets to exist in the world of the 1%, having the money and signifiers of success still aren’t enough to make his (white) 1% peers actually even respect him.

As always, Kanye is begging us to really hear him. In tapes of his Friday night debuts you can hear kids already singing along with him: “I know that we the new slaves/I know that we the new slaves.” Besides the one official video and the official SNL video, there are dozens of tapes on YouTube of the same music video played against the backdrop of real cities where real people are suffering real injustice.  “Niggas is going through real shit, man, they out of work/ That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt.” His video played on Wrigley Field, on a Prada store, on the safely-philanthropy-funded Crown Fountain. But Big Money’s complicity in Kanye’s debut isn’t ironic, it’s the whole point. As he rapped a decade ago on “All Falls Down,” “We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” We’re all guilty, we all know what’s going on, we’re all participating in the systems that enslave us. At least Ye has the guts to stand up there and say it. Not For Sale. Of course he’s for sale. But aren’t you? Aren’t we all?

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Invisible Men of Color at Obama’s Chicago Speech

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

President Obama just gave a really bland, boring speech in Chicago which some optimistic folks among us thought might directly address the problem of inner-city gun violence, in the wake of shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton. It quickly became clear, however, that Obama was in stump mode–this speech was almost identical to his State of the Union address, except this time he didn’t smile, and I assume the audience was more diverse than that of our assembled legislators.

I had already been interested in the gender politics of Obama’s (and our whole country’s) response to the death of female non-gang member Hadiya Pendleton. We are outraged over Hadiya; we are outraged over Sandy Hook; but we still aren’t outraged over the thousands of young men killed by gang violence each year. We don’t seem able to take responsibility for young men in gangs, wielding weapons, being killed, as also our children, as also a tragedy, as also victims, victims of larger structural problems perhaps, but deserving of political sight nonetheless. Our compassion stops there. So I was surprised-not-surprised to see Obama standing in front of an array of only female high school students. I didn’t think he was speaking at an all-female school.

Of course, the speech contained ample messages about “encouraging fatherhood,” which if this was at the RNC convention we’d call a “dog whistle,” and plenty took to Twitter to bemoan Obama’s selective amnesia about mass incarceration. Then, this amazing moment happened where Obama hollered at some young men in the audience he’d spoken to–he asks them to stand so that “we can all see them.” The President looks off-stage, tensely, as though trying to mind-jedi communicate he wants them to be on TV. But the cameras stay on him. We don’t see them. Obama says “these guys are no different from me,” only he had a stronger safety net–but what these young men look like, whether they look like Obama or not, I don’t know. We don’t see them.

Only then, at the end of his speech, as Obama physically moves to reach out to the young men in the audience, do I realize there is a tall African-American teenage boy standing directly behind the President, surrounded by about a dozen girls. You can see him in the screenshot above. Could he tell the President was directly between himself and the camera? Did he wonder why he was surrounded by a moat of females? I sure did. This image speaks to the huge oversights in Obama’s speech. Even when President Obama tried to be compassionate and inclusive toward young men of color, they were still off screen, hidden from our sight just as they will be when they are incarcerated, or disenfranchised, or criminalized.

In his last few huge speeches – DNC, SOTU — Obama has begun crafting a theoretical framework around the value of citizenship, a vision that values participatory democracy through individual works and cooperation. Mr. President, are these young men not also citizens? Are drug users citizens? Is Anwar Al-Awlaki’s son? While I appreciate your vision of citizenship, as progressives it is our duty to expand the polity and the ranks of the enfranchised. Keeping young men of color off our TV screens isn’t the right way to start.

 

Confessions of a White Girl Neither Stopped nor Frisked

I’ll make this brief, because the point is brief and I’m nervous putting this out there. This morning I read this NYTimes blog post “In Subway, Activist Records Stop-and-Frisk He Says Proves Its Dark Side” which refers to the video, above (which you should watch). Stop-and-Frisk has come into broad national attention lately, with the wonderful opposition march in New York on Father’s Day. Who knows why now is the time. Perhaps Trayvon Martin’s death–and Geraldo Rivera’s response?–reignited our attention to how black bodies in hoodies are stamped with a criminal suspicion the moment they leave the house.

I don’t have that body. Police don’t stop me on the street to harass me. A few times, walking home at night in my parents’ bar-heavy neighborhood in Chicago, police have stopped to make sure I’m okay.

But more importantly, police have stopped me smoking marijuana in public in Chicago, and I was not frisked, not harassed, and never, ever arrested. The Chicago Reader reports that “marijuana is believed to be used at similar rates across racial groups, yet African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession in Chicago” (Dumke and Joravsky, “How Chicago Said Yes to Pot”). I tell you my side of the story because white kids who get away with possessing pot are the invisible flip side of the injustice of criminalized marijuana. Put in other words–and in the light of the Reader’s statistics–young people of all races are getting high, but nearly only African-Americans–78% of arrests! 92% jail time!–are effectively criminalized by this criminal activity.

Marching on Fathers’ Day to end Stop-And-Frisk, NYC, 2012

I remember smoking a joint in a park in what must have been the summer of 2005, when the police approached my friend and I. Caught red-handed. We put it out but the two cops saw the dead roach on the ground and picked it up. “Do you have any more?” one of them asked. “Don’t lie.”

“No,” I said.

“Let me search your bag,” he told me. I handed him my purse and, lo and behold, I’d been lying. He dumped what was left of my pathetic stash on the ground and crushed it under his shoe. “I told you not to lie,” he said. “Now I have to give you a ticket.” And he wrote me a $35 ticket for being in a city park after closing time.

If we had been black males, I have no doubt my friend and I would have been taken to jail that night. Lots of white kids smoke pot, and lots of their criminalized behavior gets noticed by the police. The difference is, we don’t get arrested for it, we don’t get put in jail, it never goes on our records. And, because Stop-and-Frisk is a racialized agenda, white kids carrying drugs (but smart enough to keep them behind closed doors) never get randomly policed and caught for possession–only people of color do.

The Reader reports that Chicago’s new marijuana law allows ticketing but doesn’t prohibit arrests.

[Roosevelt professor Kane-Willis] says she thinks the fines are too high for the poor young men most likely to be ticketed, and she worries that police won’t have any reason to stop making arrests. “My concern is that there’s no incentive to ticket,” she says. “The worst case, we end up with the tickets and the arrests. Best case: we end up moving to tickets and do something about the racial gap.”

One convoluted silver lining I see in this? Maybe, faced with budget crises, the police will take the opportunity to really ticket everyone who gets caught riding high in the Chi. And who knows what political forces will be awakened when white teens come home with $250 tickets for smoking doobies in the city’s public parks?

Must Read: The Warmth of Other Suns

A few weeks ago I finished Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration, in which four million African-Americans moved north and west from the Jim Crow south over six decades after World War I. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in African-American or really American history of the 20th century. The book uses copious interviews with migrants and members of the communities they left and joined, combined with coverage of older and a new body of reevaluative research on the migrants, to argue compellingly that southern migrant blacks were a resilient and hardworking group whose individual decisions culminated to change America’s cultural, economic, and geographical landscape, and in so doing pushed American history forward.

While I read I found myself noting the words that Wilkerson uses to describe the African American experience under Jim Crow that because of their over-affiliation with other events or our successful efforts to smooth out our own national history, we rarely read in popular accounts of American history. Words like apartheid, terrorism, human rights, and most notably, caste. Perhaps other folks are used to seeing caste used, but it surprised me. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate, but caste makes me think of India. How have we so successfully purged our language of correct usage of words? Because despite the fact that Jim Crow used violence to maintain caste distinctions that had become technically illegal, still we use words like “segregation” which connote “separate but equal.” There’s no equal in caste.

And, since this is a hiphop blog, I should note that this book does a great job of mentioning–throughout, but especially at the end–the way the Great Migration influenced the landscape of American music and culture.

Over time, the Migration would transform American music as we know it. The three most influential figures in jazz were all children of the Great Migration. Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Thelonious Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. John Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen. Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used one once he got north. (529)

Many black parents who left the South got th eone thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Serena and Venus Williams, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, Nat King Cole, Oprah Winfrey, Berry Gordy (who founded Motown and signed children of the Migrantion to sing for it), the astronaut Mae Jemison, the artist Romare Bearden, the performers Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jacksn, Prince, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifa, the director Spike Lee, the playwright August Wilson, and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the Great Migration and raised them in the North or West. All of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really, and were among the first generation of blacks in their country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of their forebears. Millions of other children of the Migration grew up to lead productive, though anonymous, lives in quiet, everyday ways that few people will ever hear about. (535)

Green Street, later renamed Red Row, the Rocky Mount, North Carolina road on which Thelonious Monk's family lived, from his birth in 1917 until 1922. Photo by Jonathan Williams, 1970, Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Audio Project: Digging up Thelonious Monk’s Southern Roots

As a Chicagoan myself, this book filled in a huge part of my understanding of my city. One of the book’s three main characters, Ida Mae Gladney, moves to Chicago from Georgia and the changing Black Belt she sees out of her South Side window is as fascinating as how she got up there in the first place. I also loved how in Wilkerson’s language and especially her epigraphs, the book was shot through with influences from literature and music. A lot of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, letters, newspapers, spirituals. It’s history, y’all. Anyway, read this book! I’ll end with another segment from the conclusion that sounded like it came out of a Nas song. Mind blown!

It is one of those circular facts of history that, in the three great receiving cities to which southern blacks fled–the cities that drew Ida Mae, George, and Robert–blacks had been among the first nonnatives to set foot on the soil and to establish settlements centuries before. Black mestizos were among the forty-four Mexican settlers arriving in 1781 at the pueblo that would become Los Angeles. Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a fur trader born of an African slave woman in Haiti, built, in 1779, the first permanent settlement in what is now known as Chicago. Jan Rodrigues, a sailor of African descent working for and later abandoned by Dutch merchants on an untamed island in the New World, created the first trading post on what is now known as Manhattan, in 1613. (537)