Kanye West wants to express himself. And while this is not a “Kanye is being Kanye” article, I think this is a basic but important thing to consider that under-girds much of the commentary I am laying out below. Kanye is also not a classically trained scholar or debater. His perspectives will have gaps in logic, lack consistent themes and historical context. If you want to vilify Kanye for not being as smart as you, go right away. But does his degree of intelligence dictate whether you believe he should have an opinion/be allowed to express his opinion? If your issue is that he is speaking uninformed, then issue away. But I would be also be interested in who you believe is informed, and why that person is informed? If you believe Kanye is just doing this to sell records, then I have no idea why you’d even click on this page. Lastly, if you believe Kanye has a personal agenda to undermine the efforts of black people for his own personal gain, then you can stop reading now, because if you believe that then no information below will persuade you to think otherwise. This article is for those who cast moral judgment on his comments and political beliefs.
From what I have been able to scan, the backlash has been about the timing and context of Kanye’s opinions. We’re experiencing a surge in conservative ideology, and some fear that Kanye’s comments will only fuel the fire for those looking to couch hateful ideologies within statements of people with authority in an effort to legitimize hateful speech, ideas, and racist policies. It is irresponsible, some say, to make comments that could so easily become fodder for alt-rights and persuade moderate whites to the MAGA imperative to get rid of colored people.
Those who seek to guard against such potentialities have warranted reason for their concern. However, directing and foisting responsibility onto Kanye to police his speech instead of those seeking to manipulate his speech to deny and curtail human rights seems misguided. It would appear, then, the culprits are those lurking to straw-man benevolent (even if not fully developed) cultural commentary into an anti-black agenda. Even if Kanye foresaw such an event, I am not sure why he himself should bear the brunt of the negative energy while the “crazy whites” for which we should be so wary sneak away from the fight with golden nuggets that people seem so certain will help fan the flames of fascism.
Unfortunately, this type of manic about Kanye is not unlike objections made about Colin Kaepernick’s decision to activate his own form of freedom of expression. People lamented on about the inappropriate time, context, place and space to express his own personal views. Conservatives went to great lengths to condemn and silence him and others who felt similarly, while those on the opposite side beat the drum for the right to express himself however he felt, regardless of its mass acceptability or lack thereof.
Given the backlash Kanye has received, I am concerned that the insistence from the Left that Kaepernick be allowed to express dissent with the status quo is because his stance is more in-line with the Left’s “mode of disruption” than is Kanye’s. An apparent unwillingness to allow others to voice unpopular but perceptibly counterproductive opinions freely, independently and without police or supervision is actually us imposing boundaries onto others about which and what is permissible and impermissible to be outspoken. Insomuch as Kanye’s intent is not to subjugate, silence or actively undermine others, then why should he be subject to such consternation?
If indeed his comments are privy to fuel and continue a subversive agenda, why, then, is the backlash, and its impact it could have on the lives of black people, not a component of how we assess Colin’s behaviors? Kaepernick’s behavior has consequences for black bodies in the same way in which Kanye’s could potentially have. And both are using their privilege and platform to discuss perspectives that they themselves are unlikely to be subject to. It is not to say Kanye is fighting for any cause more-noble than Kaep, but the manner in which we deal with the public’s responses to them are inconsistent. Who’s opinions about their opinions matter? And why should the way we view their stances be affected at all by how others will view them? It gives a sense of a sort-of “woke” respectability politic that is overall hurtful to discourse and close the ranks of ideology even tighter. The more essential question: can we disagree on issues of race that don’t result in people suggesting you need your head examined or be accused of changing “teams”? And if that is not impossible, how will disarming racism ever occur if such a consensus in thinking is required?
Kanye West has more than afforded himself the reputation of being someone who has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the intent of his comments. His past comments and recent music is hyper-aware of the role of race in society. If you’re willing to throw all of that out of the door because of weeks worth of comments, then your position could be quickly undermined within a week, and you should stop rushing so quickly to judge people. And by all indications, he has been more than willing to engage with others about his ideas. More verbal violence thrust toward him only confirms the “prison” in which he is so adamant in rebelling against.
Even more importantly, those who characterize his comments as being careless or apathetic to the experiences of everyday black people (or “without thought”) only distract from the fact that his perspective about “slavery as a choice” is not all that new a perspective within black political thought.
From David Walker, to Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, to Louis Farrakhan to even Barack Obama, each has used language that illicit the view that many blacks have chosen to identify with their masters or be complicit, or have accepted defeat at the hands of racism. All seemingly things that, at-least perceptually, can be changed through choice (though no one guarantees a change of perspective will necessarily lead to a better life or how people will treat them). Even outside of political leaders, it is not uncommon for those who are growing their understanding of history to simply challenge the hands of time: WHY wouldn’t we resist? Why wasn’t there more war? We saw massive uprisings all across the African diaspora, why didn’t African Americans for so many centuries?
There are answers to each of these questions. What’s missing from Kanye’s analysis is that there were people who were enslaved who agreed with Kanye. History books (the right ones at-least), are filled with black folks who thought slavery was a choice. And there are narrative after narrative of black folks who have changed their mind about how they view the world and changed the world in the process. They escaped plantations, they killed slave-owners and have started political movements. Some jumped ship to their deaths, some were killed by whites, some were literally held in bondage. Like most things that require people do things that have a high likelihood of death, they are in the exception. So some chose life. Some had the fear of God put into them, some were threatened with their own families. Later on, some were lynched, and the ones surviving learned to cling on tight to the lives and loved ones they had. Kanye is advocating more people think like the former. Isn’t that what we tell our children? “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees?” If your issue with Kanye is poor articulation, and you didn’t feel like working to see where he was coming from because he said it in a way that breeds headlines for Trump trolls, then your issue might be deeper (listening, comprehension, empathy?).
Him developing a worldview that perceives injustice as an unacceptable reality to him should be fine for others to comprehend, even if idealistic. Because it doesn’t jive with the predominant narrative of black people does not mean he should police when or how he expresses his ideas, even if they can be misused for causes counterproductive to what he cares about. That Kanye believes his perspective will uplift people should not be accepted as truth; but at least be embraced. And to conclude that Kaepernicks actions are somehow more uplifting therefore more valid, is something wrought with confirmation bias (because we make it more uplifting).
If his comments create your own subjective distaste for him, then that is perfectly fine. I have been turned off by artists for a lot less. But to vilify him for his opinions would be committing the same crime that has been committed against us. He shouldn’t be deemed as some moral hazard because he doesn’t care how his words will be used against those who share his race no more than Colin Kaepernick should. Don’t hate the player; hate the game. He is not necessarily right, nor is he wrong.
It is always fascinating to see how liberals can at times use similar mechanisms that conservative zealots use to police or wage verbal war against others. It is a reminder that inclusion has limits and that even in spaces where personal freedoms are paramount, we will always invent new ways to place people onto the margins using the same old tricks. The fame and wealth Kanye has is something very few people possess, especially black people. Inevitably, these experiences will change how you see the world. If your unique experience engenders a variant perspective that won’t be tolerated by black people because it is no longer representative of the prevailing black narrative and tradition from which you were once member, then how can any changes to the narrative occur? Kanye’s vision of the world might not be where we want the narrative to move, but its existence is one that maybe we should accept. But deciding who is allowed to speak about what, and how, when and where that speech occurs is a story we’ve seen too often. And we should be willing to live, and die, by that.