"It's about imperfection. Everybody can relate to that."
- Kanye West to Che Smith, friend and co-writer of "Jesus Walks"
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"
At a time when hip-hop was plagued with oversexed M.C.'s and superficial rhymes you could say that Kanye West flew onto the scene like an angel out of heaven. His smash first single "Slow Jam" would pre-empt any chances of being mislabeled as a Gospel artist, but the inspirational, non-preachy "Jesus Walks" earned him a place next to other Patron Saints of Imperfection and prophetic reflection, such as John Coltrane ("Love Supreme"), Marvin Gaye ("What's Going On?") and Tupac Shakur (Too many songs with spiritual force and social relevance to name just one). Hua Hsu of the Village Voice had it right when he wrote in his review of West's first album The College Dropout, entitled "The Benz or the Backpack?", that self-conflict was in. With his second album, Late Registration, West proves that he is the king of cognitive and spiritual dissonance, which helps him capture the complex nature of the human condition better than any of his peers in hip-hop and perhaps better than anyone in music - period.
Kanye's complexity is fueled by a mother who is a retired English Professor and a father who is a former Black Panther and is currently a Christian marriage counselor. Pedigree may have given him his uncanny blend of intellecualism, spirituality and revolutionary disposition, but his middle class upbringing contributed to his preppy sense of style. Sprinkle on some hip-hop pathos and you have one of the most original musical artists ever. It is this hyper-awareness of his unique stature that boosts West's ego and causes some critics to paint him with the "arrogant" label.
Artistic contradiction, West's masterful formula for success, is precisely what causes Time reporter Josh Tyrangiel to question the revolutionary potential of Kanye in his article, "Why You Can't Ignore Kanye West." "Revolutions require moral certainty, and West's default position is doubt," writes Tyrangiel. "What he's up to is more like a reformation." Another conflicted Christian by the name of Martin Luther has taught us that reformations can have revolutionary implications, but Tyrangiel does have a point. If Hsu is correct in his assessment that, "Rather than sort through his life's ethical messes or compromised alliances, West peddles self-conflict as an end itself," than we have reason to be cautious about Kanye's role in a larger social movement. In all fairness, Hsu made his comments in reference to West's first album. The question is, has Kanye become more secure in the positions that he takes on various issues (keeping in mind only one year has past between his new album and his last one)? Let's take a look at some lyrics that touch on race and class, which are among West's favorite topics:
She's so precious with the peer pressure
Couldn't afford a car so she named her daughter Alexus [a Lexus]
She had hair so long that it looked like weave
Then she cut it all off now she look like Eve
And she be dealing with some issues that you can't believe
Single black female addicted to retail and well
But I ain't even gon act holier than thou
Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou
Before I had a house and I'd do it again
Cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz
I wanna act ballerific like it's all terrific
I got a couple past due bills, I won't get specific
I got a problem with spending before I get it
We all self conscious I'm just the first to admit it
- "All Falls Down," The College Drop Out
My chain, this ain't conflict diamonds
Is they Jacob [jeweler for many celebrities]? Don't lie to me, man
See, a part of me sayin', "Keep shinin"
"How? When I know what are blood diamonds
Though it's thousands of miles away
Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today
Over here it's a drug trade, we die from drugs
Over there they die from what we buy from drugs
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless'
Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless
And here's the conflict
It's in a black person soul to rock that gold
Spend your whole life tryin' to get that ice
On a Polo rugby it look so nice
How can something so wrong make me feel so right?
Right? 'fore I beat myself up like Ike
You can still throw your Roc-a-Fella diamond tonight
- "Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)," Late Registration
In each of the previous songs, taken from from the artist's freshman and sophomore albums respectively, we see the theme of conflict and contradiction at work. Kanye will deconstruct a personal or social ill that he observes and just when one thinks he is going to make a definitive moral claim he digresses into a disclosure of his own imperfection to reveal internal struggles and possibly to avoid hypocrisy. "I'm pretty calculating," West admits (Tyrangiel). "I take stuff that I know appeals to people's bad sides and match it up with stuff that appeals to their good sides". As an example, he cites verses from Diamonds from Sierra Leone: "Life movin' too fast, I need to slow down/ Girl ain't give me no ass, she need to go down. 'All right, that's really crass, right? Really bogus,' West explains. 'So what comes next?' "My father been said I need Jesus/ So he took me to church, let the water wash over my Caesar' [haircut]. I go back and forth all the time." West seems to be motivated as much by his business savvy as his sense of integrity.
On the song "Roses" (Late Registration), we actually do see unequivocal righteous indignation at the injustice of disparities in health care quality. Kanye tells the story of his grandmother who passed away, in part because the family could not afford better medical treatment for her. West pours out his pain in the following lyrics:
If Magic Johnson got a cure for AIDS
And all the broke muh'fuckers passed away
You tellin me if my grandma's in the NBA
Right now she'd be okay? But since she
was just a secretary, worked for the church for 35 years
Things 'sposed to stop right here
While watching "A Concert for Hurricane Relief on MSNBC" (the program was shown on all NBC broadcast stations), I witnessed the moment that may have thrust Kanye into the stratosphere of controversy that few artists manage to reach. West deviated from the script on the teleprompter to denounce the media for their alleged racial bias in covering the hurricane's aftermath. "I hate the way they portray us in the media," lamented West. "You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food.' Then there was the moment of "shock and awe": After declaring that the United States "is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible [emphasis mine]" (though he did exempt the Red Cross from critique), Kanye secured his place in the "bad ass" hall of fame. He said and I quote "George Bush doesn't care about black people!" Wow.
West has just become Enemy Number 1 in the eyes of many (white) Americans and the hero for masses of poor black folk. For those Kanye was speaking on behalf of, it doesn't matter if some of Bush's best friends are black like Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas. Bush is merely a symbol of a government and a society who often overlook their own suffering people in order to extend a helping hand to people abroad. A friend brought to my attention the fact that our government responded to the 2004 Tsunami in Asia faster than the victims of Hurricane Katrina. "How could it be racism?" one may ask, "We're talking about two groups of people of color". The history between African-Americans and the larger society is a complicated one. Thank God so many Americans are stepping up to alleviate the plight of Asia and Africa, but many of our citizens (including a lot of Christians) turn a blind eye to the poor blacks in the hood across town, while they get in planes to fly food and medicine across the ocean. Those brothers and sisters in the ghettos of America are painful reminders of the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and the lingering effects of institutional racism.
I may not have used Kanye's same words if given the opportunity to speak on behalf of African-America, but then again I may not have had his courage to say anything off script at all. He did stumble over his words because of nervousness, but the magnitude of what he managed to say will reverberate far beyond this moment. We can not gage the evolution of Kanye West by just listening to his music. We have to look at the artist as well as the man. Move over Tupac, it looks like you've got some competition.
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Kanye's comments were neither bold nor truthful. Everyone in the media was scrambling over each other to blame bush and conservatives for what they saw as a lack of response. Truthfully, it was bush who pleaded with the black mayor of NO to implement the evacuation and disaster plan to no avail and then seriously considered taking over the disaster relief from a mayor and gov. who were incompetant at best. We should not jump on the band wagon and look to the federal government to be a savior to a problem that was largly caused by a lack of action of the local governement. The federal government has done admirably well once they got the ok from local authorities to respond to a disaster that no one could have predicted.
I appreciate your provocative comments. It has prompted me to do some additional research on the Katrina situation, but first I would like to address your assertion that Kanye's statements were "neither bold nor truthful." I think it would perhaps have been more accurate to say that his remarks were unwise or even foolish, because when someone deviates from a scripted message on a telepromter during a national relief effort to, in so many words, call the president a racist a lot of courage is needed. Now the comment as framed may not seem truthful on it's face, but when put into proper historical context and taking into consideration, the symbolic nature of the presidency and recognizing people's tendency to associate presidents with the state or society in general, we then become able to see the elements of truth in Kanye's message. His criticism of the racial bias of the media and the characterization of blacks as "looters" and whites as "finders" is already documented sufficiently, so I won't spend any time here on that observation (Even if you exclude the controversial photos that were posted on Yahoo! News, the media in typical fashion chose to highlight the criminality -both real and perceived- of a small percentage of black people, while the overwhelming majority were simply trying to survive and many were engaging in heroic feats to save themselves and others.)
By reviewing the State of Louisiana's press releases, we learn that Governor Blanco declared a "State of Emergency" on August 26th two days before Bush called for evacuation and asked Bush to make a federal request for evacuation on the 27th one day before Bush actually did so. Sunday, August 28th Mayor Nagin issued his mandatory evacuation and should have done so sooner, just as he should have used the school buses to help transport his citizens. Bush also should have responded to Louisina's prior requests for help in upgrading the levee system, since their budget like many other states have suffered due to massive tax cuts over the past several years. Either way you spin it though, the federal government has a role to play in disasters of this magnitude and could have acted more quickly as we all know.
Thank you for warning me about the dangers of jumping on band wagons. Let me me also suggest that we don't fall victim to goverment rhetoric and propaganda. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has faithfully followed orders to characterize any reporter who raises questions about the Bush Administration's compentency and discretion in responding to the disasters as "playing the blame game." Why is it playing the blame game to ask why the president took two days to come back from vacation while Katrina was raging against the Gulf Coast (Interestingly enough, he was finishing up a month long vacation when another disaster struck - 9-11. Only in that case he managed to make his way to Ground Zero by the next morning. No symbolic monuments of American economic dominance and not too many powerful financial tycoons in "Nawlins" though. Just a city which is 65% black and 25% poor.)
As far as messianic duties not being in the federal governments job description, they did not have a problem trying to be a "savior" for the Iraqi people, so why shouldn't they exercise the same grandiose scheme for their own citizens when it doesn't even require tanks and bombers to do so? And since when does Bush need permission to do anything? Yes, the federal government is finally getting mobilized around the relief efforts in a responsible way, and will probablly be even more effective now that Michael Brown has resigned as FEMA Director (Can we say "Check the references next time Mr. President?" and maybe get someone who actually has experience in emergency management). Unfortunately, the victims of Hurricane Katrina will be recovering long after this president leaves office. It's up to all of us to continue to support our displaced neighbors when the media have turned their cameras to the next big story.