12.04.13 10:45 AM ET
In Defense of Kanye West
Kanye West has an estimated $100 million, the most beautiful woman in America as his wife-to-be, and an unparalleled career at the helm of pop music and culture. By most of our pedestrian standards, the man has not a thing to complain about. By his own admission, he’s found “heaven on earth.” But the past couple of months of Yeezus tour promo, during which he’s spoken more frequently and more sincerely than he has in years, have been thick with grievances. The headlines have accordingly singled out the zeitgeist-friendliest of soundbytes: Kanye West Thinks He Invented Leather Jogging Pants. Kanye West Encourages Fans to Boycott Louis Vuitton. Kanye West Says Sway ‘Ain’t Got The Answers.’
Rather than the media training-steeped platitudes and pre-approved anecdotes favored by other celebrities of comparable stature, Kanye has used this latest bout of media attention to lay out his criticisms of the global fashion industry, the awards industrial complex, America, and any person, place, or thing that has systemically or systematically obstructed his path to translating musical success to self-actualization in fashion, art, technology, and culture in general.
But extemporaneous speech is not his strongest suit; Kanye expresses himself much better creatively than he does in conversation. Fully formed thoughts are obscured by strings of seemingly inane phrases and a penchant for hyperbole that can be as entertaining as it is distracting. While it’s obvious to a fan why he would compare himself to Shakespeare, as he did in an interview with Sway Calloway last week, Kanye’s ascension to Shakespeare-level impact is less apparent to someone to whom he is, unobservantly enough, just another rapper.
In interviews and in other public appearances that require him to speak, Kanye’s nervousness is palpable and subsides only after he finds his groove, usually once the conversation has shifted to something he is passionate about. In an October appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, in which the two squashed a beef that resulted from a Kimmel bit that infantilized him by having a pair of children reenact out-of-context quotes from an earnest BBC interview, Kanye fessed up to having been nerve-wracked during the Zane Lowe sitdown that set the whole thing off. “After I did the BBC interview I was shaking,” he told Kimmel.
At some point early on in his now 15-year career—likely at the exact moment he distilled the government’s despicably inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina into the single, memorable phrase, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”—Kanye became the most divisive and important figure in contemporary pop. That honesty is both what we love about him and what makes it easy to hate him: to those who understand it, his mission to inspire is self-evident and laudable but to those who don’t, he seems impossibly removed from reality and will likely remain that way. He is loved and hated in equal measure and with equal passion but, mostly, he is misunderstood.
Kanye’s public persona, or to put it more accurately, the public perception of Kanye’s personhood, has largely been defined not by his so-called “antics,” but by white reactions to them. Because of deep-rooted, centuries-old stereotypes used to oppress black men, Kanye is the embodiment of everything America has been taught to fear and hate. And he despises it as much as he revels in it, for better or worse—his default use of the sexualization of white women is the intentional (and, yes, misogynistic) fallout of that.
The all-too-common descriptions of Kanye as “crazy” or “childish” or “out of control” follow the long-held, socially sanctioned belittlement and demonization of black men. When he reacts angrily to an interviewer patronizing him, as he did when Sway Calloway suggested his approach to the fashion industry was misguided, he’s not viewed as a deeply frustrated artist who is forced to answer the same condescending questions over and over but, rather, as a disturbed man prone to flying off the handle.
Kanye has argued that the racially coded, tautologous delegitimization of his genius and cultural significance—among other things, he has cited disagreements with Nike over the cachet of his Air Yeezy sneaker, a pair of which auctioned for nearly $90,000 but inexplicably yielded no follow-up with the company—is used to actively exclude him from an industry that uses him when it’s beneficial but otherwise refuses to treat him as a peer.
Case-in-point: the song “I Am A God” on Yeezus, likely the most infamous and controversial track in his oeuvre, was written after he felt disrespected by Saint Laurent creative director Hedi Slimane, who refused to allow him to attend his show in Paris if he also attended other fashion week runway shows. A proper listen to the track, which facetiously lists Jesus as a featured artist, shows neither arrogance nor blasphemy but a hilarious, feisty blowback at what Kanye has repeatedly described as the fashion industry’s desire to “contain” him.
He attributes much of his mistreatment at the hands of The Establishment to classism, which he terms “racism’s cousin”; his point is well-taken but it’s perhaps a misnomer for the gradual switch not from racism to classism, but from legal racism to institutional racism, an infinitely more insidious system of oppression that is relatively easy to identify but, by design, difficult to prove.
At some point, Kanye went from being America’s black friend to being America’s public enemy number one; the backpacks, brightly colored Polo shirts, and charming collegiate demeanor that once identified him as safe were replaced with a black-and-leather uniform, a set of bottom grills, and a willingness to prioritize his own truth-telling over proper decorum (the Taylor Swift interruption heard ‘round the world is a prime example of that). He publicly grappled with the realization that America wants his window-paned sunglasses, not his take on racism or urban violence or the structure of higher education and certainly not his opinion on the way it treats black artists. It is a sentiment that, on a much smaller scale, rings true to many of us who watch and feel a kinship with him, his honesty, and the challenges posed by attempting to “survive America.”
On Yeezus and in the months since its release, we’ve seen the emergence of a new Kanye: a family man who appears in love with Kim Kardashian not despite but with complete disregard for all the negative things she’s said to symbolize. Their love was recently immortalized in the epic video for the album’s single “Bound 2,” a cheesy if self-aware, sincere declaration of love that, like anything he does, earned impassioned reactions from the public.
It is a distinctly different side to the Kanye that is portrayed as antagonistic and aggressive, a reflection of his capacity for code-switching; for many Americans, including, famously, President Obama, learning to switch between black and “mainstream” vernacular and cultural signifiers is necessary for survival in white America. Accusations of hypocrisy and disingenuousness have been lobbed at both for doing it with seeming ease. However, the many facets of Kanye are a shining reminder that to be black and in the public eye should not require much more than simply being black in the public eye.
He errs often, but Kanye West doesn’t bow or break and that is the ultimate measure of a man being watched and loved from afar by people whose daily battles instruct us to bow and break.