“When you hear about slavery, that was 400 years. 400 years? That sounds like a choice!”
During a heated exchange that followed Kanye West’s surprising (and downright idiotic) proclamation that African Americans’ role in (or inability to break out of) chattel slavery was in fact “a choice,” TMZ reporter and Hip Hop podcaster Van Lathan scolded Kanye for this toxic and irresponsible statement. “Kanye, you’re entitled to your opinion, you’re entitled to believe whatever you want, but there are facts and real-life consequences to everything you just said. And while you are making music and being an artist and living the life that you’ve earned by being a genius, the rest of us in society have to deal with the marginalization that comes from the 400 years of slavery that you said, for our people, was a choice! Frankly, I’m disappointed, I’m appalled and brother…I am unbelievably hurt by the fact that you have morphed into something that, to me, is not real.”
When weighed against other hot topics that captured our instantaneous 24-hour news and entertainment cycle, this moment between Lathan and West is significant on a few levels. On one level, this confrontation represented an ideological collision between the working class and the rich/famous celebrity cult that Kanye has centered in both his artistic and social life. It can be argued that Kanye’s calculation that slavery was ultimately “a choice” for African Americans is a logical conclusion of the type of quasi-spiritual “law of attraction” self-help doctrine that many Hollywood celebrities traffic in (popularized by Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret”). If you only believe in yourself more and think positively, you too can be rich, famous, successful, not a slave. This confrontation between Lathan and West was also significant because it created a brief space for open discussions on the systemic nature of racism. Lathan’s response to West concisely identified racism as an all-encompassing system of social, economic, political and legal oppression that exists as a historical continuum stretching from the past to the present day and NOT a mere set of prejudices and attitudes that play out on the individual/interpersonal level.
For the most part, the general public processed this discussion much in the way that we process any significant event that happens in the public sphere: through an endless stream of tweets and memes, on our favorite daytime talk shows and podcasts. Hate him or love him, the public ate it all up and it became clear (to me at least) that Kanye was and has been sacrificing himself on the altar of fame and his own personal mythology. To the man who once packaged himself as a starry-eyed college kid who just wanted to get on, all press is now good press, and it doesn’t matter if the world around him is moved by affection or outrage.
Many dismissed Kanye’s statements (coupled with his fervent support of Donald Trump) as a publicity stunt or a cry for attention. This may be true, but a close listen to his latest album, YE, and considering his past as an artistic and public figure, it becomes increasingly difficult to write Kanye’s public and artistic choices off as mere stunts designed to sell records. His eighth album to date, YE is graphic, joyous, and a horrifying glimpse into the mind of Kanye West. If the inspiration for his haunting and lovelorn classic 808’s & Heartbreaks were the women in his life and the love he couldn’t give/keep, YE’s muse, the album’s raison d’etre, is Kanye West himself, his own heart, mind and the celebrity that threatens to tear him apart. Continue reading →