Artwork by Oliver Meinerding
Kanye West is a man unsatisfied with living in this reality. A reality where someone else is in charge of his life. As Ye says, we are all slaves. A commodity to “the man” that cuts us a check, just so we could earn the basics for food, clothes, health, shelter, and travel.
In this life, we are constantly marginalized by our race, age, sex, and money. It is that simple-complex. I agree with Kanye when he said during one of his interviews that (most) black people don’t have anyone to call when they need help. Shoot, the only person I can call besides my mama is God. I don’t even have rich friends whom I can visit. If it wasn’t for governmental programs, I would be on the streets of New York.
We live in a top down tier society where all our resources are owned and distributed by the wealthy. Every process for our basic necessities in life are screened. Applying to housing, to jobs, to schools, to journals to get published (yes, I need to get published). Everything is constantly a feat in questioning how measurably good you have been in your life, not so that you can help yourself own your own means to production, but so that you can serve others for the rest of your life.
Wealthy people do not trade in their time for money. They know that wage earners are modern day slaves and this is what Kanye is struggling with. Although he is making substantially more than the minimum wage, he is still not the owner of his creative work. There are middlemen and industries that are set up to keep creatives and wage earners at the mercy of those who own them. So, every sale that Kanye makes is another sale for those who own the studios, publishing, and distribution for his records.
Although we are a nation that stresses freedom, we aren’t a nation that supports it. Meaning, we can talk how we want (sort of) and you can go where you want (just don’t knock on the door if you are black in a white neighborhood) and we can study where we want (if you can afford it). There are many structural barriers and we are currently watching Kanye in a very public way navigate his way as an American artist trying to break into mainstream fashion. An industry obsessed with branding and “marginalizing” black designers to urban fashion.
On the surface, Kanye West is a black man fight-finding his way through the clothing industry. He is preoccupied with creating wealth not only through an industry with “creative glass ceilings” but a world with them as well. Blacks are often stereotyped as violent, hypersexualized, sentimentalized slave-narrative-overcomers since the beginning of white supremacy history. So, it is no wonder that because Kanye expects and wants more, he is seen as egotistical and entitled. Perhaps the world feels like he doesn’t deserve it. Who knows?
Kanye wants to shatter a world that at its most basic level doesn’t love black people. A world that isn’t owned by black people. He wants these corporations to “cut him in.” He wants to not only sit at the table, but own the table, the factories that made the table, and be taken seriously as a creative- not as what people think a black man is. But what I find problematic about his vision, is his intention. Kanye doesn’t want to be a slave. He wants to be a slave owner. He wants to go against the grain so badly, but still wants to be a part of the billionaires club. There is nothing new about embodying the structures you are fighting against.
Some folks say that Kanye is being satirical. According to Google, Satire is defined “as the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” I find this argument interesting because I don’t know who Kanye is playing the joke on. Is it him or the corporations he works for? In Yeezus, Kanye chants, “I am a God.”
According to Sabotage, Kanye says, “When someone says ‘I am a God’ everyone says ‘who the hell does he think he is?… would it have been better if I had a song saying I’m a nigger or I’m a gangster? To say you are a God, especially when you got shipped over to the country you’re in and your last name is that of slave owners; how could you have that mentality?”
What I find interesting in this song is that there is nothing God-like. It is a materialistic song about cars, women, and demanding being served. So, if Ye would have used the alternative, it would have been more accurate, unless Ye is saying that being a God is parallel to material success by any means necessary.
There is nothing revolutionary about what Ye is doing. He is reappropriating these symbols and iconography not so that he can free his people from capitalism and poverty, but so that he can participate in it. And for those of you who say that he is charitable, my response to that is so what. It is charitable to be charitable. The tax incentives are there for a reason. It is all a way for companies to channel their money and seem like they actually care about underserved communities.
Kanye is not changing the landscape of Americanism by re-appropriating the language, he is doing it so that he can become a part of it, so that he can sit at the table and be served by the self he is so desperately trying to free.
Lord knows we need black slave masters too. I mean, we want to make this more equal for everybody.
“The Confederate flag represented slavery in a way. That’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I wrote the song ‘New Slaves.’ I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now. Now what you gonna do?” -Kanye West
juju angeles is a poet, teaching artist, and babymama from New York. She is a first generation Dominican-American and creator of A Love Adventure Project—a cause that supports and empowers low-income, single mothers to travel with their children. To find out more about her writing and projects, visit her blog Mangú y Tunafish.