I recently wrote an article called, “Harry Belafonte Was Right About Jay-Z.” The article went viral, generating a huge response from the Black community and beyond. A few readers were puzzled when I stated, “Kanye West…often laments about racism but strives to uphold the same materialistic values that help drive economic disparities.” Now, I will explore this more thoroughly.
There is no denying that Kanye West has had a tremendous impact on the music industry and pop culture. From the beginning of his mainstream career, Kanye has been critical of issues dealing with racism and the structures within it. His infamous, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” statement caused a media frenzy and solidified the general sentiments of the Black community during the Hurricane Katrina tragedy.
Yet it seems with more fame and popularity, Kanye’s commentary has shifted from calling out racism because it’s wrong, to calling out racism because he didn’t get a seat at the table. This is the bigger issue.
The distinguished psychiatrist Frantz Fanon addressed this line of thinking in his 1961 classic Wretched of the Earth. In this literary masterpiece, Fanon deconstructed the colonized mind.
“The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession; of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonized man is an envious man.”
One cannot deny the lasting effects that slavery and colonialism has had on African Americans and people of African descent around the world. In a recent interview, Kanye vehemently states, “We’re all slaves!” I understand him to a certain extent. Indeed, there is a systematic glass ceiling that prevents people of African descent and people from low economic classes from upward mobility. Even when some rise up the ranks, there are still many barriers that prevent them from attaining certain goals because they do not come from a certain class (the old money class). This is where I understand Kanye on the fashion industry. They don’t want him and they never will. He will forever be categorized as “urban,” a description he is desperately running away from because he knows that this is another way of being pigeonholed and prevented from making a significant impact (beyond blackness and urbanism) in the fashion industry.
In some ways it coincides with W.E.B Du Bois’ description of double consciousness:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
However, Kanye has time and time again demonstrated that he is displeased with the system solely based on the fact that he wants a seat at the table. His anger is steeped in envy rather than reform. And this is dangerous because we get away from transforming these hierarchical structures, to unknowingly reinforcing them.
For example, this is evident in his almost complete dismissal of Black models for his runway shows in Paris. He doesn’t seem too concerned about the pains of racism unless it’s affecting his own progress. Instead, he went with the flow and continued to allow for Black models to be denied a chance at equality. He also cheers on fashion brands that are known for their lack of diversity. The fashion brand Céline, was recently boycotted by the supermodel Iman, because of their refusal to hire Black models. Meanwhile Kanye West orders full wardrobes of Céline clothing, attends their shows and sports their brand.
Furthermore, he has a lack of respect for African American history. Much like the N-Word, no matter what way you look at it, the Confederate flag represents the deep rooted oppression of African Americans. In fact, it was used as a tool to remind us of our “place.” After the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling, the state of Georgia started using the Confederate flag as a sign of the good ole’ days.
The painful past associated with the symbolism surrounding the flag and what it represents is no laughing or fashion forward matter. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, about 500 extremist groups still use the cross on the Confederate Flag as a symbol of white superiority. This example is tired and old but I can’t imagine someone wearing a Swastika for fashion. I wonder if Kanye will start wearing symbols promoting the South African apartheid era next.
When Kanye speaks about racism or slavery, he’s not doing it for the ordinary people, but instead for sensationalism. He is using the Confederate flag to generate buzz, no matter how hurtful it may be.
He also has an incessant belief that Paris is the only fashion mecca and it has to let him in. Kanye recently wanted to help the Louis Vuitton brand with his “influence.” They promptly rejected the offer.
Kanye has an obsession with getting acceptance, but not the “colored” kind. When the radio host Sway tried to encourage him to maybe create his own way, Kanye gave the now Twitter famous reply, “ You ain’t got the answers Sway.”
Indeed none of us may have the complete answers to racism and upward mobility. However, given his track record and current behavior, Kanye simply can’t be taken seriously on racism. With every new Kanye rant we are witnessing a public display of internal conflict consisting of Fanon’s “dreams of possession” and Dubois’ double consciousness. Ultimately, he cares more about having a seat at the table with the same people he accuses of racism and classism, than bringing about change.
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