Kanye West, Ta-Nehisi Coates & The Burden of Representation
“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” — James Baldwin
I do not want to write about Kanye West. I’m sick of that imbecile. I’m sick of seeing him all over my Twitter timeline with his moronic and shockingly backward opinions. I have ignored him, I have tried to avoid him. I have tried. I have really tried. But my hand has now been forced and cannot resist any longer.
Where does one even begin? Well, less than a month after he came back on Twitter he expressed his passionate love for Donald Trump, embracing him as his “brother” and praised him as a fellow bearer of “dragon energy” (whatever that is) and condemned those would object to this absurdity as the “mob” and the “thought police” who want to suppress independent thought and whose tactics were “based on fear.” He then claimed that Trump, not Barrack Obama, the first African American President, offers hope to black boys in the Ghetto that they could lift themselves up from crippling poverty — presumably from the bootstraps — and aspire to be President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world.
It doesn’t end there. After the inevitable backlash, including a plea from his wife, Kim Kardashian, to cool it down with the adulation for Trump he then tweeted this picture wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap on.
West has his defenders and euphemists, usually white conservatives, punk reactionaries and the cowardly and spineless and faux moderate “I don’t agree with some of his opinions, but the politically correct SJW Left is the real problem” brigade. They will frame their defence in terms of a black man who is struggling for his right to dissent from the “leftist” consensus, escape from their echo chamber and be a free thinker. I seriously doubt West knows how think let alone how to think freely, judging from the overload of incoherent babble we are subjected to that comes out of his brain.
This has nothing to do with free thought or the right of someone to break with groupthink or the consensus of any one group. This is about him supporting and propping up an open racist, an unabashed misogynist, a self confessed sexual assaulter and a symbol for a loud and vitalised far right movement whose bile, whose hatred, whose violence will inevitably and disproportionately target minorities, both racial and sexual. The right to an opinion is not the same as immunity from scrutiny and criticism.
West may wish to plead ignorance — he most definitely is an ignoramus — and claim that he doesn’t have all the answers, he’s just asking “unpopular questions”. But a celebrity like him, with the voice and platform he has shouldn’t be left off the hook that easy. You have no excuse for not knowing what Trumpism is and what it entails for its victims. The demonisation and banning of Muslims, the scapegoating of Latino immigrants, the shameless and explicit racist vilification of entire countries and their peoples, the assault on the reproductive rights of women, flirting with nuclear war, waging class war on the poor of all skin colours are all crucial component parts of the Trumpism. The project of white nativism; of reasserting the hegemony of whiteness — the most toxic form of identity politics as anyone familiar with American history would understand — totally across the political and social landscape of America. West is clearly oblivious to this since he’ll never experience the sweltering injustice of Trumpism as he is cocooned by the privilege endowed to him by his fame.
As bad as this is, the comment that really made me furious was when in an interview with TMZ West claimed the slavery was a “choice” — not for the slaveholders, but for the enslaved — and the reason why this condition lasted for 400 years was because blacks are mentally imprisoned. In other words blaming them for not revolting sooner. Not only is this fantastically ignorant and shockingly ahistorical. It is also dangerous, a gross falsification of history and an abuse of truth and memory. West’s statements implies black people were just docile, passive victims who “allowed” themselves to be slaves and continue to be so. This is the black version of those who said Jews were like “lambs lead to the slaughter” during the Shoah. It is frightening to watch a Black man, son of a Black Panther activist no less, speak so carelessly about the oppression of his people, scrape it off the bottom of his shoe and proverbially spit at it. Particularly as we know who will be watching, waiting with delight to weaponise these falsehoods to injure black people in the most intimate and visceral manner: denial of their history.
The truth is black resistance to slavery was as old as slavery itself. The Stono rebellion, the New York conspiracy, the Maroons, the Haitian revolution and the Nat Turner rebellion are all examples of blacks as agents struggling for their own liberation, not as passive, dolly eyed victims ripe for a white savior to come and “save” them. If Kanye made a similar remark about the Holocaust, that the extermination of European Jewry happened because Jews didn’t fight back enough. We would call that soft Holocaust denial and he would be at serious risk of losing many of his sponsorship deals. But with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, one of the great crimes against humanity in human history, we don’t treat this abuse of history with quite the same seriousness.
West has received a lot of condemnation for his comments from within the black America from the likes of T.I, Wendell Pierce, Snoop Dogg, Janelle Monae, Jordan Peele and John Legend. But none have taken him to task more than Ta-Nehisi Coates, a prominent essayist for The Atlantic. In his latest essay titled I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye, he calls West’s struggle for “freedom of thought” as something that is not about freedom in any real sense, certainly not for Black Americans, but for “white freedom”:
“West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom — a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.”
Coates’ doozy 5,000 word essay which has provoked a lot of praise and derision from his left liberal admirers and his conservative and anti-SJW “classical liberal” critics, isn’t just about skewering Kanye West for his ignorance and stupidity. It is in some ways a eulogy for something that has been lost, a meditation on the alienation of fame and celebrity, and disappointment at the abdication of a people for the freedom of power, not of emancipation.
The core argument of Coates’ piece is that Kanye has abandoned his responsibilities to his community. He has disconnected himself from his roots and taken the side of the powerful against the powerless community of which he came from. He chased, to quote Coates again “ liberation from the dictates of that we”. He once admired Kanye as a hip hop “god”, who gave us Jesus Walks and called out George Bush on live TV for his administration’s gross negligence during Hurricane Katrina, who made music for “for the young and futuristic”, intimately connected to the historic collective suffering of African Americans. “When [Michael] Jackson sang and danced, when West samples or rhymes,” writes Coates, “they are tapping into a power formed under all the killing, all the beatings, all the rape and plunder that made America”. From this he has regressed into being a convenient mouthpiece for the types of theories, beliefs and prejudices that minimise racism in America and vicitmise black people .
One line stood out for me while Coates was trying to emphasise a subtle distinction in American culture: “Kurt Cobain’s death was a great tragedy for his legions of fans, Tupac’s was a tragedy for an entire people.” On the one hand I can understand the point he’s making. Many ethnic and cultural groups have aspects of the communal identification with their celebrities but African Americans have their own particular way of looking at celebrities and people they consider part of their community (especially black men) in positions of power. Remember that meme after Obama elected of Lil Wayne saying “We president now”? Hell, the title of Ta-Nehisi Coates latest book is literally “We Were Eight Years in Power”. Kanye is now getting the flip side of that treatment right now in part because he’s a self-absorbed narcissist and large parts of “the community” thinks that his recent tirades is a ploy to further his personal goals which is detrimental to perception of the community at large and the community’s goals.
Centuries of racist defamation and heinous sterotypes imposed upon black America by white America has meant black America has been “in desperate need of champions” to counter this and justly represent black humanity. So a black celebrity who achieves attain a certain amount of crossover appeal, of artistry or success, become important figures in a way that is simultaneously similar to and wholly different from the way someone from Detroit might become very invested in the success of say Eminem. Because of the overbearing shadow of history they aren’t just representing their fan base, but also their people — the “we” Coates referred to.
On the other hand, the danger of this line of thinking is the burden of representation, that adds more weight to black artists, and I would add black people generally, something Coates himself acknowledges. We must be very careful not to exoticise black Americans as an “organic” community without complexity, tension and multiplicity. Black America is no more complicated and internally diverse than White America. To take his Tupac example, I don’t think Tupac’s death was a particular tragedy for black conservatives and religious leaders who condemned him and many other rap artists for glorifying violence, drugs and sexual deviancy and promoting a culture of gangsterism and crass materialism they felt was destroying their community.
I think many people from many different communities, particularly those from ethnic minority communities, have felt the burden of representation, where because we are the minority we are often held up, consciously or unconsciously as representatives of our “community”, our “people”, our “race” even. Even I have felt this too in my life and it is incredibly frustrating and alienating with this additional baggage as no human being can achieve this impossible task, especially as a celebrity. The burden of representation can hence become quite oppressive and imprisoning.
Take for instance, Donald Glover. In the aftermath of the new Childish Gambino video, I’ve read numerous comments expressing disappointment in Donald Glover for having a white partner and mixed race children, for previous comments he made about black identity. There is no rational reason why this should negate his “blackness” but once someone becomes especially famous, it is easy to project the hopes and dreams of an entire community onto them. While we can acknowledge the power held by these celebrities to possibly do good for the wider community, We shouldn’t be beholden to the false assumption that because they are famous they will think like we think, or have a social conscience, because we will perpetually be disappointed. They are only human.
Don’t expect Kanye West, or anybody for that matter, to hold nuanced and informed opinions on complex social and cultural issues because he’s black and he’s a master musician. In fact, its time we stopped giving undue prominence to facile opinions from celebrities because its clear that many of them do not give the same care and consideration when talking about politics and society as they do to their craft.
Ultimately, Coates is right when he concludes with “ It is often easier to choose the path of self-destruction when you don’t consider who you are taking along for the ride.” For Kanye, and his co-thinkers the consequences of their action don’t register. This is all theatre to them because their privilege and ignorance has socially detached them from the real world. They will never be victimised because of this ignorance. Unfortunately, for many from the battered and brutalised communities across the United States this will not be the case.