By Rachel Leah
“Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you; Ima let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!” The infamous words declared by Kanye West that he can never quite live down. Memes and gifs of West taking the microphone from Taylor Swift at the 2009 Video Music Awards keeps the moment alive, but the massive public backlash underscores historic racial politics that have been front and center in the age of Obama. The public shaming of America’s first black president, increased visibility of police brutality, black criminality and age-old archetypes of black masculinity, shattered the illusion of “colorblindness” and motivated a distinct political transformation in Kanye West, from radical to subdued. In the past six years, Kanye, like Obama has been subjected to very specific notions of race and black masculinity. Both figures were forced to adopt a moderate black identity that could be accepted by white gatekeepers and embrace a posturing that was safe enough to quiet critiques of polarization. As the public shamed Kanye for his interruption of Taylor Swift and he experienced first-hand the way the public reacts to a black man in defiance, a turn towards de-politicization was necessary in order for Kanye West to keep his career in tact.
MTV hosts the Video Music Awards (VMAs) annually and in 2009, they awarded burgeoning Country singer Taylor Swift with “female video of the year.” As she was presented the award and just beginning her acceptance speech, Kanye climbed the stairs to the stage, grabbed the microphone from her hands and reckoned that Beyoncé was robbed and Swift unworthy of such accolade. Before handing the microphone back to Swift and walking back to his front row seat, Kanye finished with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders, now known as the “Kanye Shrug.” Taylor Swift’s face visibly transformed from shock to humiliation, though she successfully held back tears. Kanye was removed from the award show and reportedly, Swift underwent a hysterical meltdown, only pulling herself together moments before her performance. Loud and unanimous booing sounded from the audience. But nothing could compare to the attention once it all went public.
Donald Trump, then just a red-faced businessman, called Kanye “disgusting” and encouraged a boycott of all things Kanye West. Entertainers Katy Perry, Pink and Kelly Clarkson wrote via the Internet their own versions of “FUCK YOU KANYE,” with Clarkson going as far to say, “I’ve seen you do some pretty shitty things, but you just keep amazing me with your tactless, asshole ways. It’s absolutely fascinating how much I don’t like you.” Joe Jackson, father of Michael Jackson, claimed that Kanye should be “blackballed” out of show business for his actions.[i] Even President Obama called Kanye a “jackass” in what he believed was an off the record conversation.
Other comments from two white male performers were less expletively driven, but reminiscent of racially charged language invoked during Jim Crow, when a black man looked too long or attempted to interact with a white woman. Kings of Leon’s Nathan Followill tweeted: “The worst haircut since 1984, tries to steal the spotlight from lovely Taylor Swift.” And Russell Brand echoed, “You can’t make a pretty girl cry”.[ii] While Taylor Swift was the “lovely,” “pretty” white woman who was disrespected, Kanye was the overstepping black man, who needed to be publicly knocked down. The historical relationship of the black man being viewed as “intrusive” or “demanding” towards the “scorned” white woman still limits and even defines black masculinity during public engagement with their white female counterparts. Kanye’s unapologetic rant rejected those imposed standards assigned to black male bodies and struck real historical chords with white artists and media.
Kanye West’s actions were indisputably rude, unkind and thoughtless, and presumably fueled by the Hennessey bottle he carried on the red carpet that evening. But the momentous resistance to Kanye following the intrusion was inseparable from the fact that a black man disrupted a young white women’s moment, and then became the most hated man in the music industry. It begged the question: would the criticism have been so steep had Kanye’s and Taylor Swift’s races been inverted?
Similar race questions have been proposed throughout Obama’s presidency. Would the blame for his missteps or any forward motion be so penetrating if Obama were white? Darryl Pinckney wrote in Blackballed: the Black Vote and US Democracy, “There are some white people who would rather see the country wrecked than have anything work under President Obama.”[iii] This statement has been verified in a plethora of different scenarios. Most recently, when the Republican Party and right wing media blamed Obama for Donald Trump’s discriminatory rhetoric and absurd proposed ban against Muslims entering the United States. “It is the president who is inviting such a backlash by allowing the terrorist threat overseas to metastasize and erode Americans’ sense of security at home,” said Noah Rothman at Commentary.[iv] Like President Obama, Kanye is successful, but not immune to the undercutting of politics and racism.
Brian Josephs reflected in Vice about the racial baggage of the Kanye–Swift incident. “This was a black creative stepping out of place, choosing honesty over innocuous humility,” he wrote. “Barack Obama slamming him as a “jackass” gave racists a cover to point and ridicule West.”[v] Kanye’s “sincerity,” as he called his motive for interrupting the award presentation on the Ellen Show, may or may not have been a direct result of MTV’s notoriously racist beginnings, refusing to run black artists’ music videos until Michael Jackson’s virtuosity forced their hand. But I would argue that Kanye’s outspokenness was a reaction to MTV, popular culture and mainstream media for routinely snubbing black artists for their white and often mediocre counterparts.
Josephs continued: “West was blackballed even though he was a crossover star at the center of the pop culture after Graduation and the success of the Glow in the Dark tour. It took less than a minute for West to become a pariah. The centuries-old excuse for racial violence, the white woman rose again to show that West was dispensable. What’s white is the American norm, and what’s black is an oddity.”[vi] Kanye went through a mainstream exile for his actions at the VMAs and because of the warnings from colleague and rapper Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey,) Kanye literally left the country. It’s unclear whether Mos Def told Kanye to flee the country for space or for his own safety.
2009 was also the year America’s first black president manned the oval office. No matter what disrespect President Obama encountered, he refused to show anger and subsequently get boxed in by age-old archetypes of black masculinity. In Obama and The Future of Black Politics, Lester Spence wrote, “Obama is lauded for his calm demeanor, his openness, and his intellectual approach to problem solving.”[vii] In racists’ eyes, this represented an alternative form of black masculinity, and one that was so untraditional in mainstream media that some white people claimed they didn’t associate Obama as being black. Though, this really meant that Obama didn’t fit into or reinforce their preconceived notions of black manhood.[viii]
The media jumped fully into conspiring and maintaining the angry black male archetype with Kanye West, and this worked as a direct means to limit his candor in speaking out on inequities in the political and music industry. Although Kanye West may have felt connected to Obama as a powerful black man in the highest place of leadership; as Kanye was hung out to dry, it was more clear than ever that a black president doesn’t change race relations in America.
Kanye West fell off the grid, moved to Rome and then Hawaii, before delivering arguably, one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The album was a “long, back-handed apology” to Taylor Swift as Kanye told the New York Times,[ix] but also an expression of his new understanding of where America stood on supposed “progress” and race. No two tracks illustrated that more than the opening “Gorgeous” and the finale, “Who Will Survive In America.”
Kid Cudi’s monotonous voice enters over the simple, melodic sample of “You Showed Me” on “Gorgeous.” Kanye’s voice is sharp but unruffled as he spits the reality he’s been enduring for the past year. “As long as I’m in polo smiling, they think they got me/ But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me/ I thought I chose a field where they couldn’t sack me.”[x] The underlined words accentuate a slave comparison to the suppression and lack of agency of being a black man in America.
Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 “Comment #1” is repackaged as “Who Will Survive in America” — one of the records Kanye performed live at Scott-Heron’s funeral six months after the album was released. Gil Scott-Heron’s distinct voice resounds, “A rapist known as freedom, free-DOOM/ Democracy, liberty and justice were just revolutionary code names.”[xi] Positioned at the end of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the song poses questions beyond Scott-Heron’s powerful script. Most urgently, Kanye demands an answer to ‘Who has access to freedom and liberty?’
The conscious rhetoric integrated into My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy falls in line with Kanye’s entire career, as Kanye has been politically motivated from his entrance. Though, his early career demonstrated a radical track of political thought that became scarce to nonexistent after the 2009 VMAs. His debut, The College Dropout, boldly addressed the falsehoods of the American dream in poor and black communities. The album was followed up by the equally politically charged Late Registration, where Kanye infused his political commentary on the exploitation of the diamond industry in Sierra Leone, the fall of the Black Panthers, and his belief in the conspiracy that the government infiltrated crack into inner-city communities during the Reagan era.
Late Registration was also released in 2005, the same year that Kanye infamously stared into a television camera with a trance-like gaze, voice shaking and body physically disturbed, as he uttered, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” during coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. James Baldwin acknowledged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the first “Negro leader to say to whites what he said to blacks,”[xii] a format Kanye initially upheld as an outspoken, fearless champion of the black community. Yet even more powerfully, Kanye did so through such an accessible platform as hip-hop, opening up space for the same community who is typically excluded from politics, as both contributors and recipients, to become involved and invested in the political arena. Chuck D famously said that rap is “Black America’s CNN,” meaning a place for the black community to receive unfiltered commentary and information on cities, people and the issues that are at the forefront, but often underrepresented in mainstream media.[xiii]
Following the 2009 attack on Kanye’s character, he seemed to take cue from Obama — that black leadership was possible, but only with a certain appeasement to race issues and a detachment of an overt black identity. Author Touré calls this phenomenon “post-black.” “Post-Black means we are like Obama: rooted in but not restricted by Blackness.”[xiv] However, like Kanye, who began his career illustrating an unapologetically black identity, Obama was absolutely an advocate for the black and poor communities during his organizing years in Chicago. But the pressures of politics, and the stigmatization and weakness associated with victimhood, no matter the scenario, forced a stark shift in identity once Obama attained higher office. Pinckney offers an explanation:
“When Obama booked himself on Sunday morning talk shows to talk health care reform, not race, that in itself was a lesson in race politics. We saw, when David Patterson claimed that there was a racist conspiracy to keep him from running for the governor’s office in New York, how out of control it made him seem. It sounded as though he couldn’t handle the pressures of dirty politics. Even if true, the accusation gave a bad impression, like a poor alibi. Our commander in chief cannot allow himself to come across as a victim. The world is listening.”[xv]
Since the Swift incident in 2009, Kanye has been noticeably silent on issues that directly affect the black community, including reticence during mass political unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. The hip-hop world merged with the activist world following the many broadcasted police killings of unarmed black people, and many rappers supported the movement in the form of protest, music and financial aid. And though his core fan base requested his candid voice, Kanye West’s input was missing. Kanye was still righteous in his music, but he was no longer radical in public where his comments had been known to reach further. Similarly, Obama refused to mention that race was a factor in Ferguson, even as a black unarmed teenager lay bleeding in the street for four hours.
Kanye was changed, manifestly jaded. He would still voice his politics if probed during interviews, but Kanye’s dialogue drastically shifted from focusing on race as America’s greatest problem to classism — a message that was easier for a white audience to swallow. Pinckney explained, “These days it’s easier to insult someone’s class than his race. Someone who makes $200,000 a year will say he is middle-class and yet so will someone who makes $40,000.”[xvi] Despite Kanye’s retreat on racial politics in the public arena, his image has never quite recovered and he is still marginalized by his misstep six years ago.
Kanye West also underwent a noticeable vocal change during interviews and public appearances. His interview voice became known as his “white voice”: it was far more high pitched, soft-spoken and free from its usual bass present in his music. People under the guise of not “keeping it real” have ridiculed this vocal transformation. Zadie Smith wrote in “Speaking In Tongues” on this restrictive phenomenon: “It made blackness a quality each individual black person was constantly in danger of losing,” she said. “And almost anything could trigger loss of one’s blackness: attending certain universities, an impressive variety of jobs, a fondness of opera, a white girlfriend, an interest in golf. And of course, any change in voice.”[xvii]
Marrying reality star Kim Kardashian[xviii] didn’t help Kanye’s case either and was the last straw of betrayal for many, stamping the end of the early, conscious Kanye that the music world had fallen in love with. After a series of outlandish rants and also self-proclaiming himself as a God or “Yeezus” on his most recent album, Kanye had been pushed out of the social commentator role completely. Similar divisive tactics were employed during Obama’s first presidential run. “When it became clear that senator Barack Obama had a serious attempt at becoming the country’s first African American president, one of the critiques white moderates and conservatives made of him was that he was an elitist, out of touch with regular (i.e., middle-class white) citizens.”[xix]
Furthermore, many have felt that Kanye has been too disconnected from the black community in recent years and if possible, more self-absorbed, and thus, unable to identify with the youth-driven movement that has been underway. Although those critiques are valid, as Kanye worked to either detach himself from or reinforce the characterization of the angry black male stereotype, he also became more contained in his public rhetoric. This delimited Kanye was no longer calling out the leader of the free world on national television, neither for his abandonment of poor and black people, nor for the lack of attention to state or environmental violence in those same communities. Kanye was kept at a distance from the advocacy field and boxed in as an insane musical genius rather than a revolutionary. After all, a black man advocating for people of color and the underclass is far more dangerous than a black man claiming to be a musical God and quiet on all issues related to social justice.
Recently, Kanye West came full circle at the 2015 Video Music Awards. Taylor Swift presented him with the Video Vanguard Award for a career of innovative and stellar music videos. Six years later at the same award show, Kanye rambled, he was physically conflicted, he stuttered to find his point, and he reflected on the Swift incident and how heavily that weighed on his misunderstood public perception. At the end of Kanye’s lengthy, eleven minute speech—discussing the power of youth, focusing on “new ideas” and declaring that “the art ain’t always gonna be polite”—Kanye West closed announcing his presidential candidacy for 2020. “And yes, as you probably coulda guessed by this moment, I have decided in 2020, to run for president.”[xx] (Kanye literally dropped the mic.)
Obama responded to Kanye’s political announcement with some light-hearted advice, referencing Kanye’s music and reality star family. Obama finished with “Do you really think they’re gonna let a guy from the Southside of Chicago become president with a funny name?”[xxi] Even with a big smile on his face and speaking with an obviously buoyant tone, the media still could not help but to instigate a match between the two men. Paparazzi harassed Kante outside of an airport, demanding a response to the Obama press conference, as well as an answer to whether or not he felt insulted by the president’s words. “Don’t pit us against each other,” Kanye told a cameraman with an equally big smile on his face.[xxii] But there was seriousness in his tone. Perhaps he finally understood the similarities between them.
As Obama is rearing the end of his final term and Kanye is re-associating himself in the political arena, the petty fight between them (largely ensued by the media) may finally be coming to an end. I think Kanye’s insistence of “Obama calls my house phone” in various appearances is more about stressing a sense of camaraderie between them than self-importance. Obama is more vocal than ever on issues that affect the black community, taking cue from Kanye’s outspokenness, and Kanye is realigning himself as a public figure that is capable of tackling political and social commentary.
It’s troubling, though, that only when a black man exemplifies a “safe” and packaged version of black masculinity, then the mainstream may accept their contributions in political spaces. For a black man, demeanor and tone hold more weight than message and truth. Passion in any form is lumped with anger and must be pacified for broader reach. Thus, Obama and Kanye have to suppress the human spectrum of emotion for larger recognition and power.
In the Obama era, both Kanye West and President Obama have unfortunately had to experience that systematic racism and oppression permeates people of color no matter their title or level of ambition. And that is infuriating in 2015, but both men have held their heads high through exile, racism, challenge and marginalization, speaking to their resilience as black men and as leaders. It’s unlikely that Kanye West will ever be taken seriously to officially enter politics, but his political transformation, influenced by Obama and the politics of this age are undeniable. There’s hope that Kanye West’s next album will continue to integrate politics, creating opportunity for engagement and forcing the recognition of hip-hop as part of the American political system. As Kendrick Lamar rhymed:
I’m yelling Mr. Kanye West for President
He prolly let me get some head inside the residence
I’m in the White House going all out, bumping “College Dropout”
God bless Americans
Nothing more influential than rap music[xxiii]
[i] Sean Michaels collected the social media and public responses to Kanye’s interruption of Taylor Swift for The Guardian.
[ii] Michaels, Sean. “Furious Celebrities Condemn Kanye West after His VMA Outburst.” The Guardian. N.p., 15 Sept. 2009. Web.
[iii] Pinckney, Darryl. Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy. New York: New York Review, 2014. Print.
[iv] Rothman, Noah. “Two Obama Speeches, Both Disasters.” Commentary. N.p., 7 Dec. 2015. Web.
[v] Josephs, Brian. “Revisiting the Radical Black Fever Dream of Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'” Vice. N.p., 22 Nov. 2015. Web.
[vi] Josephs. “Revisiting the Radical Black Fever Dream of Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'” Vice.
[vii] Spence, Lester. “Conclusion: Obama and the Future of Hip-hop Politics”. Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics. NED – New edition. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 157–176. Web…
[viii] Spence explored the tactics conservatives used to try tear down Obama in his first presidential campaign.
[ix] Caramanica, Jon. “Behind Kanye’s Mask.” The New York Times.
[x] West, Kanye. “Gorgeous.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Roc-A-Fella, 2010. CD.
[xi] West, Kanye. “Who Will Survive in America.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Roc-A-Fella, 2010. CD.
[xii] Darryl Pinckney discussed in his book Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy, that many white people didn’t view Obama as black because of the way he conducted himself in public. While really, it made statements about the stereotypes that many white people still regarded as uniform for black masculinity.
[xiii] Lester Spence in his conclusion chapter of Stare Into the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics, gave context for hip-hop being a platform for news in the black community and how that makes political hip-hop a very accessible way for black people to engage in the political arena.
[xiv] Pinckney quotes Touré’s article on page 90.
[xv] Pinckney 38.
[xvi] Pinckney 37.
[xvii] Pinckney 75.
[xviii] Kim Kardashian is the daughter of notable lawyer Robert Kardashian. She first became famous for a sex tape made public and has become a popular culture icon for her reality television series and multi-million social media following.
[xx] “Kanye West VMA Vanguard Speech.” Video Music Awards 2015. MTV. Viacom Media Networks, New York. 31 Aug. 2015. Television.
[xxi] “Obama’s Advice for Would-be President Kanye West? ‘That’s Cray’” – Video. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Oct. 2015. Web.
[xxii] “Kanye West — Obama Is BS’ing … He DEFINITELY Has My Number.” Http://www.tmz.com. TMZ, 14 Mar. 2014.
[xxiii] Kendrick Lamar, “Black Friday” (Tale of 2 Citiez Remix). Top Dawg Ent., 2015.
(Image courtesy of playbuzz.com)