As the year comes to an end MEL asked four of our favorite writers to reflect on what they’re leaving behind in 2016. Yesterday we featured Maria Bustillos on complacency.
I miss the old Kanye, straight from the go Kanye
Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye.
— Kanye West, I Love Kanye
The complete power of Kanye West is glimpsed, for me, in the cinematographer and artist Arthur Jafa’s latest work of art, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death. The seven-minute, single-channel film installation, currently on view at Gavin Brown Enterprise in Harlem, is set to West’s genre shifting rap-gospel, “Ultralight Beam.” Jafa fills each second of Love with 24 frames of contradictory imagery of blackness — from extreme uses of violence against black bodies to the community’s creative response. In the background, West, Chance the Rapper, a gospel choir and the rest of their ensemble, provide a soundtrack of strained ascendance, explaining how lived experience tells us God dreams.
In one scene that lasts a fraction of a second, Walter Scott, a black man, is seen running for his life from a white police officer in South Carolina. “This is everything,” coos West, between the muffled sounds of horns. Before he can get out the last refrain of the hook, Scott falls to the ground, dead. His body lies 15 feet away from the officer, who walked free after a mistrial earlier this month, despite the clearly recorded killing. “This is everythinnnng,” West auto-tunes with a deep sense of melancholy.
A few frames later, President Obama appears giving his eulogy for Charleston’s “Emanuel 9” and slowly sings over West. “Deliver us serenity / Deliver us loving / Deliver us peace/ You know we really need it,” West pleads underneath the voice of the president. At that moment, Obama is seen singing solo the first few chords of “Amazing Grace.” “Auuuhmaazing grace,” he laments. The shooter of those nine black parishioners, tilling to the Lord as hell rained down on them, was recently found guilty on every count.
Those Love moments, in all their despair, and the others of found Youtube videos of black figures jubilantly juking, twerking and inventing culture in real time to West’s hip-hop hymn seem to show that the song is so powerful, composed from such desperate black media, that it is able to hold multitudes: The pain, the plight, the triumphant and the creativity of a single people. It confirms that West and his music, over the years, have become perfect messengers of the unevenness of black experience.
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” he said, as matter-of-factly as we felt it in 2005, watching cable news commentators call black Americans “refugees” in their own homes after Hurricane Katrina. Even at less critical moments, West said what we knew to be true: Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video was “one of the best videos of all time,” and that “everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people,” and that he wanted to “just come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, ‘Yo, stop it fam.’” And they mostly did.
The messenger also used his medium, lyrically, to speak to the violence that surrounds black life. Throughout his career, for instance, he has rapped — “Jesus Walks (2004),” “My Way (2005),” “Everything I Am (2007),” “Murder To Excellence (2011),” and “New God Flow (2012),” to name a few — knowingly and continuously about our shared hometown’s gun violence epidemic. “I know that people wouldn’t usually rap this / But I got the facts to back this/ Just last year, Chicago had over 600 caskets/ Man, killin’s some wack shit,” he rhymes on 2007’s “Everything I Am,” specifically pointing to the disproportionate murder of black folks. And with each of his own albums he continues to sonically shift and shape what hip-hop as a genre and lifestyle squarely rooted in black aesthetic codes can do for the culture.. “Ultralight Beam” is the latest example, by reimagining rap and gospel as something entirely its own. It’s at once glorious in the way the contralto, Marion Anderson sung richly, “My Soul’s Been Anchored De Lord”: angsty in the ways of the street; optimistic with a singularity that only Chance the Rapper seems to be able to express.
Increasingly over the last few years, gone from West’s music and actions is the complete power of the genius awed at on “Ultralight Beam” and felt culturally. West believes that “Make America Great Again” — the xenophobic presidential campaign slogan of the president-elect,that captivated a white majority — is “very futuristic” and inspirational. “Yeah, I’m taking his lead,” he said recently. It’s like he’s the Ben Carson of rap.
For me, the comment wasn’t surprising; it was sad. It fit a pattern of ambitious “multiculturalism” West has exhibited — first in small ways — that defies his genius and competes against blackness. On “Facts,” a track on his latest album, “The Life of Pablo,” he rants — “Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman” — vacuously against Michael Jordan, widely considered the best basketball player ever to play the game, a Chicago folk hero and self-made black billionaire in part because of his Air Jordan gym shoe. (At his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show and album listening party held at Madison Square, I watched West’s disdain for Nike inspire his fans to chant, “Fuck Michael Jordan! Fuck Michael Jordan! Fuck Michael Jordan!” as he tried to calm them.) Then with regularity, he started comparing himself to white “genius,” namely Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, and begging, before sold-out crowds captivated by his brilliance, for money from white masters of the universe, including corporate CEOs.
It is bizarre to see an artist who once prided himself on mixing fashion, music and art in a search to achieve a kind of black Gesamtkunstwerk, and who tirelessly put his career on the line to defend and protect his vision, now praising President-Elect Donald Trump’s saccharine populism. The election of a man who novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie rightly said, “has flattened the poetry in America’s founding philosophy: the country born from an idea of freedom is to be governed by an unstable, stubbornly uninformed, authoritarian demagogue. And in response to this there are people living in visceral fear, people” — mostly of color — “anxiously trying to discern policy from bluster, and people kowtowing as though to a new king.”
After a recent meeting with Trump, West wrote on Twitter, “I wanted to meet with Trump today to discuss multicultural issues.” “These issues included bullying, supporting teachers, modernizing curriculum, and violence in Chicago”—things that disproportionately affect black youth. Finally, he tweeted “2024,” referencing both his joke that he’s running for president and a belief that Trump will hold office for eight years. The meeting seemed more opportunistic than serious. If West, one of the biggest stars in pop, wanted to deal with inequality, his own platform could aptly inspire change in Chicago, education and online.
It’s like he’s not the same star, which is not to pathologize him; it’s to say that he is no longer the fierce representation of blackness in pop culture that I can stand behind. Or as my friend the writer Mikelle Street said, when I expressed dismay at West’s recent actions: “Kanye has had enough of Kanye.” I’m tryna to keep my faith, as The Dream enthuses on “Ultralight Beam,” but in 2017 I’m looking for more.