Most of the attention generated by Kanye West’s recent interview with Zane Lowe has centered on a few typically bombastic statements from Kanye about his place in pop culture/human history and the Twitter tirade that followed Jimmy Kimmel’s spoof of the interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live. However, also present in the interview, buried in the depths of what most media outlets have characterized as rants, are the clues to Kanye’s vision of a contemporary civil rights struggle. Given that West is one of the few celebrities that seems to use every available opportunity to publicly raise issues regarding race and class, I also wanted to devote a post to clarifying, rather than distorting, his message.
In the interview, Kanye devotes a lot of energy to discussing what appears to be his most pressing civil rights concern: the exclusion of blacks from control over capital and the means of production. Kanye repeatedly addresses this issue in the context of his frustration with not being able to obtain joint venture funding from major fashion companies to produce clothing. At one point, West compares the obstacles he currently faces in gathering resources to produce his own products to the barriers that Michael Jackson confronted in putting his music videos on the air.
I would not be Kanye West if it wasn’t for Michael Jackson. . . . He had to fight to get his video played because he was black, and this was Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson’s not even black; he’s Michael Jackson, you know what I mean? . . . I was able to ascend to massive heights and never stop because of the foundation that my mother, my father, and my grandfather laid through civil rights, what Michael Jackson did with music videos and the ground he broke. There would be no Kanye West if it wasn’t for Michael Jackson. . . . I’ve reached a point in my life where my Truman Show-boat has hit the painting, and I’ve got to a point that Michael Jackson did not break down. I’ve reached the glass ceiling . . . When I say that, it means I want to do product. I am a product person. Not just clothing, but water bottle design, architecture, everything that you can think about. And I’ve been at it for 10 years, and I look around and I say, “Wait a second. There is no one around here in this space that looks like me, and if they are, they’re quiet as fuck.” So that means, wait a second. Now we’re seriously in a civil rights movement.
Pushing the comparison to past forms of discrimination even further, Kanye analogizes the exclusion of blacks from control over capital resources to Jim Crow-era disparities in drinking water quality. To understand the quote fully, it might be helpful to mention that Kanye’s newest album Yeezus contains the following lyric: “My momma was raised in the era when / Clean water was only served to the fairer skin. / Doing clothes you would’ve thought I had help / But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself.”
So when I say, “Clean water was only served to the fairer skin,” what I’m saying is we’re making product with chitlins! T-shirts; that’s the most we can make. T-shirts. We can have our best perspective on T-shirts. But if it’s anything else, your Truman Show-boat is hitting the wall.
In his reconciliation interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Kanye points out that this exclusion is often motivated more by a classist mentality than an “old-school” racist mentality. It’s not that black people are excluded from control over capital on the basis of race alone; anyone who doesn’t come from the same privileged background or share the same cultural perspective as the corporate elites who currently exercise control is excluded.
It’s not about racism anymore; it’s classism. That’s what I talked about. Like Paula Deen? She was old-school with it. They were like, “We don’t do it like that anymore, Paula Deen; that’s racist. We’re classist now.”. . . So this classism now is what they do to try to say, “Well, you’re a rapper,” or “Your girl is on a reality show. So you’re not up here with us, you know? We’re old money.”
It also seems clear that Kanye views the currently limited range of pop culture representations of blackness as a result of this exclusion. Because white corporate elites control the processes by which black culture and perspective are funneled into products and disseminated to the public, they have in effect defined the contours of what constitutes an acceptable public representation of blackness—blacks as “gangster[s]” and “pimp[s].” According to Kanye, this commonly held image of blackness is what causes people to revolt against his own claims the he is a god.
When someone comes up and says something like, “I am a god,” everybody says, “Who does he think he is?” . . . Would it have been better if I had a song that said, “I am a nigger”? Or if I had a song that said “I am a gangster”? Or if I had a song that said “I am a pimp”? All those colors and patinas fit better on a person like me, right? But to say you are a god—especially when you got shipped over to the country that you’re in and your last name is a slave owner’s. How could you say that? How could you have that mentality?
Even setting aside Kanye’s apparent disregard for women’s parallel civil rights concerns, which I understand is impossible for a lot of rights-conscious people out there, I can’t decide how I feel about all of this. On the one hand, it is nice to see someone using their fame as a platform for discussing civil rights issues. Like I mentioned above, there aren’t many celebrities who do. Moreover, the issues Kanye discusses certainly aren’t nonexistent. Public portrayals of blackness are still intimately bound up with street crime, and those black celebrities who break the model tend to be deracialized in the public sphere. Maybe giving Kanye and others like him more opportunities to develop their own products and control the commodification of their perspectives, personas, and culture would be a step towards remedying this issue.
On the other hand, of all things, is this really the issue to which the most powerful voice in media is going to dedicate itself? This is the guy who wrote “We Don’t Care” and “Spaceship;” it’s not as if he is unaware of the problems faced by communities of color here in America on the ground. But instead of using his platform to address lack of opportunity at the bottom, he is using it to address lack of opportunity at the top. Instead of talking about the disproportionate negative impact of contemporary school funding and criminal justice policies, he’s talking about fashion executives refusing to extend him joint venture funding. And in the end, I can’t help wishing that he was talking more about the former than the latter.