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Yeezus saves: Kanye West, hip hop and the language of slavery

This month, rapper Kanye West’s highly anticipated new album Yeezus was released at perhaps one of the coolest launch events ever. His latest single New Slaves was simultaneously featured on 66 screens…

Rapper Kanye West’s new album Yeezus reflects on race and discrimination in present day America. EPA/Ferdy Damman

This month, rapper Kanye West’s highly anticipated new album Yeezus was released at perhaps one of the coolest launch events ever. His latest single New Slaves was simultaneously featured on 66 screens around the world.

If you can bypass all the narcissism and self-congratulatory veneer, West’s music has a message and interestingly, his songs and lyrics from New Slaves to Black Skinhead revitalise language and imagery associated with America’s ugly present and its even uglier past.

West’s lyrics range from “I see the blood on the leaves", harkening back to Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit on the lynching of black men to “like them black kids in Chiraq” remarking on the violence in Chicago being worse than Iraq.

West even joins in on the ongoing conversation regarding the prison industrial complex and the profitability of privately owned prisons. From Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Dr Carl Hart’s High Price books, along with Eugene Jarecki’s The House I live In documentary on the war on drugs, West’s New Slaves adds a musical layer to the fact that today more African-Americans are incarcerated than were enslaved in 1850 before the Civil War.

Music cannot be separated from its historical contexts and cultural roots. The Negro spirituals stem from slavery, the blues stems from Sharecropping and Jim Crow, and hip hop is birthed from Deindustrialisation. For many decades, gospel music, the blues, and hip hop were the primary musical genres that gave voice to the deep pains of racial hegemony. Let’s face it, rock and roll may touch on poverty, but race is a topic less commonly addressed.

Earlier in the year, country music attempted to engage in the conversation of race with Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s awkward duet, Accidental Racist, which raises the simplistic questions of an unconscious Paisley testing the waters of racism by wearing a confederate flag on his shirt while being served by a black barista. Epic fail.

Essentially, the question such music poses is how do these themes of race and slavery translate to the masses of people who will consume them? Hip hop exists in a dichotomy where its largest consumers are white men who likely want to live in a colourless society, but hip hop was created by black men for black men who are constantly illustrating the fallacies of a colourless society.

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched on August 7 1930 in Marion, Indiana. West repeatedly refers to lynchings in his new album, even sampling the Billie Holiday classic ‘Strange Fruit’. Wikimedia

In some ways what West is rapping about - what West is always rapping about - is not the denigration of blackness, but the privileges associated with whiteness. White privilege, made popular in academic circles by scholar Peggy McIntosh, is about deconstructing the benefits of whiteness. It is about examining the corollary aspects of race. While racism disadvantages people of colour, it simultaneously benefits or privileges whiteness and creates in effect, unearned power based on the baggage of colour.

West over and over again is coming to grips with the fact that regardless of the records he sells or money he makes, class, in this country, cannot trump race. In a New York Times interview, he argued: “I have the most Grammys of anyone my age, but I haven’t won one against a white person". Clearly, West resents this. We cannot forget, as often as he reminds us in his lyrics, that West is the son of a former black panther and an English professor from Chicago.

Say what you will, but it seems to me that West wants justice. Justice for the stereotyped, for the underrated, for the kid picked last, and despite all of his accolades and fancy cars and clothes, he even wants justice for himself. He raps that the black person is either the perpetual criminal - “don’t touch anything in the store” - or the perpetual consumer: “come in, please buy more”. New Slaves is about being in bondage to both the perceptions of racism and the inability to create or alter said perceptions.

Blackness becomes a site of contestation. Even when West’s new baby was born, the description of the infant was telling: “straight black hair and looks just like Kim”. What if the baby was dark skinned with curly (kinky) hair and looked just like Kanye? Not so much an image of cuteness? Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, but in today’s society nothing has been made more privileged than white beauty. But that is a topic for another conversation.

The sad thing about hip hop is that unlike gospel music, it underscores problems, but poses no solutions, secular or otherwise. Thus, in many ways, West is not saying anything different than what Public Enemy, Nas, Ice Cube, Arrested Development, Tupac, the Roots or others have rapped about.

Yet, my hope is that music can continue to propel nuanced conversations about slavery and race that may cause those who avoid the race issue to analyse it with honesty and a willingness to consider a perspective outside of their own.

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43 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Perhaps he is just another privileged black man selling records the best way he knows how.

    The millions of dollars, the fancy cars and rich & famous lifestyle must weigh heavy on this poor man's shoulders.

    Does he actually get out and help the poor and under-privileged?

    He may do so, in fact I hope so.

    But it all seems like Bono traipsing the world like a musical Mother Theresa
    soaking up adulation for his self-sacrifice, and really achieving bugger all.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I have since read on Wikkipedia that KW has a foundation to help the under-privileged particularly in education.

      Good news.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Well not good news really....I have NOW learnt that the foundation shut down in "mysterious" circumstances in 2011.

      And apparently Mr West thinks he's god........and who's to say he isn't.

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    3. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      It is so sad that such a well written article calling for a "nuanced conversations about slavery and race that may cause those who avoid the race issue to analyse it with honesty and a willingness to consider a perspective outside of their own" needs the first response to be this overly sceptical, unreflective and uninformed response. Sorry if this is harsh, I really like the 'conversation', literally, and would not like to shut it down in any way and do my best to avoid insult but really. I felt so uplitfted reading this insightful and informative article and the first response just shuts it down. It must destroy the hopes of not only people who identify as 'black' but people who have experienced violence and/or oppression everywhere.

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      I think if you read a little of KW history of bombast and egotistical carry-on, you might find he has little connect with the world of deprivation and slavery.

      His wife Kim Kardashian is a celebrity of the highest order in the U.S., paid millions for being a celebrity of the lowest common denominator.

      He is a singing headline.......

      Meanwhile the unsung heroes of the fight against racism, poverty and disease get paid a pittance to be out on the front lines actually doing something.

      Please get off your high horse.

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    5. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Yes Stephen, I get what you're getting at and perhaps I was a little quick. You're one of the good guys. It was that this article generally is a step up, as I think you would agree, from the tired journalistic, unthinking 'Gratton' material. It was great to have these issues reintroduced into a public forum. Why are not more people talking about the military industrial complex when this description has never been so apt? I'm a little more skeptical of the prison industrial complex as a matter of…

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    6. Oscar

      Student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      "Another privileged black man?" Yes, because there are so many of them? Is the only way to be a black person with an opinion on racism to be a poor one?

      Kanye's using his platform to issue an angry reminder that white supremacy is still a violent and oppressive force, and that's both powerful and important. Not just as a reminder for white audiences that they directly benefit from racism, but for black audiences, and other people of colour, who rarely see public acknowledgement of the lived realities of racism.

      Conversation can be an important part of one's praxis. And if you don't think this record is important, maybe it wasn't meant for you?

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    7. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Oscar

      Well this record certainly isn't meant for me - you got that right.

      A black man is president of the United States.
      There is around 60+ black mayors of US cities over 50,000 people. .

      Black Americans make up around 13% of the population, the American congress currently has around 10% black members.

      Kanye West's wealth is estimated to be around $100 million.

      There are reports that indicate that possibly 40% of all Americans are living in or near poverty. Health care is often prohibitive.

      There is no divide in black, white or latino - it's an all in affair.

      Many people live in their cars all year, or on the streets of course.

      The issues for Americans is not just black issues.

      America needs to lift ALL it's citizens up.........

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    8. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      "I'm a little more skeptical of the prison industrial complex as a matter of scale" - dude, even a little research shows the scale of the problem

      also, its not so much how big it is, its about an inherently corrupt system

      we got the private prison industry lobbying local and state governments in the US to be tough on crime because they profit from people being incarerated. They have a monetry incentive not to rehabilitate prisoners as they profit from repeat offenders and we are seeing the laws that they lobby for being disproportionantely applied to minority groups. Also the private prison industry forces these "Criminals" often non violent offenders to work for less than a dollar a day and they are doing work on behalf of private companies that can contract out to prisons

      Have a think about it, is this problematic? in my opinion it is overwhelmingly and obviously problematic

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    9. Oscar

      Student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      You're dropping statistics without context, and somewhat without relevance.

      What does Kanye's wealth matter? What does it mean that there are black people who have made it to the upper echelons of US society? Are you trying to use this as proof that racism is no longer a principle around which US society is governed?

      There is certainly a divide between different races - racial hierarchies within the US treat different racist differently. This isn't an "all in affair" when white people are…

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    10. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Oscar

      My context here is that it is not just white people NOT helping black people.....it is black people NOT helping black people.

      Racism is endemic in probably every country in the world.

      Australians are accused of being a BIG racist country.

      I am NOT saying there are not problems in America, but they are NOT black problems only.

      KW wealth means he is a hypocrite.

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    11. Oscar

      Student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      None of what you said entails black people not helping black people.

      Kanye making this record is an example of black people helping black people.

      Australia IS a racist country. But that's not super relevant to this conversation.

      Kanye is not saying that the only problems in America are black problems - literally /no one/ is saying that.

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    12. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Michael Shand

      To be clear Michael, I'm not say that the prison system in the U.S. is not a problem, I'm saying that it can't easily be compared to the military. The argument of the industrial-military complex is that the entire U.S. economy is oriented towards a military setting. If there is not an enemy then one needs to be created. As Cousins wrote in the 1980's “"Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially…

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    13. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      No you missed it man, nothing wrong with the prison system

      The PRIVATE Prison system is the problem and is the exact same problem as the military industrial complex albeit hasnt had as much time as the military industrial complex to establish itself.

      Just give it time, we already have people serving life sentence's for drug possesion and what are they doing whilst in jail? making goods for companies like KMart

      It doesnt need to be as big of a problem as the military industrial complex to…

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    14. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Good points Michael. You are quite right, it should not be an issue of comparison for it to be a major problem. I'm unfamiliar with the issue but I've heard about it.

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    15. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Oscar

      What I am saying is that there are black people in POWER positions in cities where poverty is endemic.

      I don't believe that racism in America is bad as it was 10 years ago and then the decades before that.

      One problem is that black Americans are coming from a low basw where poverty (and racism) was endemic. But that premise also encompasses a lot of whites and Hispanics.

      Everything in the article points to BLACK discrimination........

      Kanye making this record is helping Kanye make a lot of money.

      From the reports and blogs I have read, KW is a very egocentric individual....nothing wrong with that I guess.

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    16. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      No one knows about this issue man, even when Kanye writes a song about it and specifically mentions it and a journalist writes an article about such as this....still no mention of it

      People dont care

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    17. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Michael Shand

      If I may answer.................

      there are so many problems facing society in America (and many other countries as well) that perhaps the prison population isn't high on a politicians agenda.

      If the statistics are right and there are 40-50% of Americans living a margin above and below the poverty line, who is gonna give a shit about lawbreakers.

      And this is the wealthiest country in the world - supposedly, and the democratic model for the Western world.

      The prison system has been rooted for so long in America, so why get upset when a song by KW draws your attention to it.

      There have been many documentaries on teev that have highlighted the problems and dilemmas of the U.S. prison system.

      I've seen two in the past 12 months.

      There is so much to get angry at in this fucked up world of ours.....4 Corners on Monday night e.g.

      The sad thing it won't change anytime soon, and when one issue gets resolved or ameliorated there'll be another ten to take it's place.

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    18. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      "The prison system has been rooted for so long in America, so why get upset when a song by KW draws your attention to it."

      Kanye didnt raise my attention to this but no doubt he will raise others, not the authors obviously and not many others but some.

      I am not a nihilist nor a defeatist, in my own personal life I have many problems that need attention like most other people but that doesnt mean I cant deal with any of them does it?

      Just because you face a multitude of problems that doesn't…

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    19. Joseph Bernard

      Director

      In reply to Oscar

      Every country has racists.. racist is such an abused and limited word.

      Africans in africa suffer a much more cruel fate than they ever would in a western country. So where is the racism here? and why ignore the slavery which exists in northern africa where people really are slaves! to compare the lives of people in the west to those that are really suffering i think is a real injustice.

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  2. robert roeder
    robert roeder is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    Thank you Kellie for your article. The issue of race need to be in our faces or we just fall back into dreamwalking mode. As an outsider observing the situation from afar I see that the future holds promise as demographic projection show that the two largest minority groups will in the not too distant future become the majority, well that will be really interesting.

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  3. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Also, he speaks of the private prison industry

    "Meanwhile the DEA
    Teamed up with the CCA
    They tryna lock niggas up
    They tryna make new slaves
    See that's that privately owned prison
    Get your piece today
    They prolly all in the Hamptons
    Bragging 'bout what they made
    Fuck you and your Hampton house"

    "Opening a prison seems like a pretty lucrative investment. There is an entire prison-industrial complex which reaps untold riches from jailing minorities and using them for free labor. Not to mention the surveillance and security contracts."

    Ohhhh, you missed the mark a few times in this article, especially when you claim that hip hop suggests no solutions...such a broad and bold statement about a whole genre of music should be taken with a grain of salt

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Have a look at the house the $3 mill house that KW put up for a sale a years or so ago.

      My my...."Fuck you and your L.A. house" indeed

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Your tripping brotha, calm down for a minute and get some perspective

      The fact that Kanye has a wealth now doesn't mean he cant talk about people profiting off the incareration of others now does it?

      Does the fact the Bill McKibbon used A1 Jetfuel to get to Australia mean that he cannot talk about climate change once he gets here?

      Its just hypocritical of you to suggest that because he has money he can't criticise anyone else who has money

      I mean we got the private prison industry lobbying…

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    3. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      "He can criticise anything he wants to.......

      oh and so can I." - Yeah this is called responding to a point no one made - did anyone suggest you cant criticise anything you want?

      its the equivilant of stating, "Im entitled to my opinion"...yeah, no shiz

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Michael Shand

      I don't know if the data is correct but according to a report the KW Foundation raised over a million dollars, but only .56% of it actually made it to benefactors. The largest expenditure was wages and salaries.

      In 2010 he made $12 million dollars and donated just $88K to the foundation - but in 2010 the foundation did not make one donation.

      He may be great with the words, but he ain't so great with actions.........as I said thousands of black people are putting in the hard yards helping their fellow citizens to a better existence.

      It would appear KW isn't one of them.

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    5. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      he is raising awareness of an important issue and he is an entertainer not an activist

      You seem to want to hold him to an unachievable standard and hating on the brotha for no other reason than you want to hate on him

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  4. Samantha Lyneham

    Researcher

    While Kanye West may not pose any solutions in his music, there are a growing number of musicians joining the fight against modern day slavery and human trafficking through MTVExit's awareness raising campaigns and concerts, particularly in countries that are most affected. See http://mtvexit.org/

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    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Samantha Lyneham

      I mean we got the private prison industry lobbying local and state governments in the US to be tough on crime because they profit from people being incarerated. They have a monetry incentive not to rehabilitate prisoners as they profit from repeat offenders and we are seeing the laws that they lobby for being disproportionantely applied to minority groups. Also the private prison industry forces these "Criminals" often non violent offenders to work for less than a dollar a day and they are doing work on behalf of private companies that can contract out to prisons

      Kanye wrote a song about this

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Did he donate any of the money to the cause?

      I hope he did...........it would seem fair to me.

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    3. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      What cause fool? he is raising awareness of an important issue and he is an entertainer not an activist

      You seem to want to hold him to an unachievable standard and hating on the brotha for no other reason than you want to hate on him

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  5. Greg Miles

    Conservation lobbyist

    An insightful and interesting article. All of Mr Wests messages (along with his rapping contemporaries) are lost on me. I can generally never understand a word they say!

    It ain't music IMO - it's street poetry - which is fine.

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  6. Rory Cunningham

    Test Analyst

    I love rap music (hilltop hoods, illy, pez, eminem etc.) but West's attitude and style really don't mix well with the message he is trying to give

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  7. Pearl Helms

    Academically inclined at Higher Education.

    Gender. RaceSex SexRace

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    1. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Pearl Helms

      From anecdotal evidence Pearl, one thing is a true. Sadly for everyone, in the SexRace, men always come first.

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  8. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    I cannot but compare the issues raised in this article and the discussion and propaganda re guns in the USA. Both are manifestations structural racism, and making money out of jails or guns sales is still based on stoking the fires of fear. Use any means possible, so what any collateral damage.

    Also see the news this morning where some voting laws imposed on some states to enable some whites to freely vote have been struck down by the court system.

    I observed shades of some of these attitudes in my mother (ex
    Michigan), even after she had spent many years in pre Revolutionary China and much of her life in Australia. Makes one a bit more aware of the nuances of the issues.

    Good clear discussion of these issues is needed here in Australia.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to John Holmes

      Another issue to place on the table...........let's stop when we get to a thousand.

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    2. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      How can that be when so many are just different parts of the whole. So the haves divide and rule divide and rule. Good tactic, tends to abuse the powerless.

      Logical end is entrenched inequality, eg the Caste system or town camps or similar. OK if you are on top of the system, pity about the rest.

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  9. Walter Edward Hart

    logged in via Facebook

    I appreciate you citing my research paper on hip hop and white racial attitudes, but it is important to note that I call into question the statistic that white males are the primary consumers of hip hop music - not that they are the primary the primary consumers of hip hop music.

    It is important to question these statistics because it is this assumption that, I posit, led to the ability of the music industry to push versions of hip hop music that reflected historically negative white racial assumptions about black culture.

    https://www.academia.edu/428185/THE_CULTURE_INDUSTRY_HIP_HOP_MUSIC_AND_THE_WHITE_PERSPECTIVE_HOW_ONE-DIMENSIONAL_REPRESENTATION_OF_HIP_HOP_MUSIC_HAS_INFLUENCED_WHITE_RACIAL_ATTITUDES

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