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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.