Or how to manipulate the media time and time again
Kanye West, the self-appointed prophet of our disjointed late modernity, is no stranger to controversy. On the one hand, one certainly cannot deny his musical talent and the longevity of his relevance in a pop music industry, which never shies away from throwing its luminaries into the gutter, is nothing less than impressive. However, even the most ardent of Kanye’s fans will have to admit that it’s not simply his music that has kept him in the limelight for as long as it has. By now, Kanye West needs no introduction. He has become a household name, a cross-genre superstar who has made his mark in the worlds of music, fashion and pop culture as a whole in ways very few have achieved before him. Simultaneously, his lack of filter when discussing his supposed views has become a hallmark of his public persona. The Kanye who said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a live Hurricane Katrina telethon, who was one of the first mainstream artists to embrace LGBTQ people in an otherwise heavily hostile hip-hop culture, who interrupted Taylor Swift’s VMA speech, is the same Kanye who has now once again found himself the subject of a cycle of media outrage. Ever since returning to Twitter, after posting a picture donning a Make America Great Again hat and retweeting conservative commentators, some tweets openly endorsing Donald Trump’s presidency, the farce has culminated in him stating to paparazzi lynchpins TMZ that 400 years of black slavery may have been a choice. Oh that Kanye West. He’s really overstepped the line this time. And he has an album release around the corner. What a crazy coincidence!
For those of us familiar with his history, this should really come as no big surprise. Kanye West is certainly not the first person to manipulate a polarised and highly volatile media landscape for personal gains, and neither will he be the last. He is, however, very good at it. Among his many talents, arguably his greatest is his ability to provoke furious outrage and generate exposure from people who know no better. And even those of us sophisticated and learned enough in his ways, those of us who write articles about how he is using the media for his own cynical ends, are just as much a part of it. And we fall for it unfailingly. Every single time. Sitting on a train on my way home last Friday I overhear two young guys talking. “You know why he’s doing it, right?” “He’s got a new album coming out.” Yet, we are still talking about him. Why?
The way that this particular saga has unfolded has certainly been compelling for a number of reasons, in no small part due to the current discussion surrounding race in America. In many ways, what Kanye has done throughout his career in order to gain column inches dedicated to him, a tactic of coming across as provocative, outrageous, and above all absurdly self-confident, is no different to the tactic employed by Trump himself in his presidential campaign. Kanye’s antics of yesteryear riled many a conservative, and furthermore his larger-than-life persona and self-deifying tendencies have long been castigated by white conservative America, which has held a long-standing disdain for hip-hop culture for obvious reasons. Yet ever since first appearing with Trump with his hair dyed blond in late 2016, and more recently openly endorsing him and repeating age-old right-wing talking points, he has stoked the ire of the mainstream left, with countless articles and thinkpieces regarding the history of slavery and the dangerous political territory Kanye is wading into, as if he is unaware. Meanwhile, those same conservative commentators who have spent half their careers blaming the plight of black America on degenerate rap music and self-destructive cultural practices, are now embracing Kanye with open arms as some courageous voice for new ideas that aren’t permitted by the mainstream liberal media. Twitter on the other hand, with its tendency to propel discussions to their logical (and often illogical) extremes with little hesitation, has hosted many a comment referring to Kanye as a “coon” or “Uncle Tom” or other such colourful plaudits. In response, the right-wing commentariat use the opportunity to claim that anyone of colour who does not agree with the accepted liberal worldview is indeed immediately castigated and shut down. The shouting intensifies and the seething bubble of outrage expands to the point of bursting.
In our present digital media landscape, two of the most defining features are its 24-hour operation, and under capitalism, its goal of maximising profit. The former leads to the need for an endless stream of stories, regardless of their importance to public affairs. Due to the diminishing resources that media platforms have to work with, stories often get recycled across different sites, as one organisation breaks the news, and then others follow suit by reporting on the original reports, and then the reports of the reports, in a process often leading to a game of Chinese whispers, where aided by sensationalist headlines, the original story becomes so contorted by the time it reaches an audience, it is almost entirely unrecognisable. Particularly in the present age, where public figures and celebrities now have a space to express their voice to the world, entire pages and articles are dedicated on mainstream media outlets on reporting and discussing statements and responses to current events found on Twitter.
This also happens to feed into the demand to generate clicks and create ad revenue because disproportionately exaggerated headlines about celebrities and their opinions are unfortunately what get people to click. Immersed in a world of hyper-information, such as today’s, with our collective attention span fast decreasing, our eyes are easily drawn to titles beginning with “12 rules for…” and “You won’t believe what…”, and video thumbnails with hyperbolic facial expressions and women with comically large breasts. The way recommend algorithms work as well is by suggesting content regarding trending topics. This has led us to an environment which is constantly looking for the faintest reasons to always explode in outrage over, and a media industry always ready to feed off the fallout. So when one of the most recognisable names in popular culture once again hands it to you on a platter, you of course all dive in with your knives and forks. Once again, I’m no less guilty of this than anyone else who has written a Kanye thinkpiece in the last 2 weeks. Hey, I’ve got to get my clicks too. And hell, I’m not even getting paid to write this.
The topic of slavery is also not new to the Kanye West lexicon. Like many before him, he sees an inherent disparity in the power structures fundamental to capitalism. His track Facts on his last album The Life of Pablo, aimed as a diss track at Nike for refusing to pay him royalties for his sneaker line, contains the line, “Nike, Nike, treat employees just like slaves/Gave LeBron a billi’ not to run away.” He has stated in previous interviews such as with Charlamagne, that being a musician, recording albums and touring gives you money to buy a house and a car, but not the money to buy an island, to really call the shots. And in some respect he is also right. Under capitalism, the value of one’s labour is extracted, and profited from by the owners of the means of production. In the case of the music and fashion industries, that equates to the executives and owners of record labels and design houses. So even artists like Kanye who have achieved levels of fame and fortune that very few others have, are not the ultimate benefactors of their own brand, or their own work. Those are the same people who are therefore calling the shots. This argument also of course goes without saying in the case of the sweatshop workers working in actual slave-like conditions in developing countries under the employment of corporations such as Nike. The fact that he has brought up these issues throughout his career, particularly as a hugely successful black man with a messiah complex had always put him in an uncomfortable standing with white Middle America. Yet similar to many of the same people who have come before him, Kanye’s solution is to blame everything but the structural deficiencies of capitalism. In a way this line of reasoning can be seen as the core of most right-wing politics.
This particular evocation of slavery however, has been more literal, and therefore the reaction altogether fiercer, especially from his own fanbase. The notion that African slaves brought to America did not resist their oppression (which they did at every possible opportunity by the way), and were willing participants in their own subjugation has been peddled among right-wing circles in America for a long time as a way to soften the public perception of slavery and remove agency from the actual white perpetrators. Therefore, to claim, as some have done, that Kanye West is speaking some brave new truths that no one dares to speak up about because of political correctness, is disingenuous, and frankly utter nonsense. Particularly given that this is a man who has used his voice to speak about the plight of black people so many times in the past, and who had the temerity to name himself and one of his albums Yeezus, it’s really no wonder that so many fans feel betrayed by him. After all, this is an America where the last half decade has seen riots on the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore due to anger at police violence at the black community, and white supremacists have felt emboldened enough to take to the streets en masse with tiki torches.
Therefore, given the entire context of the story, can anyone really try to claim that Kanye doesn’t know what he is doing by provoking this discussion at this particular moment in history? That this is the result of his long-protracted mental breakdown in late 2016 which culminated in him deactivating his Twitter account? Well, when listening to the two promotional songs he has released for his new album, the picture starts to become a little clearer. Lift Yourself begins with about as classic of a Kanye intro as possible, with a cut up soul sample which segues into a thumping dancehall-like beat with bossa nova influences for the first 2 minutes of 2 and a half, as Kanye comes in with a thick slice of self-hype, as he builds up his oncoming verse. For the final half a minute, in a bewildering turn of events, he begins rapping in actual baby talk. The verse includes such pieces of wisdom as “Wooptidy scoop? Scoopdity woop!” That verse is the sound of the Kanye West fanbase as it loses its collective mind trying to figure out what on earth is going on with their favourite idol.
The second of the promo singles, aptly titled Ye vs. the People does, however, shed a little more light. It features a guest appearance from Atlanta trap pioneer TI speaking as “the people”, and for the length of the track, Kanye is held to task by him (and by proxy his public detractors) and thus takes the opportunity to explain his actions. TI asks, “Have you considered all the damage and the people you hurt?/…/This shit’s just as bad as Catholic preachers rapin’ in church” and “You wore a dusty-ass hat to represent the same views/As white supremacy, man, we expect better from you/All them times you sounded crazy, we defended you, homie/Not just to be let down when we depend on you, homie.” Harsh words no doubt. Kanye’s defence takes the form of “Make America Great Again had a negative perception/I took it, wore it, rocked it, gave it a new direction/Added empathy, care and love and affection.” It’s only when we get to the song’s end that Kanye’s intentions really become clear. “Alright, Tip, we could be rappin’ about this all day, man/Why don’t we just cut the beat off and let the people talk?” he says. That about sums it up really.
The whole affair is a grand theatrical performance, not too dissimilar to story arcs in professional wrestling, where one wrestler plays the “face” (good guy) and another the “heel” (bad guy). The people engaging in this overly acted out debate, whether Kanye or TI or the hundreds of journalists who have written pieces either condemning or defending him all have ultimately very little to lose from this entire episode. They only have exposure to gain. As Trump proved in the run-up to his election, there truly is no such thing as bad press. Kanye’s whole motivation is to get people to talk about him, saturating the media landscape till it overflows with Kanye. I mean this is after all the same artist who turned criticism of his later works into the song I Love Kanye infamously beginning with the line “I miss the old Kanye.” Self-awareness has always been a part of Kanye’s character, even if he would love to project an image far from it. So while we all continue to squabble and tweet endlessly, losing our minds, Kanye raps at us in baby talk and laughs all the way to the bank yet again. And it’s in moments like this that you really have to appreciate his genius.
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