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Charles M. Blow
The Exploitative Anti-Blackness of Kanye West
Oct. 9, 2022
Credit…Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic, via Getty Images
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Among Kanye’s West’s defenders, the thinking goes like this: He is a genius, a freethinker, an elevated conscience. They may not like or agree with everything he does, but they applaud the man.
There is a cult of Kanye, and I came to the opinion long ago that our society confers a special allure on cults, particularly when they are tied not to religion but to pop culture or politics. In those arenas, they feel fun, innocent, like rooting together for a favorite team.
So I’m not here to argue about whether West is a genius, although when anyone refers to themselves as such, it tends to undercut the appellation.
This newspaper itself has repeatedly called West a genius, so it would behoove him, I suppose, to run with the branding.
But it has always seemed to me that West is aching to be considered a modern Mozart: the tortured genius. Of course, Mozart was a genius beyond dispute, but the idea that he was a tortured one may be a myth. As Jan Swafford wrote in his book “Mozart: The Reign of Love”:
While Mozart had his share of sorrow and loss and frustration like the rest of us, he was fundamentally a happy man. He wrote for public consumption, which is to say that he was a professional in a way few composers are anymore. Still, on the whole he did what he wanted to do the way he wanted to, and when he was done he didn’t worry overmuch about what the public thought of it.
West is no Mozart. West is a brooding, narcissistic attention addict and praise junkie. He attends his torture. He curates and employs it. Some of it may come naturally, but some is manufactured, to enlarge the legend.
I will let others debate whether his talents as an artist, which are remarkable, rise to that of genius. I want to focus instead on West as a cultural chaos agent, as a purveyor of dangerous politics. In this arena, he is no genius; he is a gussied-up gimmick. West’s latest brushes with thoughtless provocation came this weekend when he was kicked off Twitter and other social-media platforms for a series of antisemitic posts. But as noted, these are merely his latest brushes with thoughtless provocation.
West is often described as a “freethinker,” but in the political space, he isn’t. He’s simply a Black artist willing to regurgitate conservative — sometimes bordering on white supremacist — talking points as if they were his own.
Coming from the mouth of an international superstar, a rapping fashion designer, oppression starts to sound like freedom to those who shy away from or openly reject a serious analysis of politics and current affairs.
Last week, West caused a firestorm by wearing a “White Lives Matter” shirt at his fashion show in Paris. The Anti-Defamation League labels “White Lives Matter” a “white supremacist phrase” and has written that, since 2015, “white supremacists in several states, especially members of the Texas-based white supremacist group Aryan Renaissance Society, have promoted the slogan” as part of “a loose campaign to popularize the phrase.”
Well, last week, West gave the white supremacists a boost.
West is the same man who in 2013 was selling merchandise with Confederate flags on tour. As he explained to a radio station that year about people’s appalled reactions:
“Any energy is good energy. The Confederate flag represented slavery in a way. That’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I wrote the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now.”
Kanye pitches it as co-option, but it is, in fact, basic shock-value antics that promote and normalize anti-Black hate symbols.
There is nothing genius about this. It is bargain basement exploitation. As West put it himself, “any energy is good energy,” which is just an almost spiritual, if jargony, way of reinterpreting what Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in the late 1800s: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” The spirit of that idea led to “all publicity is good publicity.”
After the latest outcry over the “White Lives Matter” shirt he wore at Fashion Week, West continued his publicity seeking by going on Fox News to elaborate. The interview was a jumble of themes in which he attempted to weave together godliness, artistic inspiration, personal persecution, disdain for institutions, anti-abortion talking points, an inversion on the ideas around racism and his support for Donald Trump. You know, core ideas of the modern right wing.
West says of the shirt, “The answer to why I wrote ‘White Lives Matter’ on a shirt is because they do.” He plays oblivious to the obvious.
West is the same man who said in 2015 that “racism is a dated concept,” and that “it’s like a silly concept that people” use “to separate, to alienate, to pinpoint anything. It’s stupid.”
He is the same man who said in a TMZ interview in 2018: “You hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice. Like, you was there for 400 years, and it’s all of y’all?”
West later apologized for the slavery comments, but even in the apology he could not control his narcissism, saying: “You know in a relationship, maybe somebody will do something just to see if you still love them. One thing that I got from the TMZ comment is it showed me how much Black people love me, and how much Black people count on me and depend on me. And I appreciate that.”
None of this, in the political sphere, is genius. It’s shallow and dull. Kanye is just a Black man who discovered Black conservatism and thinks it’s enlightenment. There is nothing complex or mysterious about it. He’s a Black man parroting white supremacy, while far too many brush it off, continue dancing to his music, and wear his clothes.
West is a Black man sampling vintage anti-Black racism, remixing and releasing it under a new label: the tortured Black genius.