The Revolutionary Politics of Kanye West
This weekend, Kanye West will perform at Governor’s Ball in New York. It remains to be seen whether or not his performance will consist of rehashes of his classics, or largely of new material. My best guess (and I may very well eat my shoe over this on Monday) is that he’ll be performing large swaths of his upcoming album Yeezus. Regardless, whenever we do end up hearing it, we will experience what by all accounts is Kanye’s power-drunk guess as to what a gazillion-dollar punked-out rap record is supposed to sound like. Its messages will be broad and sweeping in many ways, and pointed and specific in others. It will often be kind of dumb and idealogically unsound, if not wholesale incorrect. Lots of people will hate it (even me, maybe), but when it’s all said and done we’ll recognize that Yeezus was the payoff on what Kanye has slowly and subtly set up to what may very well be the most important protest album of the decade.
Now, what is Kanye protesting exactly? Judging by first singles “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” he’s tackling issues involving race and class in America and how that affects everyday life. Which is to say, everything. Those of you who doubt Yeezus is going to be as political and laser-focused as we hope would be wise to reference this tweet from my colleague Craig Jenkins, who noted the record’s release date’s proximity to Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the abolition of slavery in Texas.
In a way, Kanye’s entire discography is leading to this (probable) point—his first two records were about reaching the top, Graduation was about loving life there, 808’s and Heartbreak was how the top can fuck up your personal life, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was about growing restless at the top, and Watch the Throne found him and Jay-Z negotiating the idea of why there weren’t more black men at the top. And now, it seems, Kanye’s taking stock of the world as he sees it from upon high, and deciding that he doesn’t like what’s flashing in front of his Fendi frames. The fact that the biggest black entertainer in the country even made those two records and debuted them on the beyond-white bread Saturday Night Live is huge. This isn’t Das Racist razzing a few privileged white kids at Music Hall of Williamsburg. This is Kanye West going into a million white people’s living rooms and saying, “Look at the terrible things your people have done to my people and are still doing to my people. We are not going to take it. I’m so pissed right now I wouldn’t even be here if I didn’t have something incredibly urgent to say. Fuck you.” That’s a powerful act, something that you can put up there with things that Bob Marley or Tupac did. I know that’s outlandish, but one day we’ll be holding Kanye West up next to those guys, so we might as well start now.
Regardless of the actual content of Yeezus, it’s certain that the record is already causing controversy. There is no cover or back art, merely a jewel case with some red duct tape on it. Yes, the no-cover cover can come off as super corny and has definitely been done to death, but there is something inherently powerful to nothingness. Its aesthetics are closed off, which makes it a blank slate from which to draw conclusions. And by dropping two furious singles and remaining tight-lipped about the cover’s meaning, he’s very much mirroring the rhetoric of the Occupy movement. He’s angry as fuck and wants things to change. He’s not going to tell us how to change anything, but that’s fine. That’s not the point. The point is we need to get angry as fuck, too.
Part of being a genuine revolutionary as opposed to a self-righteous blowhard is figuring out how to actually influence people. If you want to have a meaningful impact upon society, you should be gunning not to make people do what you want them to do, but instead make them think how you think. Occupy, which intentionally maintained no platforms or goals beyond “we exist” and “we’re pissed that we’re poor,” was great at this. As a practical alternative to societal bullshit, it’s terrible. As something that might cause a wave of thinking that then itself will be enact positive societal change on a long-term scale, it was great. It’s harder to quash, or even address, something as basic as that platform. Meanwhile, an open-ended protest that you sort of inherently agree with is also way easier to sympathize with as well. Conversely, if you’re a cynical joker these same qualities made Occupy really easy to make fun of, which is something that Kanye is also definitely running into. This same sense of adherence to vagueness is also why stuff like anarchism and Marxism are amazing in abstract—it’s easy to say, “Everyone should be equal and no one should tell each other what to do” than actually, like, ironing out the details.
As for the music itself, there have been rumblings that West has been going in heavy on the Gravity Records discography and Yeezus’ sound will reflect that. If you don’t know, Gravity was arguably the first—and probably best—screamo label, and its bands tended to operate on a far wavier plane than the rest of the post-hardcore scene (compare a band like Antioch Arrow to Fugazi to see what I’m talking about). Kanye’s new singles reflect that aesthetic, crossed with an unlimited budget and access to whatever talent in hip-hop he’d like to tap. While undeniably brilliant on an artistic level, “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” could be charitably described as “difficult,” especially when compared to, say, “Good Life.” In his own way, Yeezy’s kicked knowledge on every single one of his records, offering one of the most complex and interesting characters hip-hop has ever seen. But many have always focused on the hooks and ignored the jabs—until now, at least. Maybe Kanye had to go into crazy-dude mode in order to wake people up.
Many feel as if it’s impossible for Kanye to operate in the One Percent while speaking for the 99%. Those people are basic, and missing the point. It’s spectacularly natural to participate and relish in a process, especially a capitalistic one, while also realizing that it’s terrible. And who better to realize the machine is inherently flawed and should be destroyed than somebody who’s a prominent cog in it? Subsequently, it’s much easier for that cog to destroy the machine from the inside.
Kanye West might legitimately be the voice of our generation, and I think in the past couple of years he’s started to understand what that’s supposed to mean. America is at a weird point socially, where a lot of dominoes are being set into place, and what happens the next couple of years may very well determine the course of the next ten. Occupy was a push in the right direction, but we can’t let its momentum wear out and become complacent with a society characterized by so much inequality. Kanye understands this. We got a black president, but that didn’t cure racism, and it didn’t stop Kanye from getting unfairly shamed when he spoke out against Taylor Swift, a white woman, unjustly receiving an award over Beyoncé, a black woman. It was a trivial act on the part of Yeezy, yes, but the racist attitudes and words that his actions evoked damn sure weren’t. Kanye West is having a child, and he wants to make that world better before he brings his child into it. Is that egotistical? Of course. Does it make him an asshole? Maybe. But this isn’t about whether or not you’d get a beer with Kanye. It’s about him being an icon with a message that’s greater than himself and a platform from which to spread it. He’s the flawed, egomaniacal revolutionary that our culture deserves, and he’s here to save us from ourselves.
Drew Millard is an editor at Noisey. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard