Kanye Walks

There may be a handful of our readers who are unfamiliar with the name and career of Mr. Kanye West…Let’s hope we’ve heard the last of Mr. West for awhile. Twenty years would be about right. amiliar with the name and career of Mr. Kanye West…Let’s hope we’ve heard the last of Mr. West for awhile. Twenty years would be about right.
The National Review, September 26, 2005

Anyone who is this morally and mentally challenged deserves our sympathy.
— William Donohue

There has been no rap artist since Tupac Shakur that has been as controversial as Kanye West. While no one questions the late Shakur’s status as “street-philosopher-turned-grassroots agitator”, the reality is that Shakur was often in the news solely because he shot a police officer in the foot or was incarcerated on rape charges. West, on the other-hand, has made his impact on the level of discourse — when was the last time a “rapper” drew attention to herself because of what he or she said? Despite the fact that many believe that hip-hop’s importance resides in its rhetorical power, there are relatively few examples of hip-hop artists drawing mainstream attention for the content of their rhetoric — not as popular musicians — but as citizens providing social commentary. Not since the heyday of Chuck D and Professor Griff (1989) and the early careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre have rap artists been singularly chided the way Kanye West was for his now clichéd “George Bush Don’t Care About Black People”. It should thus be no surprise that West would again rankle staid sensibilities, adorning the cover of Rolling Stone as “Jesus Christ”.

Featuring West with a crown of thorns, Rolling Stone‘s February 9th cover story — “The Passion of Kanye West” — immediately drew the ire of commentators and pundits. William Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, quickly chimed “It’s one thing to rip Catholic iconography. It’s quite another to exploit a poor soul like Kanye West” (New York Daily News, 1.25.06). Of course, Donohue’s rather casual assertions about “Catholic iconography” can be challenged by the thousands of velvet “Black Jesus” paintings that adorn the households of African-Americans (right next to the pictures of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and President John Kennedy). Indeed West’s visceral imaging of “Jesus Christ” recalls the historical efforts of blacks and other non-European peoples to have the “lord and savior” represented in the image of themselves. For example, media scholar Kim Pearson recently recalled Janet Mc Kenzie’s award winning photo “Jesus of the People” in which Christ was depicted as African-American woman (with flourishes of androgyny).

But I suspect that the criticisms directed at West and Rolling Stone have little to do with critiques liberation theology. Save depictions of Minister Louis Farrakhan (or maybe Reverend Al Sharpton) as “Jesus Christ”, one would be hard-pressed to think of a contemporary black figure that would have generated as much controversy as West in this regard. Implicit in the criticisms of Kanye West is the presumption that West — a rapper, a young black man, a celebrity, a nigga — has no relationship with “Christ” and more broadly that the hip-hop generation (often mistakenly read as solely “black”) has no right to employ the image of “Christ” to name and claim their own worldview. The general view is that religion and morality are foreign to the hip-hop generation.

Of course there were precursors of West’s photo within hip-hop; the aforementioned Shakur, Sean Combs and Nasir Jones have all evoked Christian iconography at various points in their career. And more importantly, if we look past the hegemony of Christianity in the United States, there has always been a spiritual presence within hip-hop via the embrace of orthodox Islam, the Nation of Islam and the ideology of the Five-Percent Nation. In some regards, Kanye’s “Jesus” move is pure hip-hop — another example of the ongoing ability of the culture to appropriate anything as its own — “Jesus” is simply the next terrain. The criticisms of West should be read, in part, as an effort to deny West and hip-hop, the gravitas befitting a legitimate social movement. Too often the mainstream mistakes “rap music” (what photographer Ernie Paniccioli calls hip-hop’s “bastard child”) for the broader social movement that is hip-hop — a social movement that is inclusive of what Michael Eric Dyson often refers to as a street-level theodicy.

Granted West consistently undermines a willingness for folk to take him seriously because of his grandiose sense of himself (predicated, in part, on the queering that occurs in hip-hop when one doesn’t play the script straight) but realistically West would be little regarded if he didn’t play the diva card. And, indeed, the diva that is West seemingly masks the kinds of insecurities and pain that makes his music so compelling. As West told Entertainment Weekly (in a competing cover story), “I am scared of failure. I was scared to work on the second album.” Because we are all too willing to invest in the traumatic hood myths that adorn our favorite rappers, it is often difficult to take at face value the middle-class kid who got his ass kicked everyday on his way home from school because he was a nerd. West’s father, for example, recounts an incident where the tires of his son’s bike were slashed because he refused to give up his bike. Regular beatdowns of the sort have inspired more than a few outsized egos — few though, have a global stage to exhibit them. And indeed, the bookish, nerdish, queerish (in comparison to hip-hop’s status quo) West — who wore a “pink shirt with the collar sticking up” — was still a target as top-tier producer, even in his own camp as Damon Dash’s comments suggest.

At his best, Kanye West provides a blueprint for how one can challenge the status quo (at least intellectually) and still find cover in the off-the-chain buzz that makes one relevant for their x-minutes of fame. Kanye West is nobody’s Harry Belafonte (the prototype, perhaps, for the Gramscian Celebrity of the post World War II era) — couldn’t be given the historical processes that marked the conditions that brought their individual art and activism into existence — but at 25, West’s willingness to subject himself to national scrutiny, and more importantly self-scrutiny, is refreshing, not because it hasn’t been done before, but because he is doing it so fabulously in the full glare of the world. The balance between ego and self-critique is a fine one, but when West’s own self-critique summons the faith and bravery to challenge homophobia within hip-hop — knowing full well what the implications would be in terms of perceptions of his own sexuality — we have to rethink, what exactly we are accusing West of when rendering him as simply an egomaniac. As West suggests in the Rolling Stone feature, “I knew there would be backlash [in response to his criticisms of homophobia]… but it didn’t scare me, because I felt like God wanted me to say something about that.”

There are probably 25-so-called “conscious rappers” who will continue their rarified toil for “the sake of the people” — that is, the same choir of 150 people that attend at their shows. And that “consciousness” has little value if the disregarded and displaced can’t see their own fragile and damaged humanities reflected in the drive towards empowerment. One of the consistent strains in Kanye West music is that he is just as damaged as the rest of us. Accordingly, West uses the Rolling Stone article to address his addiction to pornography — this on the heels of gospel artist Kirk Franklin’s admission to the same addiction. Little has been made of the fact that both admissions mark the rather tenuous and deadly realities of sexual intercourse during the age of AIDs or the power and significance of “self-pleasuring” for those across the wide range of human sexualities, in light of dangers seen and unseen. In a world where priests have sex with underage boys and ministers prey on the spiritual and sexual needs of those within their congregations, can we perhaps give West and Franklin some credit for practicing safe sex.

The bottom line here is that West is not some pious figure simply tossing stones at the sinful — more than half of those stones West tosses at himself. By making public his struggles with living a devout life, West makes such a lifestyle so much more accessible and valuable to the very folk that need spirituality to get them through the day to day. Kanye West becomes the receptacle for the folk to think of a “Jesus” that is truly of the people. West makes such a point during the obscure third version of his “Jesus Walks” video. Shot in a grainy, black-and-white guerilla style, the video mocks the idea of a self-centered spirituality, as a white “Jesus” literally follows West around protecting him from danger. This image of “Jesus” is juxtaposed with that of a black “Jesus” who is seen playing jump rope with a group of neighborhood children. The video begs the question, which notion of “Jesus” matters? A “Jesus” seen as a “personal” savior or one who resided with and among the people? Kanye West, at least, walks amongst the people.

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A long-time contributor to PopMatters.com, Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including the recent New Black Man (Routledge, 2005). Neal is currently working on a collection of essays titled Thug Nigga Intellectual (New York University Press). He teaches African-American Studies at Duke University.