Culture

Dispatches from the Sunken Place: Kanye, Kim, and Cosby

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington caught in the Sunken Place (Get Out, 2017)

Get Out's Sunken Place is not at a distant location -- it subsists and persists in the here and now. Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Bill Cosby should know this.

Artists transform tragedy into beauty. -- Kanye West

Sometimes we twirl too long in pop culture news cycles. We watch dependable erratic personalities explode on twitter with their respect for unpopular figures. We absorb (or join in on) the backlash, and we immediately align ourselves with proper sides. Kanye West has re-surfaced in a new guise, or perhaps it's the same as it ever was. The producer/performer/hip-hop star/fashion mogul has reminded us pop culture twirlers of a meeting he'd had with then President-elect Donald Trump in December 2016. Sixteen months later, while we catch our collective breath dancing through the minefields of jesters whose purpose is solely to entertain us and affirm our own perspectives, West has tweeted:

You don't have to agree with trump but the mob can't make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don't agree with everything anyone does. That's what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.

Those of us who've been twirling through these news cycles for many years immediately connected West's "dragon energy" adjective/noun combination to Charlie Sheen's 2011 "tiger blood" meltdown. Where Sheen seemed to be positioning himself as a lone wolf who won in spite of everything and everybody against him, West's comments were a little more disconcerting. Even deeper back in history,when in 2005 West went rogue in front of a live TV telethon to support the victims of Hurricane Katrinawith the immediately legendary accusation

George Bush doesn't care about black people.

Thirteen years ago, West's co-presenter Mike Meyers' face froze with surprise. There were comments, reprisals, discussion in various parts of the media, but indignation and condemnation from either side was not so stinging and immediate. We moved on. George W. Bush, the target of West's ire, limped quietly to the end of his second term, and attention went elsewhere.

Kanye West's embrace of Donald Trump seemed both opportunistic and troubling in 2016. It seemed like an indication that there was trouble in his surroundings. The fact that West has re-embraced Trump as his "brother" and followed up his initial tweets with philosophical musings seems connected with some sort of master business plan. The twitter handle @kanyewest had been deleted for nearly a year. Now, along with supporting anti-Black Lives Matter conservative commentator Candace Owens because "she's challenging conventional black thought", West has thrown in some fortune cookie style philosophical musings that will apparently play a role in a future book (written in what he calls "real time," apparently as collected tweets.)

…The now is the greatest moment of our lives, and it just keeps getting better.

In a series of response tweets coming from West's wife Kim Kardashian's account, the defense seems reasonable and -- in a "normal" light, perhaps touching:

I believe in people being able to have their own opinions… Kanye will never run in the race of popular opinion… Kanye is years ahead of his time.

It's a different line, where she alludes to a plot element from Jordan Peele's Academy Award-winning (Best Original Screenplay) 2017 film Get Out that brings her personal defense into the universal:

He's actually out of the sunken place when he's being himself which is very expressive.

In Peele's film, (and spoilers abound in this paragraph) a key element involves a certain population (African-Americans) being exiled to the sunken place. Once there, their essence is removed from their corporeal beings, and old white people whose bodies had betrayed them are given a new lease through life in the bodies of these zombie sunken place inhabitants. The brilliance of Get Out isn't that the sunken place exists in a distant location but rather that it subsists and persists in the here and now. In essence, it's impossible to really "get out" from the sunken place because once you hear that demand ("Get Out!") it's simply too late. The transformation is underway.

Men? Men? Where are you, men? -- Bill Cosby, 2007

In a May 2008 Atlantic essay called "This Is How We Lost to the White Man: The Audacity of Bill Cosby's Black Conservatism", Ta-Nehishi Coates painted a fascinating picture of a Cosby hectoring his audience of African-Americans to pull up their pants, respect themselves, and be accountable because "…people are behaving in abnormal ways and calling it normal." Cosby, dressed in what Coates calls a "standard uniform" of dark sunglasses, loafers, and a sweatshirt advertising an institution of higher learning, preaches self-reliance at a series of events usually closed to the media. One of the many lines from Coates' essay that resonates louder today than ever is when Cosby concludes to his audience:

My problem… is I'm tired of losing to white people… let them say what they want to say. What can they say to me that's worse than what their grandfather said?

In late April 2018, people are saying many things about Bill Cosby, and the comments are usually led by the official declaration: guilty of sexually assaulting former Temple University employee Andrea Constand. She was among more than 60 women who have come forward with substantiated accusations that the comedy icon had drugged and assaulted them. The events stretched back decades and the women were from all strata of society. Cosby's reputation was apparently an open secret in the world of comedy in particular and entertainment in general, but it took fellow comedian Hannibal Burress including Cosby in his stand-up to bring understood reality to actualized justice.

Examining Cosby's 2007 comments in 2018, as we continue to swirl through story cycles and celebrity punching bags, the scene is a little more complicated. The conservatism Cosby espoused in 2007 and probably still holds close to his heart seems similar to the life perspective of Candace Owens, another contemporary black conservative thinker whose popular YouTube channel -- originally called "Red Black Pill" -- was a reference to The Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix (1999), where characters had the option to take a red pill to see things as they really are. For Owens, Trump seems not just the most effective political leader for our time, but also something deeper:

I truly believe that @realDonaldTrump isn't just the leader of the free world, but the savior of it as well.

For Owens, Black Lives Matter leaders are "…a bunch of whiny toddlers, pretending to be oppressed for attention." The fact that Kanye West is embracing of these ideas, as well as linking to public media messages from other conservative pundits like Dilbert creator Scott Adams, can be seen as a calculated career decision or an indication that something deeper is happening. Attention must be paid. Free speech and thinking and a spectrum of opinions comes at a heavy cost, and marching to your own drummer is fine so long as you keep a steady beat.

*Gets inspired *Starts writing 'Get Out 2' -- Jordan Peele, 25 April 2018

The Bill Cosby of 2007 is clearly out of place in our post-Obama, mid-period "Black Lives Matter" world, and the understood notion of a "sunken place" so clearly delineated by writer-director Jordan Peele as a mental construct will continue to mutate as we transform through discussions of identity through race, gender, and ideology. For West, a man whose ambitions sometimes overwhelm his impulse control, the artistic life seems to be motivated by working all of it out in public. For Bill Cosby, in the darkest point of his life and career, an appeal is surely to follow this re-trial guilty conviction. While Cosby's options are limited by his advanced age and the concrete certainty of the legal system, and West's future is probably dependent on emotional stability and the whims of the public's attention span, variations of the Sunken Place will always stay in the distance -- growing and patiently waiting to make itself known.

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