Mark V. Campbell, adjunct professor at the RTA School of Media, teaches in the communication and culture program at Ryerson University and is founder at Northside Hip Hop Archive.
“Kanye doesn’t care about Black People” reads a T-shirt of the deeply respected and respectable Questlove, drummer of the Philadelphia-based band the Roots.
It is a demoralizing, sad state of affairs when Kanye West, the once-outspoken hip-hop superstar, has his own pro-black activist words – in which he called out George W. Bush in 2005 for not caring about black Americans – used against him by one of hip hop’s greatest minds, Questlove.
Since Mr. West’s return to Twitter, the self-described “genius” producer has sparked outrage with a plethora of decidedly anti-black comments. Mr. West, in less than two weeks, has trivialized slavery, calling it a choice, supported right-wing “free-thinker” Candace Owens, who is known for her critiques of black communities protesting against the killing of black men by police, and openly demonstrated his affection for U.S. President Donald Trump. With his #alternativefacts, Mr. West openly disavows Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and too many other leaders of rebellions that made his American-mogul life possible.
For an artist who on his second single, All Falls Down, boldly rhymed about being “self-conscious”and having low self-esteem, as well as charting secular music charts with a song called Jesus Walks, the tweet storm of the last couple of weeks has been a deviation of massive proportions. Arguably, Mr. West ushered in the era of “truth rap,” making it more acceptable for future artists including Drake to express their emotions. Hip-hop music is now a space in which being vulnerable on record is acceptable. Mr. West, who recorded his first single with his mouth wired shut because of a car accident, on Through the Wire, has consistently pushed the artistic boundaries of hip hop.
Now, Mr. West pushes our buttons with his abusive use of social media. His current Twitter storm does not align with the image he has built since his debut album, The College Dropout; unfortunately, Mr. West’s behaviour aligns with the hugely successful shock politics of Donald Trump. Besides being a self-described genius, Mr. West is also an artist selling his music and he is zeroing in on the same tactics of the world’s most dangerous misogynist. In the midst of spewing anti-black comments and riling up his (now former) fan base, Mr. West has also released new music, and listed his production of albums for high-profile artists, such as Nas, that will come out by June 15.
Digital platforms and news outlets are voracious in their devouring of Mr. West’s antics, debating not just the factless statements he dreams up, but also herding out expert psychologists, historians and others who might make sense of Mr. West at this point in his career. Rightfully so, journalists and many others are inquiring into the real-world damage of Mr. West’s tweets, particularly his “slavery was a choice” comment, which should be treated similarly to Holocaust denial – unacceptable under any circumstances. But, because we live in the attention economy, the weight of celebrities’ social-media presence, their “internet breaking” images, disproportionately devour the important arena of public debate. In this era of multiplatform social media and Google AdSense monetization, attention is the currency not just to be current, but to earn currency. As the Trump administration has relentlessly driven home, truth no longer matters; attention does. Mr. West’s “truth raps,” his early music about survival on We Don’t Care, his mother’s death and his desire to “shine” have lost their weight in the attention economy.
Mr. West was clear on his single Power that he has always had a desire for just that. His lyrical God references and his Greek-god outfit for the Watch the Throne tour gestured in this direction long ago, in 2011. It now looks as though Mr. Trump should be watching the throne, as Mr. West has captured the attention (or distraction) that the reality-TV star turned American President desperately seeks.
But it would be too simplistic to suggest Mr. West simply wants Donald Trump-like attention. We cannot ignore, despite the media’s parsing of Mr. West’s health conditions, the many ways in which hospitalization has played a role in Mr. West’s musical career. While I wouldn’t suggest attention-seeking itself is a sign of a disorder, what is clear is that Mr. West’s health has been questionable for some time now. His consistent references to reality and different realities demonstrate his constant negotiations of what seems like a simulated world of 24-hour news and reality TV. The stress of being in the public, dealing with paparazzi and feeling the need to maintain relevance in a fickle world of show business is an emotional labour non-celebrities don’t see.
Does this mean Mr. West gets a pass for disrespecting black life? Not even close. If he is endowed with the gifts of black musical genius, he should honour and respect our lives. Period. But since Mr. West has chosen to live under the microscope of celebrity-obsessed Western media, now we all bear witness as he unravels and spills onto public platforms the anti-black hate one learns from submerging oneself in North American popular culture.