Music

Who Will Survive in America: A Kanye Roundtable

A discussion among four staffers about everything Yeezy’s taught us.

Given his experimental, high-aiming vision, to discount Kanye as anything less than an artist is ill-informed and, yes, bigoted. When people say Kanye is “ranting,” they should step back and think about what it might feel like to have spent your whole life painstakingly honing a craft and to have created a body of work that draws in all of your life experiences and artistic obsessions and offered it to the word, only to be told, “You’re a rapper! You can’t do that!” Kanye’s confidence is not cockiness for its own sake; it’s a necessary weapon in his battle against his critics and his own insecurities. He needs to yell louder than the people who are telling him he’s doomed to fail, or their voices will drown out his own.

This was most plainly visible after the Jimmy Kimmel Showparodied” a serious, highbrow interview Kanye did with Zane Lowe—in which ’Ye thoughtfully discussed his artistic inspirations and goals—by replacing the men with child actors who repeated their conversation verbatim. The skit reminded many viewers—Kanye included—of the not-so-distant past wherein African-American entertainers were cast almost exclusively as cartoonish, dimwitted punchlines for white people to laugh at and/or denigrate. I don’t believe Jimmy Kimmel had vitriolic intent nor even fully understood why what he was doing was so racially fraught, but that doesn’t excuse the segment, which exemplified the way white men have traditionally asserted their dominance over people of color.

One of my favorite writers and pop culture commentators, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, eloquently articulated the anger and frustration so many people felt about the segment in a series of tweets at the time:

One thing White America can’t abide is a PoC who takes themselves seriously…that’s why Kanye means so much to so many people, he refuses to respect the message of “know your place.” [...] White artists are never lampooned for believing in themselves the way Kanye constantly is. We’re told: creative, confident, person of color #‎picktwo

The message to Kanye West—and to people like him—is loud and clear in news headlines after every media appearance he does:

None of this is to say there aren’t valid criticisms to be made of Yeezy’s work. As both a fan of his music and a proud feminist, I’m often caught in the moral tug-of-war of trying to either justify the incredible elements of his work to overcompensate for the misogynistic ones, or avoid thinking about them altogether because Kanye has been such a positive force in my life and the world. But the sexist aspects of his work do exist, as much as I wish they didn’t.

Amy Rose also falls in the “die-hard but conflicted fan” category:

My feelings about Kanye and women are, by and large, NOT GR8, but that’s obviously mad complex when I think about his intense bond with his late mom, the concept of white women as status symbols, etc. And while I adore him, I sometimes still feel queasy about the sexist moments in his work. The “Yeezus” tour was seriously the best show I’ve ever been to, but I was really distraught over the fact that he made his female dancers wear face-concealing masks and put them in sheer bodysuits so they appeared naked, effectively erasing them as actual people, reducing them to objectified bodies—and then USING THEM AS A THRONE. He literally sat on them like they were nothing more than inanimate furniture to him.

Kanye is not perfect, and, as a fan, I think it’s important to acknowledge that. If Jimmy Kimmel had questioned Kanye’s repeated use of the term bitches on Yeezus after ’Ye openly doubted the justifiable usage of that word just a year earlier, I could’ve been on board with his lampooning. But putting Kanye’s very valid points in the mouth of a child with a sippy cup…not so much.

Jenny brought up how intensely conflicting it can be for someone like Kanye to navigate the media as the hero of the story he’s telling:

Kanye came from a middle-class background and went to art school, and I kind of think his relative class and economic privilege add to people thinking he’s arrogant. It’s like people wanna see black and brown kids from low-income neighborhoods overcome hardship and to show determination and pride. They don’t wanna see it from a black nerd with a good education who doesn’t have a heart-wrenching story of poverty. Without that crucial element of pity, black ambition becomes “excessive,” “crazy,” “delusional.”

“That’s why white-savior movies like The Blind Side win Oscars,” said Julianne. “The only nominations for movies about people of color are things like Slumdog Millionaire, which uphold this narrative of poor, sad, helpless PoC on the UPLIFTING COME-UP (often via whitefolx). White people benefit from reinforcing their class privilege, in culture and IRL.” We as a culture can’t create a pity-based narrative about a man who releases an album called Yeezus that features a track called “I Am a God,” so what can we do with him? We ask him, “Who do you think you are to call yourself that?” and tell him he has no right to such confidence. Kanye addressed this idea in the interview with Lowe:

Would it have been better if I had a song that said, “I am a n***a?” Or if I had a song that said, “I am a gangster?” Or if I had a song that said, “I am a pimp?” All those colors and patinas fit better on a person like me, right? But to say you are a god, especially when you got shipped over to the country that you’re in, and your last name is a slave owner’s—how could you say that? How could you have that mentality?

Kanye speaks up for himself because he knows he’s worthy of inclusion among the ranks of great musical artists. But there’s still one creative medium he’s barred from, despite working tirelessly at it for almost the entirety of his public music career: fashion. No matter how loud he knocks, the high-fashion community refuses to open the door and let him in; his aspiration to design clothing is perhaps the most laughed-at element of his endlessly ridiculed public persona.

As he said in that same interview:

I am so frustrated. I’ve got so much I want to give. I’ve got ideas on color palettes, ideas on silhouettes, and I’ve got a million people telling me why I can’t do it, that I’m not a real designer. I’m not a real rapper either. I’m not a real musician either.

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21 Comments

  • maryjanesandconverse March 11th, 2014 7:53 PM

    this article is perfect ♥
    sums up all my feelings about yeezy

  • woahmeredith March 11th, 2014 8:39 PM

    So like for actual years now I’ve been considering getting “Yeezy taught me” tattooed on me somewhere, because Yeezy did teach me so much. Racism, Hip-hop, dreams, fashion, and I’m eternally grateful for his work. But then it also sounds like Yeezy taught me some other things, sexual things, in the context of the skit…. so maybe not?

  • tturnthenoiseon March 11th, 2014 9:26 PM

    TO BORROW WORDS FROM AMY ROSE I FEEL LIKE I’VE BEEN PUNCHED IN THE GUT IN THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE <3 <3 <3 thanks Rookie wowza I'm speechless. Excellent job, Brodie

  • sadie lidji March 11th, 2014 9:32 PM

    kanye 4eva and eva

  • socialspecial March 11th, 2014 10:22 PM

    Wow, hadn’t thought about him that way, really made me see him, his art and everything he stands for in a new light, thank for the different view in things rookie.

  • irismonster March 11th, 2014 11:31 PM

    yayyy (or should i say kanyay? hehe) i love this all so much. i was brought to kanye very recently by lorde and south park and will not ever go back. he really is a genius, i hate the fact that when i tell people i like kanye, they just assume i mean it in an ironic way. i don’t.

  • jamiesond March 12th, 2014 3:38 AM

    really a genuinely good read I started around 11 now it’s 230 am CT that’s crazy but It is true growing up you want to be great/famous/rich or whatever else but Kanye West and countless others wanted to make a name for themself and make a product/craft that they are happy with and make it something with character and essence and truth that all comes together into “dopeness”. (yeah i like this)

  • Aili March 12th, 2014 9:10 AM

    It’s difficult to form an opinion of him. Definitely a controversial artist. I think it’s great that he’s creative, speaks about racism and defends his dreams. But what disappoints me, which wasn’t mentioned in the article, is his use of fur. It’s really cool when people wear whatever makes them happy, but I don’t think it’s justified in the case of wearing fur for fashion. Art shouldn’t make animals suffer.

  • onlykhenzo March 12th, 2014 12:24 PM

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU
    This has summed all of my feeling about Ye and even my internal struggle of ‘can I be a die hard fan girl but not like that he said this or did that’. I’d also never considered other perspectives of the ‘Imma let you finish’ incident of ’09.

    This roundtable could not have come at a better time. I’ve been feeling really uninspired or just disenchanted about the stuff I’ve been doing lately but this just granted me a sense of purpose.

    “… it was such a long road, a constant struggle, and a true labor of love to not only convince my peers and the public that I could be an artist, but to actually get that art out for the world to hear… I wake up every day trying to give something back to you that you can rock to and be proud of. Ten years later I am still the same kid from Chicago, still dreaming out loud, still banging on the door. The doors may be heavier, but I promise you WE WILL BREAK THEM.” @kanyewest, 10 Feb 2014 (ten year anniversary of The College Dropout) ~~~~~ so many feeeeeelllsss

    http://www.glitterdaiquiri.com

  • the_smartorialist March 12th, 2014 2:43 PM

    “They classify, you know, my motivational speaking as, like, rants.”
    Kanye West

    YOU GUYS. I have been waiting for this article for forever. Kanye-loving feminists always.

  • xosabrinarose March 12th, 2014 4:14 PM

    This article is actually perfect. I LOVE Kanye so so much and this summed up why in the best way possible.

  • painting_the_roses_pink March 12th, 2014 4:46 PM

    110% I’m showing my bae this article! Kanye is his idol. He’s also wants to go into the music industry, he works so hard producing and mixing hes almost always in the studio. I liked Kanye’s music, but I’ve never really delved deep into researching him as an artist. Thank you so much for this article rookie <3

    http://aroseofadifferentcolor.tumblr.com/

  • rhymeswithorange March 12th, 2014 7:14 PM

    AMEN!
    Whenever I tell people I love Kayne they are always surprised.
    I will just have to tell them his music is “academic texts that deserve to be studied as key reference points about art, fashion, race, fame, architecture, film, technology, and music, all of which he speaks about frequently and brilliantly”- totally agree!
    Also agree that his use of women is not great, glad that was brought up.

  • amescs March 14th, 2014 4:12 AM

    THIS IS SO GOOD I LOVE U ROOKIE

  • flocha March 14th, 2014 6:00 AM

    yesss I have only just got into Kanye recently (kinds late to this party haa) but I totally love his message and his music, and tbh whatever you think about him you can’t deny that the music world would be boring as hell without him

    http://whimsicalprocrastination.blogspot.co.uk/

  • farawayfaerie March 14th, 2014 12:05 PM

    I FOUND THE ANSWER IN A QUOTE FROM GRIMES:

    “There’s a psychology to success. I was reading all these biographies and watching documentaries about people who are successful. It seemed like the only thread amongst everybody is that unflinching, “Yes, I can do this and I am the best.” It’s a personal rhetoric that you can develop. Like, if you go and tell journalists, “I’m the future of music,” then people start printing that. So I’m just going to tell everyone I’m making the future of music. I’m going to force the situation to happen.”

    That’s exactly what Kanye’s doing, and people have been doing this for ages. Here Boucher even says that it’s the attitude every successful person needs, and yet Kanye is put into a ranting box of who does he think he is, it’s not his place to be successful