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 Show “parodied” 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:
theres a way to satirize pop culture icons and then theres 'come look at the black man trying to art! everyone look, ha ha'
— Ayesha A. Siddiqi (@pushinghoops) September 27, 2013
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.