Friday, September 09, 2005

Kanye West's stereotypes

In light of similar comments by Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Neville, the angry comments from Kanye West seem less outrageous and more part of a collective feeling of abandonment of the government of the black population in New Orleans. Nevertheless, it was a courageous thing of West to say and NBC, no doubt mindful of a rabid FCC ready to fine over anything controversial, felt bound to cut out his comments from a West Coast broadcast.

Lest you think that he's just recently thinking about race, a fine article in Time Magazine (Why You Can't Ignore Kanye, August 28, 2005) shows that he's had this in mind for while now. He sees himself as a victim of stereotypes concerning rappers- not just how they're seen outside the industry but within the music industry as well: "It was a strike against me that I didn't wear baggy jeans and jerseys and that I never hustled, never sold drugs." Even after proving himself as a producer, there were still doubts about him, even from one of his most famous clients. Jay Z: "We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there's Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn't see how it could work." But earlier in the article, we're reminded of rap's not-always-street origins. Chris Rock: "In the early days, the best rappers weren't necessarily from the hood. Run-D.M.C. was from Hollis [Queens, N.Y.]. Eric B and Rakim were from Long Island. They lived next to the hood." Later, West complains about closed-minded attitudes, presumably not just in the music biz but also in the audience itself: "Black people can be the most conservative, the most discriminating. Especially among ourselves. It wasn't white people who said all black men have to wear baggy jeans..."

Black self-criticism is a thorny issue. Just ask Bill Cosby. West figures that his status allows him to make big statements not just in his albums but also in his media appearances. He's definitely right to the extent that his status means that people will listen and debate what he has to say, especially if he goes out on a limb. His comments about race are complex but he obviously has enough conviction behind what he says (and his audience's ability to pick up on it) to say these things in the first place. Can a major black entertainment figure say on one hand that many blacks have tunnel-vision while at the same time say that Prez Bush has his own tunnel-vision about the black population itself? Evidently, yes, it can be done. These kind of statements are not to be taken likely and that's surely what West contends. The safe thing would have been to not grouse against buppie-hating or to just tell potential relief donors to give money while not pointing any fingers explicitly. Surely, some people will figure some of this is just a ploy to promote his new record but that would only make sense if he has things to say that didn't alientate his audience or a potentially even larger audience that he hopes to reach.

The conventional wisdom in the biz is to go by psychiatric ward rules: steer clear from religion (just ask Tom Cruise), politics or sex (at least explicitly, but that keeps changing). West has already got religion ("Jesus Walks" is still one of the most amazing rap singles ever) and politics covered. I can't say that I'm dying to hear what he says about sex but if his past is any indication, it'll start some good debates. It might not be as completely thought out as his namesake, Princeton's Professor Cornell West (who he was mistaken for by a Mississippi congressman on a CNN interview) but Kanye does make better rap records for sure.


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