“Deconstructing Yeezus: CLASS AND RACE IN AMERICA…”
Written by Yohana Zecarias
Daedalus,imprisoned in his own creation, the Labyrinth, conceived a plan to escape the confines with his son, Icacrus. Crafting a pair of wings of wax and feathers, he cautioned Icarus to heed the strength of sun and the depth of the ocean. But once Icarus felt the feat of flying, he became too consumed in his ability, too ambitious to realize that the sun would, and did, melt his precious wings.
Kanye West, the enigmatic and divisive pop fixture, also knows a thing or two about reaching a peak, or rather – six of them. Over the last ten years, West has demonstrated the sonic capabilities of rap and hip-hop through six albums that either started or ended musical trends, each receiving critical acclaim throughout the music industry. Even 808s & Heartbreak, his dark and divergent “electro-pop” album, has grown overtime to show the artistic capacity of auto-tune, a style that prior had little to no legitimacy.
Yet, with the music comes the persona, the all too self-aware, arrogant and erratic rapper who says what he wants, when he wants. Understandably, his petulant assertions of greatness and comparisons to Steve Jobs can be seen as neurotic, but given his tangible success and the ways in which his sounds have defined an era, does his personality invalidate his merit? Behind closed doors, Steve Jobs too was an arrogant asshole, but he is still widely regarded as a genius. Why is it then, that we specifically have a problem with West?
The public discourse surrounding West is saturated in the dynamics between oppositions; genius and ignorance; complacency and discontentment; rich and poor; black and white. As West traded in his “pink polo” for Givenchy joggers, he ascended to a pop culture elite where the intersection of racism and classism magnified itself to expose a paradox of the American Dream. The contention around West’s persona and music begs multiple questions – does the fact that he produces hip-hop, as opposed to conventional high-brow art, invalidate his artistry?
To what extent can a black rapper, whose economic success is contingent on a white consumer base, own and control his own music that signifies his own individual experience, rather than society’s constructed view of the black man? And most interestingly, how has this been reflected in his music?
Like the mythical tale of Icarus, there is an underlying concern that he too may have flown “too high and too fast,” only that West precipitates his downfall, or rather, constructs it. The result is Yeezus, a sonic and lyrical representation of the malfunctioning performer who has stepped outside society’s constructed boundaries of the spaces he is supposed to occupy.
“RUNAWAY” cover by George Condo.
From College Dropout to Yeezus, West’s understanding of race and class in America has evolved to produce the abrasive content of Yeezus. In response to scholar Ronald J. Stephen’s call for the “sociological utilization” of rap lyrics as qualitative data for the lived experiences of Black males, I hope to engage in this type of analysis while challenging his monolithic understanding of the Black male and the contradictory ways in which West actively resists the limitations placed on Black masculinity and performance.
While he provides a convincing argument about the rapper as a researcher “in the field,” he repeatedly interchanges black with urban, an association that Steve Stoute discussed in “The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip-Hop” that automatically presumes a lower socioeconomic status to blackness. Like the word “ghetto,” these labels demonstrate how race is used to cover up the larger issues of economic class. Minorities in higher social classes may either resent lower class minorities for reinforcing the stereotype, or in West’s case, experience that irrespective of class, they may continuously face the limited constructs of race.
To understand West, one must understand where he came from. Born to Donda West, a former chairwoman of Chicago State University’s English department, and Ray West, a former Black Panther and photojournalist, West inherited a legacy of self-actualization. Raised by his mother in Chicago, West came from a middle class sensibility that came equipped with the pursuit of the American Dream, by way of education, and an instilled belief that he could do whatever he wanted. In “Raising Kanye: Life Lessons From the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar,” his late mother reconciled his perceived arrogance as confidence, explaining that she cultivated his self-esteem so he could “love himself” and “as a Black man and as a man, period, he would need to be strong.” Unlike the usual narrative of the black boy, Donda West equipped a young West with a mentality that enabled his self-realization and capability, laying the groundwork for the Kanye West we misunderstand today.
In an interview with 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, West provides insight into his formal and informal education as a “trained fine artist” and a producer, respectively. At 15, West met notable producer No I.D., who subsequently became his mentor and introduced him to the soul-sample aesthetic that would come to shape his music. While working on his music, he graduated from high school and attended the American Academy of Art, where he studied painting before transferring to Chicago State University, majoring in English. After a year, he dropped out to focus on his music, the decision becoming an integral theme of his debut album, College Dropout. He attributes his aesthetic rendering of sound to his visual arts training, citing the ways in which art and synesthesia have allowed him to create “sonic paintings.”
The expectations of West are rooted in cultural determinism, the “belief that the culture in which we are raised determines who we are at emotional and behavioral levels.” Under a cultural determinist framework that defines a “black” culture, West is expected to devalue academic achievement. In economist William Darity’s “Intergroup Disparity: Why Culture is Irrelevant,” he rejects the notion of cultural determinism effect on economic stratification, challenging Ronald Ferguson’s indictment against hip-hop and its affect on the cultural values of black youth. Ferguson would interpret West’s attrition from college as an indicator of the oppositional culture at work, but West’s value of knowledge (as opposed to higher education institutions) and his middle-class sensibilities that initially inhibited his crossover from production to rap, demonstrate the fallacy of Ferguson’s monolithic understanding of the people within hip-hop.
Rap, as a mode of artistic expression, has served as a “rhetoric of resistance” in a continuum of the black oral tradition. Out of the marginalized spaces occupied by blacks rose a new rhetorical strategy and sound to challenge the hegemonic cultural and political systems. Although not all rap is rooted in this same motivation, “conscious” rap arose from plighted areas to critique oppressive structures and broadcast the lived realities of Blacks in America. West teeters the line of historically defined conscious rap by using soul-samples that signify the past struggles and its present remnants, while interweaving between moments of social clarity with misogyny and materialism. It is in this contradiction that West plays out his humanity as he has learned to do so. Although he acknowledges his identity as a black man, he is also unbridled by the constraints set on him, be it the expectation of producing conscious rap or what Stephens describes as a “disgusting display of violent and misogynistic music.”
West’s cannon prior to Yeezus is self-described as a collection of “sonic paintings” that culminated in 2010’s release of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” The latter was a maximalist endeavor basking in hip-hop decadence, extolling and transgressing the existential crisis brought on by money, fame and sex. Critics and listeners universally agreed that Dark Fantasy was West’s magnum opus, a baroque masterpiece that legitimized the artistry of hip-hop. Posing the rhetorical question, “Can we get much higher?” throughout the opening track, “Dark Fantasy,” West mediates on the peak of his career, as he stands on the mountain of his success, acutely aware that his blackness is irrespective of his class and may obstruct his continued ascension and respectability. That awareness is fueled after Dark Fantasy generates relatively low profits and earns a Grammy for “Rap Album of the Year,” but fails to earn a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.
“My Beautiful dark Twisted Fantasy” George Condo.
Four years later, we find West jumping off the “mountain” of his success with Yeezus, an album that circumvented radio distribution and traditional marketing techniques to liberate himself from corporate control and expectations. He opens Yeezus with “On Sight,” a jarring signal, or perhaps warning, of the album’s immediate departure from traditional sounding hip-hop. In talking about Yeezus with McQueen, West demonstrates his acute awareness of listener’s expectations by rejecting the standard formula that listeners have come to expect of him. He abandons his sped-up soul samples with what he describes as “radio noise,” creating a sonic framework that is uncomfortable and resistant to a hip-hop sound. West’s reflexivity is apparent in the bridge where he deftly samples a sermon from the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family praising, “He’ll give us what we need, but it may not be what we want.” With the interjection of a sample reminiscent of his prior style, he establishes that he is fully capable of existing within that realm of acceptable hip-hop music, and instead, quickly reverts to the unforgiving sounds that lay the groundwork for the album’s multiple subversions.
Continuing his deconstruction of hip-hop sounds, West incorporates the heavy metal drums of Marilyn Manson to accentuate “Black Skinhead’s” inversion of white supremacy symbolism. Emerging out of England in the 1960s, the skinhead is a masculine “pale warrior” championing racist ideology, often through terror. In the opening lines, West asserts his appropriation of the punk style and music that marked the skinhead subculture and calls upon
He challenges acceptable roles of black masculinity again with “I am a God,” a radical mantra that is perceived as blatant blasphemy.Baruti N. Kopano, author of “Rap Music as an Extension of the Black Rhetorical Tradition,” claims the act of renaming oneself is central to the realization of an identity that resists society’s inscriptions. “The names that many rappers choose,” Kopano explains, “reflect a language that is created of a self-consciousness of oppression.” For West, deifying himself in this context is again, another response to the acceptable roles of black men. In his BBC interview with Zane Lowe, West says:
“The Donda Agency”
When someone comes up and says something like ‘I am a god,’ everybody says ‘Who does he think he is?’ I just told you who I thought I am, a god! That’s who I think I am! Would it have been better if I had a song that said, ‘I am a nigga’? Or if I had a song that said ‘I am a pimp? All those…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 owners. How can you say that; how could you have that mentality?1
The critical part of this statement, is the emphasis on who I think I am. He is reclaiming his identity and defining it on his own terms, free of any previous stereotype threats that may have affected how he perceived himself.
After establishing himself as a Christ-like figure, “New Slaves” contextualizes itself as the revolutionary’s prophetic word to the people. As a part of the guerilla marketing techniques that were used to promote the cover-less and single-less album, West projected an Oz-like floating head of himself around various buildings around the world. By projecting the visual on spaces like the Prada store on 5th Ave and the Eastern State Penitentiary, West is invading spaces that both reject and accept the black man. The song starts with bold facts – “My momma was raised in the era when/clean water was only served to the fairer skin.” Loosely following the slave narrative conventions established by James Olney, he establishes his existential claim through the temporal placement of his mother during the Civil Rights era. He puts that in a current context by explaining “broke nigga racism” and “rich nigga racism,” a differentiation he has come to learn from his ascent as a suburban Chicagoan boy to one of the black elite. “And it’s rich nigga racism / That’s that ‘Come in please buy more.’” His observation echoes a 1956 study at Howard University in which they investigated people’s racial stereotypes within the domain of class, finding that upper-class Blacks were readily described as “ostentatious” and “materialistic.” Although upper-class whites were not labeled as “ostentatious,” they did bear the “materialistic” claim, supporting West’s declaration that classism and the pursuit of materialistic validation transcends race.
The next verse is perhaps the most visceral and Marxist condemnation of power-wielding institutions. He “throws these Maybach keys,” relinquishing his own materialistic sins and assuring his sincerity and earnest desire to spread this message. He repeats “I see the blood on the leaves” five times, revamping the lynching allegory in a consumerist context, the green leaves representing money. The nexus of racism and classism is in his condemnation of the idea of a “New World Order,” in which the wealth of black elite like West, Jay Z and Beyoncé is inconceivable without a mystical devil-like power or the “Illuminati.”
He sees this as a distraction from the real issues at hand – the economic motives that are fueling the prison-industrial complex, specifically, the institutional cooperation of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Corrections Corporation of America. As Angela Davis states in an interview about the prison-industrial complex, “more than 70% of imprisoned population are people of color.” Author Linda Evans’ of The Prison-Industrial Complex and the Global Economy dissects the shift in post-Cold War climate that has globally changed the relation between labor and capital, specifically citing the international drug economy as a means to increase nonviolent incarceration rates for the purpose of cheap labor. Much like slavery and apartheid, which was partially motivated by a source of free labor, the prison-industry complex encourages the disparate persecution of minority drug users, when the number of white drug users is quintupled. Rappers are typically associated with glorifying gang and drug culture, yet West is calling attention to the financial motives that are fueling the perpetration of these stereotypes and the subsequent imprisonment of black men and women.
“So this stuff, what I’m doing now, is the beginning of me throwing out what it means to be a rapper.” With Yeezus, West follows in the legacy of defiant black males, similar to the jazzists of the 1960s that exulted in their refusal to conform to “acceptable standards of middle-class white behavior,” while simultaneously occupying a mainstream space. But West isn’t rejecting norms just for opposition sake – he aims to transcend the identity of a rapper to occupy spaces that wield true power and money. In an effort to attain his own new wealth and expand his opportunities across fashion and design, he is using his music as a vehicle to illuminate the pervasive issues of class and the ways in which race is still used to overshadow the larger issue at hand – economic power. The result is what author Todd Boyd calls “magic” – a cultural product that reflexively impacts the artist and the American audience by bringing a light to our personal and national insecurities.
Yohana Zecarias is a writer for By Such and Such. All Kanye West Illustrations are by Cecilia Collantes, a contributing artist.
Bayton, James A., Lois B. McAlister, and Jeston Hamer. “Race-Class Stereotypes.” Journal of Negro Education 25.1 (1956): 75-78. Print.
Darity, William, Jr. “Intergroup Diversity: Why culture is Irrelevant.” The Review of Black
Political Economy (2002): 77-90. Print.
Stephens, Ronald J., and Earl Wright, II. “Beyond bitches, niggers, and ho’s: some suggestions for including rap music as a qualitative source.” Race & Society 3 (2000): 23-40. Print.