Before becoming obsessed with fame, Kanye West was once an artist of value. While not always agreeable and often misguided, an integrity still resonated subliminally behind not just his words and art, but also his real world antics. His abrasively unwavering belief that art- specifically his art – could affect massive social change when on a large scale platform has buttressed most of West’s professional career. As recently as 2015, West received an honorary doctorate for his “transformative, genre-defying work.”
College Dropout, West’s first official solo album released on Roc-a-Fella records was a purvey into the socio-political landscape of modern America, transforming his commentary on education, race, and the immobility of the class system in America into an anthemic classic. Even the way Kanye West made his music was politically charged, showcasing how the cost of making art often has classist implications. In a 2003 interview West remarks:
“Basically, people come out with albums, and I jack their drums. I hardly ever use drums from an actual record like “real hip-hop producers” do. This is a new form of music: broke hip-hop. I can’t spend $40 on some drums.”
West found the lack of accessibility to quality production equipment in hip hop offputting and subversively found a way to reclaim a sound that was partly born through the lived experiences of impoverished communities.
West’s productions style helped usher in a new wave of hip hop producer/rappers using accessible means to create hip hop anthems, probably the most notable example being 2007’s “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy),” which was produced by 17 year old DeAndre Cortez Way using the downloadable program Fruity Loops.
I watched Kanye West throughout the years calling out through song and art, and could empathize with the obvious pain behind his passion. Lurking underneath the grand, obtuse exterior of an egomaniac there seemed to be real, substantial layers there. No one else with his kind of global reach would ever have the guts to admit to the world that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” That is still one of the bravest moments in television history, and makes you wonder if perhaps the revolution will be televised.
Kanye has also been the leading voice to call out racist barriers many Black designers face when attempting to navigate the fashion industry. Sometimes you need someone with such bravado to unabashedly say the things many of us lack the ability to articulate with such conciseness and conviction. His stream-of-consciousness live monologues have often felt empowering to me, because the subtext reads: ‘Fuck the industry and the ways in which society oppresses us and teaches many of us to devalue ourselves. Fuck that and love yourself and follow your dreams.’
And I’m ok with that message. But recently Kanye’s new music and identity’s overarching message seems to be floating around somewhere, lost in translation between Kanye’s mind and reality.
The biggest concern I have is — you guessed it — with Kanye’s new song and video for “Famous.” And no, it’s not about Taylor Swift. Not really. The twitter wars and snapchat revenge uploads continue to highlight the aggression between West, Swift, and Kim Kardashian. This is upsetting because the original narrative marking most of the criticism of the video- before Swift got involved — focused on the violently sexist undertones of using naked images of celebrity lookalikes (particularly of women) without their consent. When I voiced this opinion on Twitter, I was quickly put in place by the young, mostly White male Kanye fans. Though mainstream rap has always had a large White audience, I was surprised to see this was apparently the new type of Kanye West fan. And that frightens me.
I do want to say that there are some important perspectives that have helped me understand Kanye’s viewpoint- or more so, understand the racist undertones behind the Swift/West/Kardashian part of the story- that I agree with. But they mostly focus on the Taylor Swift portion and leave out the entire other parts of the conversation.
The public seems to forget that Taylor Swift wasn’t the only one replicated in the video. In particular, West showcases a nude Rihanna laying next to her known abuser Chris Brown, as well West’s ex-girlfriend Amber Rose. West once had this to say about his ex: “By the way, it’s very hard for a woman to want to be with someone that’s with Amber Rose. I had to take 30 showers before I got with Kim.”
I don’t personally condone using the naked image or likeness of anyone without their consent. But I take specific issue to using women’s unconsented naked images, and particularly of Black women’s bodies, and putting them on display for public consumption. The history of America exoticizing, sexualizing, and putting the Black female body on display is often traced back to The Hottentot Venus, or Saartjie/Sarah Baartman, her “baptized name”. Baartman’s naked body was displayed across Europe, selling her as a “human oddity” for her supposed disproportionately large buttocks. Her experience of being passed around from place to place, her naked body put on display by men for profit, against her will, has now become, according to English Professor Rachel Holmes, “a symbol of the alienation and degradations of colonization, lost children, exile, the expropriation of female labor and the sexual and economic exploitation of black women by men, white and black.” The naked female body being used to buoy a powerful man’s image, record sales, or celebrity is a long running theme within the music industry.
The only real explanation Kanye offered about the “Famous” video concept was vague and meaningless, a stark contrast to the man that normally can’t keep quiet about his art. About the video he offers this: “It’s not in support or anti any of [the people in the video]. It’s a comment on fame.”
I find it incredibly troubling that West thought he had the right to use anyone’s naked body (or at least, the [very] realistic likeness of them), for his own profit, but most notably for including a woman whom he continuously publicly degrades and slut shames.
In a tweet to Wiz Khalifa, Rose’s ex-husband and father of her child West sneers: “You let a stripper trap you. I own your child!!!!” “I know you mad everytime you look at your child that this girl got you 18 more years.”
In the song, West proclaims: “For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West, If you see ’em in the streets give ’em Kanye’s best
Why? They mad they ain’t famous. They mad they’re still nameless”
So what’s the comment on fame? What’s the take away from these lyrics and images? Forget about Taylor Swift. (Though how fascinating that Swift’s placement in the video ushered in most of the public outcry, eliciting multiple published articles defending Swift and ostensibly placing her as the sole victim, while most remained notably silent about the other Black women also on display or relegated them to a side note of the story.)
The male erasure of the strong female identity is prevalent when West relegated his past paramours as “nameless,” in the song, only to be viewed as sexual conquests whose lives, values, ideas, and attitudes are meaningless. To combine these lyrics with images of a woman laying naked next to her abuser and an ex girlfriend to “make a comment about fame” has no value or substance. West didn’t eagerly explain away the meaning behind his video, because there wasn’t one. There’s no deeper social message behind his increasingly meta approach to fame.
As a Kanye West fan, I’m more disappointed and confused than angry. OK, I’m a little angry too; if this is Kanye West’s version of famous, then I prefer to remain nameless.