Hip-Hop Populist

Kanye West. Chile, 2011.

It’s no secret that Kanye West has been stirring up controversy again. Pushing buttons with the aplomb of Donald Trump – with whom he remains friendly –West has given every indication that he is positioning himself for future punditry in the right-wing media, if not a political career.

Even longtime defenders have been turning on him, leading his wife Kim Kardashian to pick up the slack. Although she seems to have no love for the president herself, she made it clear that West should not be pilloried for the freedom of his speech.

No one knows how seriously to take West’s provocations. Like Trump, he has a long history of appearing to reverse course at a moment’s notice. Demonstrating the mixture of insecurity and bravado of a narcissist wounded by history, both individual and collective, he tends to say whatever will keep the spotlight on him as long as possible. And the fact that he is now middle-aged and increasingly at risk of losing his reputation as a cutting-edge artist is undoubtedly exacerbating that need to pursue fame – and infamy – at all costs.

As Dylan Scott and Caroline Framke noted in a measured piece for Vox about his recent dalliances with the Alt-right, “Kanye has always represented himself as a chronically curious person who hates being told what he can or can’t speak out about. The more people push back against him wanting to speak to conservative figureheads. . . the more likely he is to want to do it.” Bearing this in mind, it is almost impossible to discern whether he really does have a strong affinity for conservative-leaning personalities like Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon Dilbert or is simply trying to assert his intellectual autonomy. “The line, with Kanye, between eccentricity, performance art, and any actual underlying insecurities is never clear — which is exactly how he likes it.”

While I have always wondered whether West’s often-brilliant music is helped or hampered by his public image, I agree with this assessment. Perhaps we would be better served taking the statements he has made in his own defence at face value. “I don’t agree with everything anyone does,” he explained. “That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.” Subsequent statements then sought to shore up the idea that he is consciously trying to promote open-mindedness. “The thought police want to suppress freedom of thought,” he declared, going on to add that, “I love when people have their own ideas. You don’t have to be allowed anymore. Just be. . . That’s free thought. I’m not even political.”

Given the ire just unleashed by West’s interview with TMZ, in which he suggested that the institution of slavery was perpetuated by black people as well as white, I know it would be foolish to try disentangling his advocacy for free thinking from the sort that gave us the Fox News slogan “fair and balanced” and other landmarks in the war against political correctness. Whether he intends to support right-wing talking points or has only done so accidentally, the political ramifications are unlikely to differ all that much. The fact that the President responded to his words with “Thank you, Kanye, very cool!” make it clear that right-wing leaders will accept West’s support, regardless of his motivations, just as they once accepted Trump’s before he entered politics.

Sorting out the deeper implications of West’s recent statements is complicated by asymmetries in the social order. Power may circulate throughout all of society, rather than simply being concentrated at the top, as Michel Foucault famously argued. But that doesn’t mean that every flow is bidirectional. The fact that West is once again cultivating his relationship with Trump and the sort of thinkers aligned with his agenda – he recently posted a photo of his laptop opened to a Jordan Peterson video – means something very different for the conservatives who might benefit from representing him as an ideological ally than it does for the hip-hop community.

West’s support has considerable value to the Trumpists who oppose progressive politics. But the reverse does not hold true. His recent statements simply confirm the longstanding impression on the multicultural Left that, no matter how talented he may be at putting together great records, he is a self-deluding fool. That’s surely why so many progressives are sharing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s heart-wrenching piece for The Atlantic this week. While Coates forcefully expresses his love for West’s music and does his best to find nuance amid the artist’s high-contrast bombast, many of the people passing the piece on seem to be paying more attention to the title of the piece than the details inside it: “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye: Kanye West Wants Freedom – White Freedom”.

That subtitle is devastating. Yet it’s also more than a little unfair. Because, even if we acknowledge that West seems to be going out of his way to make friends among not-so-stealth racists on the Right, that doesn’t mean he is wrong to want the same freedom they enjoy. Let’s be honest, after all. In a society still saturated with the legacy of white supremacy, the freedom that people of colour enjoy is bound to fall short. Coates has suggested as much in his own work. And that’s why it rings false when he argues that West should perceive his freedom as an obligation. Freedom may never be as free as we like to imagine. But when we treat it as a form of bondage, it doesn’t seem very free at all.

I’m not suggesting that West’s position makes much sense for him, whether politically or personally. His new allies will use him without providing much in return. And the community he came from is turning against him even more than it already had. It does, however, make a sort of existential sense, one which can be traced back to African-American artists of previous generations. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Chester Himes all spent time working with their era’s version of the multicultural Left and ended up feeling strong antipathy towards its promotion of self-sacrifice as a political program. Perhaps West’s ambivalence is closer to the one expressed by those literary titans than his critics would like to think.

We also need to acknowledge that West is hardly the first rapper to prove useful to reactionary politicians in this way. Although the structural changes in the music industry that thrust first N.W.A., then Tupac and Biggie, then Jay-Z to the top of the charts were only indirectly related to the rise of what George H. W. Bush called a New World Order in the wake of the Eastern Bloc’s collapse and China’s turn towards “state capitalism”, their impact is inextricably bound up with the triumph of Neoliberal ideology. That’s why those now-mainstream rappers’ expression of resistance to national government and advocacy of a resolutely local populism could end up serving the interests of people who have traditionally treated the hip-hop community as a political enemy.

For example, the conviction that government institutions are biased against people of colour – a common and completely justifiable theme in many rap lyrics – is theoretically compatible with libertarian arguments that the state is never as neutral as it wishes to appear and is, in fact, is bound to play favourites. Unless rappers go out of their way to indicate their opposition to Neoliberal In the case of rappers who largely avoid overt political. Rappers’ paeans to entrepreneurial verve also slot in nicely next to other stories about self-improvement used to promote the free market over costly social programs. Unless they go out of their way to indicate their hostility towards capitalism, like Boots Riley of The Coup, their realism, however exaggerated, can be recuperated by neoliberal ideology. But it is their passionate defense of free expression that is exerting the greatest influence on the present conjuncture.

Understanding why this is the case requires a closer look at the market for hip-hop culture. By the time the SoundScan method of measuring record sales debuted in March 1991, rap music had thoroughly penetrated suburban youth culture in the United States, both in places where diversity was high and ones where people of colour were few and far between. Anyone who paid attention back then can attest to the ways in which white male youth, often from conservative Christian families, were using songs like NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” to articulate their current lack of meaningful power in society – teenagers frequently feel their dependency and disenfranchisement keenly – and communicate their dream of attaining it one day.

Because white supremacy continues to saturate American society, that dream usually did come true to some degree. Looking back on that era, though, it is also easy to discern the existential crisis that was already spreading through less-well-off suburban demographics. Some of the teenagers listening to rap music back then ended up as successful as their parents. But a lot more – including myself – did not. As opportunities for advancement dried up and “fear of falling”, to use Barbara Ehrenreich’s evocative term, surged, even many of the white men who ended up in a position of power relative to most women or people of colour become preoccupied by their failure to achieve the full measure of their youthful longing.

Like Ice-T, Dr. Dre, and Sean “Puffy” Combs before him, among others, Kanye West is too savvy a businessman not to understand that his position on the charts is the result of a triangulation as problematic as it is productive. He makes music about his past, a community burdened by centuries of discrimination; his present, a high-pressure realm of wealth and fame; and the mental passage between those realities. But he makes that music for both those worlds and that of millions of white people, particularly males, with whom he has little in common. His success depends on soliciting the sort of identification that is necessarily a misidentification, not only in the rarified sense whereby every identification is bound to miss its mark but in the simple, black-and-white sense that most people understand intuitively.

There’s a section in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang’s magisterial history of hip-hop, that succinctly captures this psychological tangle. First, he quotes Bryan Turner, the white founder of Priority Records who put out NWA’s landmark album Straight Outta Compton: “‘That’s how we sold two million,’ Turner says. ‘The white kids in the Valley picked it up and they decided they wanted to live vicariously through this music. Kids were just waiting for it.’” Then Chang describes how the sudden manifestation of this demand transformed the music scene in places like South Central, noting that, “thousands of kids laboured over their raps in their dark bedrooms, then stepped onto the streets to learn first-hand the vagaries of hustling and distribution—all just so that people could hear their stories.”

In other words, while this button-pushing aesthetic appealed to those suburban youth because it seemed to offer the promise of reality – art imitating life – it was mostly developed by young men who had to study the life they wished to imitate. While some call this behaviour “fronting,” that designation is a distraction from what really matters. If the man who would one day be known as Ice Cube took time off from NWA to study architectural drafting in Phoenix, that doesn’t make him any less of an artist. On the contrary, it means that he was a practically-minded individual who approached writing songs the way he did anything else. The stories he tells were not, by and large, ones he had lived personally, but rather ones he had picked up in the course of developing his craft as a musician. In the artificially enhanced reality rap proffered, whether a vocalist had actually done something mattered less than whether he could convincingly tell stories about doing it. And those suburban white youth mouthing the words managed to inhabit the simulations of rap without having to worry about how unlikely they were to find themselves in a situation where doing it was even possible.

Maybe that sounds too dismissive. I don’t mean to uphold an unrealistic standard of verisimilitude. After all, the reason we have sayings like “art imitates” life is that art and life are not the same thing. My purpose here is to suggest that, rather than treating the current controversy surrounding Kanye West as an isolated case of a talented but troubled individual being drawn to the dark side, we should instead place it in the context of three decades worth of people using hip-hop as an outlet for complex and often contradictory states of mind, in which feelings of impotence are mixed with the perception of potential and rage is lined with hope. And we need to remember how many different kinds of people have used hip-hop in this way.

There have been numerous cultural traditions in which professional mourners were deployed, both to reinforce the feelings of those closest to the deceased and to distance them from that person. By translating private grieving into public spectacle, they helped bind the community together with collective memory. Certainly, it can be argued that social media platforms are coming to serve a similar function in contemporary society. And it can also be argued that this represents another example of the ways in which the division of labour that used to sort people into different categories according to their profession is giving way to a more fluid reality in which amateurs perform the tasks for which those people used to get paid.

Hip-hop culture has provided opportunities for this sort of mourning, in which a figurative 40 is poured out for all those who are too far away to watch the liquid trickle down the gutter. But its primary function in society, particularly for those fans who did not grow up with it, has been to mobilise and redirect aggressive impulses. Those who have acquired their knowledge on the street do not need to be fortified with “the strength of street knowledge.” It’s everyone else who needs to be educated, through art.

While the ascendancy of rap music in the waning years of the Cold War was paralleled by other cultural developments that pertain to our present predicament, it’s striking how many of them share hip-hop’s culture tendency to transgress the boundaries of what was then considered acceptable public expression, from the use of swear words to the repurposing of other people’s property. But it was rap that proved to be the most popular form of button-pushing, suggesting to the young people who grew up listening to it that attempts to set limits from above, whether in the name of decency or safety, were inextricably bound up with “police work,” in every sense. In articulating a vision of freedom without restraint, it played a crucial role in the transformations that gave us the backlash against the liberal establishment of the past quarter-century.

This is the first instalment of a longer project.

Photograph courtesy of rodrigoferrari. Published under a Creative Commons license.