Wake Up Mr. West 

Photo by Mike Barry | CC BY 2.0

It seems we living the American dream
But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
For the road to riches and diamond rings

—Kanye West, All Falls Down

Another week, another controversy for Kanye West. As sexy as the Uncle Tom narrative is for the mainstream media, Kanye’s comments about slavery were more reckless than malicious. Mr. West explains: “To make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved…The reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years. We need free thought now. Even the statement was an example of free thought. It was just an idea. Once again I am being attacked for presenting new ideas.”

As historically insensitive as Kanye’s statements about slavery were, we have to concede that Kanye gets a few things right. The echo chambers that we live in take away from the ability to freely think. We are rendered complacent by the mental slavery of neoliberalism. We live in a society that hates each other, thinks little and organizes even less. Technology, short term jobs, economic uncertainty, the coming climate change apocalypse, the division of communities thorough globalization, mass incarceration, the growth of the police state and the privatization of education have created a country that lacks connection, originality, imagination, intelligence and hope.

Perhaps we have to come to grips with the fact that Donald Trump was not only appealing because he was a sexist and racist idiot but also because he postured as a break from the mold of a soulless and bleak neoliberal landscape. Kanye, like most of his rich adversaries on CNN and in Hollywood, can afford to evaluate politics on style rather than substance. He told Charlamagne tha God that he wants the Trump campaign with the Bernie Sanders principles. Seems like a pretty good mix for getting something good done. But if Kanye really only loved Trump’s campaign he should have gotten his Make America Great Again hat signed by Kellyanne Conway, not Donald Trump, who has done his very best to deregulate a state that could create conditions for thriving and happy individuals. Such policies have not touched the life of the multimillionaire Kanye West. If Kanye really was such a big fan of Trump’s campaign, why not get his hat signed by Jake Tapper or Anderson Cooper for all the TV time they handed to Trump in exchange for higher ratings?

West’s introspective interview with Charlamagne tha God was just troubling as his TMZ interview, especially for a potential Presidential candidate in 2024. Kanye at times really challenges big corporations, posturing as a man of the working people. He is not so unlike Trump in this way. But Kanye, like Trump, really only does this when he feels he has been personally slighted by these corporations. Take for example his whining about Nike failing to give him his royalties in the same week he talks about slavery. He completely glosses over how the people who make Nike products are treated (often slavery).

At times “Old Kanye” makes an appearance through quotes like this: “They’ll let you go on the Grammys and talk about slavery and all that and racism because it’s not talking about buying stock, it’s not talking about buying property. It’s not talking about economic empowerment. You can complain as hard as you want on that platform and it’s not scary.” He, like Trump, recognizes that there is a class struggle, but he takes the wrong side every time. His solution is always to just get richer. His critique of slavery seemed to be that the slaves simply didn’t have the capitalist cut throat mindset. Where is the critique of the slave owners? There is none because they are “winning” in capitalist terms.

Kanye is still a great artist. But he pretends he’s not. He lists Walt Disney, Howard Hughes and Steve Jobs as his artistic influences. These guys weren’t artists, they were capitalists. Making money is not the same as making art. They are completely different things actually. One is done to survive, one is done to live. With all the money Kanye has it is strange how he would rather focus on the survival part, rather than the living part. How many people live in hunger and thirst who would kill for the opportunity to focus on anything other than survival.

Kanye is not alone in this way of thinking. In the late stages of capitalism, money does not only eliminate art (through spending cuts, as Donald Trump has proposed). Money also replaces art. There is no value in the artist because she does not make any money. Likewise, there is no value in nature. Or even water or air.

The popular artist of today is defined by the empire they build. The personality they can sell. Often the most banal personality wins out. Actors like Kanye or Trump are sometimes a tad refreshing (but far more depressing). But this is only because they do not know they are controlled. There are people like a Barack Obama or a Shawn Mendes who are completely feckless and act as a comfort to anyone looking to reaffirm their Hallmark Christmas card version of the world. But there are also “free thinkers” like Kanye or Trump who say whatever comes to mind. People may feel they are standing up to the conformity represented by the well-mannered liberals. But as the saying goes you are what you eat. And if all you eat is money, fame and self-help books, that will be all you spit out. The unpredictable actors becomes quite predictable. Kanye wisely rapped once: “I ordered you jerk, she said “you are what you eat””.

Kanye also complained that his wife Kim Kardashian couldn’t wear diamonds anymore because she was robbed in Paris. Was this the same man who once rapped: “”Good Morning! This ain’t Vietnam. Still, people lose hands, legs, arms for real. Little was known of Sierra Leone, and how it connect to the diamonds we own.” Kanye not only is a far cry from The Beatles, he is a far cry from the Kanye of last decade. Kanye loves Paris now and seems to draw from the postmodern French in other ways when he claims that there is no positive or no negative in this interview. There could hardly be a more removed argument. Need we remind Kanye that there are negatives, even if he never has to experience them. See slavery or Donald Trump for two very obvious examples.

Kanye admits in his Charlamagne interview that racism really isn’t his issue with Donald Trump. He said if the racism really was make or break for him, he would move away from America. The ever authentic Charlamagne tha God reminded him that this was a rich person’s perspective. This was the same stance taken up by rich liberals who would move to Canada simply because Donald Trump hated poor people and minorities. That truly is a puzzling state of mind. To be so disgusted by something that is not happening to you that you would move away from it just so you can pretend it’s not there. Why care at all then? Why not admit you don’t mind how Trump treats poor people and cash in on the tax breaks?

Despite all of his recent actions, I will always love Kanye. He aims for excellence and his supreme creativity remains. He is perhaps the most talented and bold music producer of his generation. His beats have had a tremendous range—soulful, biting and futuristic. Every single one of his albums have been new and risky, and each have payed off. When I was growing up I thought Kanye was the only indestructible hero. It was his voice I turned to for sincerity after making it through a long day of fake high school bullshit. His message was always that it was okay to be different. His message was that failure meant originality and that accolades meant complacency.

But none of us, even the most forward thinking, can escape the present. The present is filled with corrupted souls drenched in the cold cruel world of neoliberal narcissism. What does Kanye, perhaps the most important musician in America, want? Fame? Attention? Paris? Louis Vuitton? Why does he long for the approval of Nike executives? Is it possible for a soul to survive in America?

Kanye’s mistake is thinking that money sets your mind free. If he could look in the mirror he would see that money has trapped the mind of one of America’s most interesting artists. Across America the mirror has been replaced with the selfie camera. There is no space for reflection or self-realization. There is only space for distraction from our deeply unequal and vapid society. So, despite the bottomless self-empowerment narratives of today’s world, we really have no idea who we have become. Wake up Mr. West. We need you now more than ever.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com