Kanye West has slid down a slope of ingratiating insanity that I’ve pinpointed has been since his mother died. The Kayne that I grew to love that produced the higher learning albums of “College Dropout,” “Late Registration,” and “Graduation” had morphed into this abstract aesthetic by the time “808s & Heartbreak” that left many of us going “ohhhhh, okay” figuring this was him trying to work out the death of his mother. We saw Kanye’s fashion transmogrify from the typical hip hop rapper ensemble from the early 2000s into this almost sensual vibe that left many hardcore rap and hip hop fans with their mouths agape. In the long line of controversies associated with Kanye from his “George Bush doesn’t like black people” comment to the lurid and scandalous details of his relationship and now engagement to Kim Kardashian, this may be the last straw for a few people.
Recently, Kanye made headlines simultaneously for his engagement to Kim Kardashian but also for donning clothing from his own clothing line featuring the Confederate flag. The typical knee-jerk response I believe is more than appropriate. There are moments in which humanity makes the collective decisions to never resurrect the moments and the symbols of great human suffering. One of the most notable is the global disuse of the swastika. Even though as a symbol it predates the Nazi use of it, today, it is a symbol that the German government has gone so far as to ban the use thereof. While the U.S. will probably never ban the use of the Confederate flag, for many it is still a symbol of hate, of the slaveocracy that so defined the southern antebellum United States.
While historians may argue, correctly, that the Confederate States of America never officially seceded from the United States, that maybe true under the law, but a de facto government and currency did exist (though pitiable it may be) and a war was indeed fought where people bled and died. The question I always ask is what heritage is one hearkening to when the Confederate flag is waved? For me it is a heritage associated with treason, with the owning of humans as chattel and it is one marked by the inane spirt of white superiority and racism.
Semiotics deals with how we read signs in our culture. Anything from the written language to forms of art, to symbols and images all have the ability to be interpreted, or understood as a sign pointing to something greater than the image or symbol before one’s eyes. The Rebel flag is not just a “stars and bars” of red, blue and white dyed cloth, but rather it is symbolic and points to what the Confederacy represents in the mind of those who don it.
The natural question is then, what is Kanye’s instrumental use of the Confederate flag pointing to and for what reason.
“React how you want,” he said during an interview with radio station Los Angeles 97.1 AMP. “Any energy you got is good energy. I represented slavery, my abstract take on what I know about it, I wrote New Slaves. So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. What are you going to do?”
I debated did this even warrant a response as Kanye has clearly set himself as a part of the now alternative hip hop group genre. Alternative hip hop encompasses these disparate artists and groups that don’t even like the label “alternative” hip hop, but they exist jumping between the margins and the center. Alternative hip hop emerged in the 1990s, but to a larger audience nearly two decades later, those artists seem mainstream now. Groups like Jurassic 5 or even Outkast at one time were considered alternative, now are definitely mainstays in the hip hop millieu. The new class of alternative hip hop natives includes born in the 1990s and have barely crossed the threshold of their 21st birthday: such as OGWGKTA, from Tyler the Creator, and slightly older ones like N.E.R.D., Childish Gambino, Lupe Fiasco. Also, let it be noted, as hip hop itself as a music genre is always morphing into what it will be itself. There are moments listening to the “mainstream” artists where the timbre of the tracks themselves hearken on musical engineering akin to the hip hop alternative.
But this classification gives the artist the space to be, well, weird. In an era where prank movies like “Jackass” can rake in millions, and where social media gives a window to watch the antics of what amounts to more thank just pranks, but actual random acts of violence, I have to be honest, I’m a bit concerned as a global citizen about where is this all going. The nihilism that paints the backdrop to which much of these lyrics, music and fashion is birthed. While I am all for free expression, I all for having a pointed direction in what it is one is doing.
I think the scary part in Kanye’s coonery is that he’s simply doing it because he can. It’s the old school equivalent of a rich guy buying his 7th car, not because he needs it, not even because he wants it, but doing it because he can–and he’s bored. There’s not intrinsic value attached to Kanye reappropriating the Confederate flag other than to add another entry into his Wikipedia page under “controversy.” Kanye didn’t do for money because the only place that would knowingly carry those flags would be the truck stop off of I-20 just this side of the Mississippi state line. No major department stores will ever carry that for mass distribution. The only place they will sell will be the pop-up stores at his concert venues.
And we wonder why people feel it’s okay to dress up in blackface for Halloween.
Now I’m not making the argument that Kanye should be grand “race uplifter” like this is the height of the Civil Rights movement, but I am having issue with a culture that seemingly has no ground to stand that seems to be directly affecting some of the random violence. No, I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon declaring some end of the world cataclysm and go around quote Yeats’ “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” as though doom is here, but I am saying that if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything. The unfortunate part of that is that some of what you fall for may be falling toward your death and destruction. Or in this specific case with Kanye, I see him as hip hop’s Confederate coon.
The clashing irony of stanning for the Confederacy while at the same time being a coon is the rarefied space in which Kanye and Kaye alone occupies. His black skin and still other cultural signifiers identify him as black, yet he’s reclaiming the Confederate flag. No this isn’t something birthed out of the grand satirical comedy of Dave Chappelle as Clayton Bigsby, but rather Kanye enters the coon space because he seems to fail to see how what he’s doing is perpetuating more harm than good; he’s being overtly selfish. He’s not reclaiming it for some greater purpose (even those who said “nigga” is a term of endearment have attempted to make it for a greater service), but he’s reclaiming it just because he can!
As countercultural as I position myself, I don’t see the value of doing something just to be doing it. Perhaps that does come from my religious trajectory and I have no problems admitting that as a crutch to understanding the unmitigated freedom that doing what you want when you want provides. It fuels Kanye’s god-like complex; the notion of God’s sovereignty–God can do what God wants, when God wants, how God wants and to whomever God wants–is real and it’s something that Kanye certainly embodies. Despite all of the deity aspirations put forth by 5-percenters or the like, Kanye, again, doesn’t seem to have a hold onto why he’s doing what he
does. Even Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology attributed some sense of greater purpose to their deities that they worshipped.
Kanye doesn’t write lyrics for the sake of greater understanding or greater debate in the general public. Nor does Kanye produce controversial art as an attempt to take a storied and valued symbol in society, turn it on it’s head and make us question why we do what we do. His lyrics may do that in and of themselves, but it seems that Kanye doesn’t really care to engage that. For instance, Lupe Fiasco’s interviews and persona back up his sometimes incendiary lyrics, and vice versa; what we hear in an interview from Lupe is what we hear in his lyrics. Kanye, on the other hand, gives off this radical antiestablishment running borderline loose cannon in his lyrics, and then gives off this space cadet, Valley girl persona when he has to speak in front of cameras. It’s almost as if he’s not here when you hear him give interviews or speak to a camera.
I guess for Kanye, Yeezus + A new slave = a Confederate coon. I’m not here for it, so have fun with that one bro.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL