Black Brilliance/New Slaves

6 Dec

Lately, when it seems everyone is abuzz over some new video, clip, or outrageous happening, I make myself pause before looking for myself. So, when I saw images from Kanye West’s video, or heard about his interview with Sway where I gather he compared himself to Shakespeare, I gave myself a simple test: if I am at that uncertain line between sleep and wakefulness, or more dramatically if it comes to pass that there is a time in my life where I no longer have complete control of my mind, would I want one of the images haunting me to be Kanye West on horseback? In this particular case, I decided I am haunted by enough such images, and do not need to chase them.

This isn’t about Kanye West per se, but about time. It’s banal, but no less true that we have a limited number of waking hours in our lives, and the recent rash of deaths–Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Junior Murvin and Wanda Coleman most recently, but also José Esteban Muñoz and my friend and colleague Sam See–has made the question more urgent to me: where we devote our time and attention matters, and while critique is necessary, so is love. I continue to return to W. E. B. Du Bois’ prescription that the work of art–necessarily propagandistic–must “let this world be beautiful.”  “I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty and for Beauty to set the world right,” he declared. There’s much to say about this, but here I just want to stress that connection–telling the truth, exposing evil, and seeking with and for Beauty strikes me as a good description of one mode of criticism, one that articulates ethical, aesthetic and political concerns.

From that perspective, I keep trying to make time for someone like Kanye. I haven’t been a big fan of his, since his work on The Blueprint. I dislike his public persona, but I appreciate it. As a producer, especially in his early soul-sample period, he has a great ear for the beauty of those who have come before, and who may have gone on. How many people first heard Luther Vandross, David Ruffin, Syreeta, or Max Romeo (and Lee “Scratch” Perry) through him? This, from my perspective, is one of the most important aspects of his work, and the work of the producer: making those works from the past live again in the present, keeping one foot in the past and one foot in the present, sonically articulating a larger continuum of black (but not just black) brilliance. (In another post, I would want to talk about RZA’s samples, which include J. S. Bach and Stravinsky.)

As a black studies, cultural studies and literary scholar, I understand part of my duty in Du Boisian terms: not just telling the truth and exposing evil, but letting myself be guided as much as possible by beauty. I understand part of our task as being keeping attention on all the beauty black people have made in the midst of continuing oppression. More prosaically, I see one of my jobs as paying attention to what is beautiful, and reminding people to pay attention to black brilliance, to appreciate those people still among us so that the first time their names are called isn’t the occasion of their death.

I want to say one more thing about Kanye West, which I very much appreciate: he’s complex. Publicly complex. Almost professionally complex. Not in the “Che Guevara with bling on” way – I’ve never understood what that means. In the able to offer a keen observation of the corrupt nature of the for-profit prison system (“meanwhile the DEA | Teamed up with the CCA”–Corrections Corporation of America), suggest a link between that prison system and gated communities, then devolve into a very familiar tactic: imagining gaining “revenge” over a white male property owner by “violating” his wife (i.e., his property). Men using women’s bodies as proxies in fights between each other is not new to hip-hop, or at all. In context, it makes “New Slaves” effectively a complaint that black men are barred from the legal and social norms of property ownership that form the basis of racial and gender oppression, rather than a fuller critique of that system as itself corrupt and corrupting. If we are the “new slaves,” it would be nice to ask that someone be the “new Frederick Douglass”? In his 1845 Narrative, Douglass describes a woman who initially has “been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery” and who soon finds herself enthralled to “fatal poison of irresponsible power.”

That such a larger systemic view remains unavailable is perhaps the point. Douglass had the benefit of established abolitionist rhetoric to draw on, Kanye has not discovered the words he might need. Douglass was recognized as an important mind and speaker who could apply his talents to specific ends, or at least could have his critique coopted by an established abolitionist movement that would simply disregard whatever didn’t fit its purposes. The only cooptation awaiting Kanye is by record companies, who profit from the eccentric genius and the egomaniac people love to hate. As someone who devoted much of his early career to establishing and celebrating a continuum of black brilliance, why wouldn’t he want to claim a spot for himself? Why are people so threatened when he does?

My point isn’t that he is or is not a genius – I don’t really find that question interesting. My point really is that, once you get past the outrage and snickering, for all of his incoherence and complexity if one does pay attention to his example (I’m still not watching the video to “Bound 2,” though I appreciate his featuring the great Charlie Wilson), it creates a space for thought, for seeing the world as potentially more beautiful, as a place where he–or someone else (my money is on Yasiin Bey) could become the David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs or Sojourner Truth an era of “new slaves” requires.


One Response to “Black Brilliance/New Slaves”


  1. Stay Black and Live: J Dilla as Anarchivist | In Pursuit of Sacred Words - February 8, 2014

    […] I’m concerned, Dilla is one of the last great innovators in rap music (so far). In a previous post, I celebrated Kanye West’s ear for black sounds, and wanted to see that as one mode of the […]

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