Recently, artist, producer, and designer Kanye West has engaged in a recurring discussion in which he denounces elite classicism through the rejection of modern racism. While his recent comments about women’s bodies, including those on Kylie Jenner and Tyga’s relationship and his own wife, have been criticized for being sexist, his new ideas about a post-racial society have not been as widely dissected.
West’s negation of racism and focus on class warfare has presented itself many times this year through different platforms. In an interview with Zane Lowe last month, West claimed, “Classism is the new racism….I know I tweeted Black Lives Matter, but All Lives Matter.” During his talk at Oxford University on March 2, West again mentioned, “That idea [racism], has passed.” He went on to further support his point, saying, “We’ve had The Cosby Show, Obama’s president, Beyoncé’s great…But there’s still something you’re taught every day, especially in the UK, and that’s division by class.” And in a more recent interview for Clique, he again insisted that racism is a dated concept, saying, “…it’s not an actual thing that even means anything.”
For Kanye’s fans, his recent public statements are concerning contradictions to the values embedded within his earlier messages. In fact, West appears to have altered his rhetoric completely only to champion symbols of the white supremacy he used to denounce.
In the past, West has spoken openly about institutionalized racism, created entire albums based on the struggles he’s faced as a black man in America, and talked candidly about race during public appearances–just two years ago at the Grammy Awards, West reminded people about his struggle for recognition, saying, “I’m 36-years old and I have 21 Grammys…Out of all of those 21 Grammys, I’ve never won a Grammy against a white artist.”
The fact of the matter is that Kanye West, just like every black entertainer, exists in a system of oppression in which he must fight to be accepted. In a country built on slavery and genocide, the struggle to be recognized as a successful black artist often comes at the expense of other people of color, and in this case, his negation of racism works to derail crucial conversations and movements. Currently in the United States, there are ongoing fights to end the widespread killing of black bodies, to promote accessibility of education for people of color, and to provide jobs for those who have historically and continue to live without work. His comments on Clique came the same day that two police officers were shot in Ferguson at a protest denouncing the killing of unarmed black people at the hands of law enforcement agencies. In this climate and with his cultural influence, West’s delegitimization of critical social movements can be misused to justify the racist institutions he is a part of. More immediately, his comments deflect from the fact that racism is a present day issue, with ongoing and often deadly consequences in the United States and abroad.
As an admirer of this artist, I have to advise him to hold back on the respectability politics he engages in, suspend the support of racist corporations and movements, and let go of expectations of white audiences. This surrendering can be freeing for West, but also for fans: The idolization of him falsely assumes he is the first of black excellence, that he is correct in everything he says, and that he speaks for the voiceless he so often references. For now, it’s important to trust our own instincts, continue supporting powerful movements–and let go of Kanye West as a symbol of black liberation and empowerment.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons).