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A Teen Reports on Black Creatives – Rap Rehab

    Creativity and art have long been socially ingrained into culture. Fostered by individual creativity, art pieces are ultimately a product of a culture. The artistic output of a society is perhaps the most telling of that culture’s spirit, often capturing the zeitgeist of a period, a place, a people. However, what is accepted into the mainstream, what can be categorized as popular or defining, is contingent on popular opinion and perception. A perception based medium, art becomes communicative only when artist and consumer find common ground. It is on these grounds where the subjectivity of the consumer begins to matter. This is the space in which race becomes an influencing factor. What acts as a site for communication is often destroyed, not by content or by the work itself, but by individual perceptions regarding race. Racism can be defined as a “system of advantage based on race” that is culturally ingrained (Tatum, 1997). The result is a system in which white superiority is assumed and the inferiority of people of color, inferred. This definition, referred to as critical race theory, helps to explain the disparities in cultural wealth accumulated by different racial groups. It helps to explain why mainstream culture so often has difficulty with honestly engaging in the work of people of color. Black creatives must continually confront an art world rooted in a politics of white supremacist exclusion (hooks, 1995). One such contemporary artist, Kanye West, must overcome the same difficulties many other black creatives have faced. Because mainstream culture finds it problematic to embrace his work wholeheartedly, West is an invariably misunderstood figure in pop culture. West and his public perception are emblematic of the cultural hegemonic framework that operates in his time. By examining the refusal to engage his work and ideas, the limits of accessibility into sophisticated culture, the criticisms of his vanity, and the bias in perception he is subject to, modern racism, in all its subtly, is unveiled. Critical Race Theory is exemplified via the Kanye West image.

    In America, there exists a long history of cultural hegemony. From its foundation, the U.S. has supported and perpetuated White supremacy. Though the days of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial injustice seem far removed, the consequences of such a culture are far reaching. Critical Race Theory (CRT) draws upon a more expansive school of thought, termed critical theory, which stresses the critique of society via social science. Accordingly, CRT is critical theory in terms of race. CRT asserts that as a society, the US has been unable to eradicate the racism that existed at its birth and unable to free itself of the lingering effects of that racism. In her transformative book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum refers to racism as a “system of advantage based on race”. Abiding by CRT, Tatum expands on the notion that the result of such a system is a culture in which Whiteness is typically associated with superiority and that people of color are commonly considered inferior and “other”. Through the lens of CRT, public response to creativity and art can be further understood. In terms of popularity and public reception, CRT provides an explanation to how race “shapes art practices (who makes it, how it sells, who values it, who writes about it.)”(hooks, 1995). CRT allows for a critical response to the dialogue surrounding an art world so immersed in white supremacy that it fails to recognize its lack of sincere and serious critical engagement.

    Kanye West is a black contemporary rap artist and producer out of Chicago, Illinois who became a popular icon in rap from the moment his first album The College Dropout debuted. The public image of Kanye West has changed throughout his career. At some point in his public life, West’s image went from “backpack college rapper” to “buffoon”. Perhaps it was the moment when he took a national platform to proclaim that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”; or when he was brutally honest with Taylor Swift in his assertion that “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time”. Somewhere amidst his 21 Grammy Award wins, outright disapproval of Kanye West became commonplace. West is an intriguing figure to examine through the lens of CRT not only for being a modern example of the burden that comes with being a mainstream black creative, but also for being a figure that routinely ruffles the feathers of White America.

    With his controversial public stunts, West abandoned all attempts of maintaining the approval of a culture to which he offers sharp criticisms. As a black creative, West must be fully conscious of others’ perception of him and his African heritage, while simultaneously being fully aware of his own participation in, and pursuit of validation from, Eurocentric culture. This challenge, termed “Double Consciousness” by W.E.B. DuBois, is one that hampers all black Americans. “He simply wishes it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.” (DuBois, 1903). DuBois outlines a challenge that is unique to black creatives. He must gain celebrity via a white controlled world while never forgetting his Afrocentric roots. Though he uses his black culture as the vehicle to success, the Eurocentric society in which he lives is what must propel him forth. A merging of both consciousnesses may never be possible, but this would mark the end of the black American’s psychological strife. The end goal is “to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius. To be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture” (DuBois, 1903). While this burden is neither unique to West, nor solely his own to bear, an examination of West as a pop culture icon offers a revitalization of the ideas W.E.B. DuBois posed over 100 years before The College Dropout existed. In the attempt to reconcile both consciousnesses, a typical result is to lose approval of both cultures; to be recognized by neither. This is the path West’s career has taken. His peers in the black communities no longer claiming him as their own, yet still regarded as “other” by the White mainstream art world of which he strives for validation from.

    Validation, and subsequent admission, of an Other into a largely homogeneous space is near unattainable. Though the culture boasts a budding cosmopolitanism, black creatives have struggled to be consumed and rewarded on the level at which white creatives have. The mainstream has failed to allow entry of black creatives (especially those excessively “black”) into a sophisticated art world. Kanye West has frequently voiced his frustration with not being taken seriously as a creative. Trained in the fine arts, West’s creativity is not confined to rap and music production alone. Recently releasing a shoe design for Nike, West hopes to extend his creative reach to clothing and architectural design. Creatively, West has drawn from a myriad of artistic works, even citing a Le Corbusier lamp as the inspiration for the direction of his latest album Yeezus (Z. Lowe, BBC Radio Interview, 2014). Whether on radio shows, in interviews on late night television, through his music, or through his Twitter account, West has time and time again articulated his resentment of popular media to categorize his work, ideas, and dreams as those of a delusional man. West comments, “It seems like it’s the beginning of me rattling the cage, of making some people nervous. And people are strategically trying to do things to mute my voice.” (S. McQueen, Interview Magazine, 2014) In line with the ideas in “Art On My Mind: Visual Politics”, written by bell hooks, West often attempts to expose the lamentable dearth of serious dialogue attempting to critically engage black creative art.

    In a highly publicized Twitter feud, Kanye West lashed out at comedian Jimmy Kimmel for participating in the systemic exclusion West has faced his entire career. Host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live”, Kimmel presented a skit in which a BBC Radio interview of West was reenacted with children. In the skit, none of the dialogue changed, West was simply replaced with a child. The portrayal, as well as Kimmel’s shocked response to West’s indignation, is characteristic of the devaluing of black creativity. As Buzzfeed Ideas Editor Ayesha A. Siddiqi writes, “There’s a way to satirize pop culture icons and then there’s ‘come look at the black man trying to art! Everyone look, ha ha!’” (Siddiqi, 2013). The dispute revolving the skit embodies the battle West has continuously fought throughout his career of being disregarded by White America as naïve and unimportant. West’s comments on racism in higher culture (e.g. fashion shows, art shows) in the original BBC Radio interview with Zane Lowe go largely unheard; what is instead brought to the spotlight are West’s “bizarre” comments in which he likens himself to Michelangelo, Howard Hughes, and Walt Disney.

    Keeping with CRT, media portrayal as well as public opinion of West is in line with cultural norms. Though he strives to be recognized as a successful, progressive, and futurist innovator, West simply does not fit the part. Who is termed as genius in regards to art becomes entirely subjective. In spaces of sophisticated culture, a form of cognitive dissonance takes place in the mind of a white supremacist society that struggles to equate “black man” with “sophisticated artist”. West does not fit the archetype of who society is able to regard as a creative pioneer. A culture infused with white supremacist notions would rather regard Kanye West as a fool, but celebrate and glorify the creative “genius” of the Woody Allens, Georgio Armanis, and George Lucases. Though West could be called a child prodigy (participating in national art competitions from the age of 5 and earning full scholarships to three different art institutions) and is classically trained in the fine arts (S. McQueen, Interview Magazine, 2014), it is still a struggle for mainstream society to believe him when he confidently asserts that he is a creative genius. The status is unattainable; a black creative does not code for brilliance. Despite the recognition of achievement, the prestige does not register.

    “Kanye West is giving mad props to the one man he thinks never seems to get enough recognition for his majesty… of course, I’m referring to Kanye West”. So goes Jake Tapper’s introduction to Kanye West, opening the hour long CNN show The Lead (Tapper, 2013). The piece continues to refer to West as a man “so over the top, [he] reads like an SNL sketch”. The sentiment is a part of a long list of recurring, common, and predictable criticisms of Kanye West’s ego. News media outlets frequently refer to West as “obnoxious”, “ridiculous”, and “text-book crazy” (Weaver, 2013). Not known for modesty, Kanye West proudly exercises his freedom of self-love, inadvertently engaging in political warfare. News outlets and media bombard its viewers with the political message that it will not withstand a person of color that is anything but humble. In this context, West’s ego has political value. The hateful messages directed at Kanye West are surely racially coded. Not many other White artists are mocked as much as West is for simply believing in themselves or regarding themselves highly. In line with CRT, the question posed is: whose vanity is valuable? Whose vanity is ugly?

    Robert Downey Jr, a white male actor, is well-known for his unique brand of egotism, yet never lampooned for it on the scale of which West is. By stark contrast, he is lauded for his vanity. Downey Jr. has seen enormous commercial mainstream success in the last decade, signing contracts for over 15 films, including blockbusters such as The Avengers I and II, The Iron Man trilogy, and the Sherlock Holmes trilogy (Robert Downey Jr., n.d.). West himself succinctly offers his observation of the public’s reaction to his vanity, particularly in response to those ridiculing the title of his track I am a God. “Self-hate. It works on itself.  It’s like the real estate of racism. When someone comes up and says something like ‘I am a God’, everyone says who does he think he is? Would it have been better if I had a song that said ‘I am a Nigga’? Or ‘I am a Gangsta’? All those colors fit better on a person like me right? But to say that you are a god? How could you say that? How could you have that mentality?” (Z. Lowe, BBC Radio Interview, 2014). As Heben Nigatu of Buzzfeed writes, it isn’t about ego. It is about boldly asserting himself in a world that is not meant for him (Nigatu, 2013). The political value of West’s vanity comes to fruition as mainstream America reveals its inability to participate in the adoration of a black man to the extent that he could adore himself.

    While West’s bold claims of grandeur are far from humble, they are largely defensible. West has consistently been a culturally relevant figure since the release of his debut album The College Dropout. In the realm of hip-hop, he has been successful in about every aspect imaginable. He has been a pioneer of hip-hop, popularizing the use of sample-based production and experimenting with EDM and techno sound. He cultivated a different taste of hip-hop and rap in the mainstream with his experimental 808’s and Heartbreak, opening doors for artists such as Drake, Kid Cudi, and other forms of “sad-melodic” rap. He has been an enormously influential tastemaker, introducing artists such as Chief Keef, Niki Minaj, and Lupe Fiasco, propelling each into the mainstream spotlight. He revitalized and gave cultural importance to underground or forgotten artists such as Bon Iver and Daft Punk in his collaborations with them. He has a near perfect discography with each and every album he’s released being critically acclaimed across the board (Perpetua, 2013). He even released an album deemed perfect by critics: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was given the perfect score of “10” from the well-known and respected music critic publication, Pitchfork. (Dombal, 2010). West accomplishes all this while maintaining popularity, keeping progressive, and staying characteristically narcissistic.

    Calls to examine West’s sanity for believing himself to be a cultural force are attempts to silence him and his work. However, the message of “know your place” is one that West consciously and continually refuses: “I’m not saying I’m infallible; that I’m flawless. I’m saying that I got a cause.” (Breakfast club interview) (Siddiqi, 2013). The reaction is similar to the early 20th century male-dominated medical world’s “Hysteria”. Female Hysteria, a mental illness diagnosis made exclusively to women, is no longer recognized today in the medical community. Women who believed they could be the breadwinners of a home, or who believed they could achieve in industrial careers, were commonly diagnosed as “hysterical” (Briggs, 2000). The diagnostic category was designed to merely keep women in the home; to keep women in their place. Likewise, criticisms of West’s self-love are designed to silence; a political strategy to keep West, a black man, in his place.

    The excessive criticism and lack of recognition are a hallmark of the modern day racism black Americans endure, especially black creatives. The function of racism becomes one that is not entirely intentional– the public does not arrive at its opinion of Kanye West consciously aware of their racial coding. Indeed, what is most unsettling of the white supremacy that envelops societal perceptions is that it is nearly entirely unconscious. As revealed in many studies, racial bias tends to operate at a subconscious level, unbeknownst to those obliviously participating in racist acts. In a recently released study, entitled “Written in Black & White: Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills”, this form of imperceptible bias was examined. Researchers sent fabricated drafts of a legal research memo from a law firm to a number of the firm’s partners for review. The memos included a set number of errors in order to see how the partners would respond to them. All memos sent were exactly identical. The only difference: “one half of the partners were told the memo was written by a black associate, the other half were told the exact same memo was written by a white associate.” (The Janitor, 2014). The results were unnerving. The fictitious writer “Thomas Meyer” received contradictory feedback when only his race was a variable. When perceived as written by a white associate, the memo received an overall better grade as well as much less criticisms in writing style. Even the prepared mistakes in grammar and spelling were detected less often when the writer was labeled as white. “White” Thomas Meyer received comments such as “generally good writer”, “has potential”, and “good analytical skills”. When the exact same memo was sent by “Black” Thomas Meyer, feedback included “average at best”, “needs lots of work”, and “can’t believe he went to NYU” (The Janitor, 2014). Similarly to a classic study conducted by social psychologists Richard Nisbett and T.D. Wilson in 1977, participants are entirely unaware of the true reasons they have made a decision or the true factors that influenced how they came to a conclusion.

    In the Nisbett and Wilson study, participants were asked to choose from an array of four identical pantyhose and then offer a reason as to why they chose the one they did. Nisbett and Wilson were studying the phenomena of “positional bias”, the tendency of finding the position furthest right in a sequence as the most attractive or as superior. A significant amount of participants chose “Pantyhose D”, the furthest right, much more often, but when asked why, no participants claimed to choose the pantyhose farthest right for the simply being on the right. Participants looked to other reasons, even pointing out that the pantyhose they chose was a “better knitting” or “superior elasticity”, despite all hosiery offered being identical. This justification, often referred to as a form of confabulation, is indicative of the subconscious variables that ultimately affect judgment (Wilson, 2002). This bias goes completely unrecognized as in the case with the made-up Thomas Meyer. It is important to note that the presence of intention is irrelevant to outcome. The forces working on the psyche of a society’s inhabitants remain invisible when unchallenged.

    These forms of bias seem irremediable. In spaces where judgment is derived from perception based assessments, a white supremacist culture ensures white superiority and thus its own survival. Whether it is the rejection of honest engagement, denied entry into higher culture, or the confabulations of their critics, black creatives must continually confront the agents of white supremacy head on; their creativity must continue to be mired by the culture’s staunch investment in maintaining racial hegemonic ideals. This self-sustaining framework becomes evident through the culture’s consumption of Kanye West. Existing within a White narrative, the benefit of inherent legitimacy does not apply to West. So deeply entrenched, this silent, crippling effect stretches its reach to every aspect of the black American’s lived reality. This racism is completely missed by the society it afflicts; they are oblivious to the role whiteness plays to the assignment of rank. Though mainly invisible, the workings of white supremacy are not unseen by West himself, but his attempts to shed light on these problems are overlooked. On how it could change, West says “When you say justice, it doesn’t have to be war. Justice could just be clearing a path for people to dream properly” (Caramanica, 2013). As critical race theorists will point out, the system in which West lives does not allow for such a path. However, West shows no signs of early surrender. West’s cultural presence sharply delineates the unease of a mainstream that is confronted with the proposition of bowing down to a black man. West’s cultural presence exposes the compliance to participate in the ruling power structure of white supremacy. Cultural anxieties about black men are demonstrable through the consumption of the cultural vanguard that is Kanye West.