White Freedom: Kanye West’s Refusal to give into Societal Notions on Race and Music

Josh Lodish

March 24, 2019

Professor Rippeon

Voice, Noise, Sound, Sense

Intro:

It may upend your perceptions of race and politics to hear a story of a white actor calling out a black artist for their endorsement and support of Donald Trump. You may be less surprised if you knew that black artist was Kanye West. In the season opener of Saturday Night Live (SNL), Kanye West finished his performancewith a defense of his support for the President. Kanye claimed he doesn’t “agree with everything anyone does,” and that “we have the right to independent thought” (Corsarcelli). However controversial this claim may be, at its purest form, Kanye states that he has the right to support whomever he wants. He has the right for ‘independent thought’ regardless of circumstance. Nonetheless, Kanye immediately received criticism from the popular black artists Questlove and Swizz Beatz, who stated Trump was “blatantly hurting our people” (Corsarcelli). Furthermore, Kanye received intense pushback from Pete Davidson, a white actor on the SNL cast, who claimed “being mentally ill is not an excuse to act like a jackass,” calling out Kanye for his unethical stances on politics (Weekend Update). Davidson explained that Kanye’s actions offend people, for example, “every black person ever” (Weekend Update). As a white man, Davidson not only criticizes Kanye for his honesty and independent thought, but tells Kanye how he should act, in large part, due to his race.   

In his endorsement of Trump, Kanye West attempts to alter our expectations of black men and artists. Kanye forces us to ask what our expectations are, and knowingly challenges them. When describing the Veil, W.E.B DuBois focuses on a similar process. The Veil forces black individuals to see themselves “through the revelation of the other world,” by constantly processing their actions through the dominant white culture (Brodwin 307). Years later, Jennifer Lynn Stoever extended DuBois’ Veil claiming that “sound and listening enable racism’s evolving presence,” illustrating through her concept of the Sonic Color Line, that race is strongly connected to sound (Stoever 5). Both the Veil and the Sonic Color line rely upon expectations of obedience. These expectations only become visible when someone challenges them and is forcibly corrected. 

Yeezus, Kanye’s sixth studio album, challenges our expectations of obedience in terms of race and music, thus disregarding both the Sonic Color Line, and the Veil. Kanye has fielded criticism for his actions (by both black and white artists), and continues to stand for what he believes in. He does not accept a lifestyle in which he must alter his actions to fit the desires of dominant white culture. Instead Kanye acts genuinely, staying true to himself, and in the end of his speech on SNL, asks us one basic thing, “if you want the world to move forward- try love,” (Corsarcelli). In this essay I will demonstrate that Kanye West disregards the Veil and the Sonic Color Line both through three songs on Yeezusand his endorsement of Trump.

Part 1: Yeezus

Blood on the Leaves:

To create the track Blood on the Leaves, Kanye sampled Strange Fruit– a song written by Billie Holiday about the murders of African Americans by lynching. This song undoubtedly carries an important and heavy weight in terms of race in America. Kanye chooses to take this intense song about murder and morph it into one about an unhealthy, oversexualized, and drug fueled relationship as demonstrated by his lines, “my second-string bitches,” and “when you tried your first molly” (Blood on the Leaves). By ignoring the historical context of the sample and completely redefining to himself what the song means, Kanye explicitly goes against the Veil, which limits black’s ability to “see themselves outside of what white America describes and prescribes for them” (UVA). In describing his music Kanye tells us he would, “rather piss a bunch of people off and make myself happy than make everyone else happy and be pissed off inside” (Dombal). Clearly, Kanye does not want to buy into how he should act in regard to artistry, fame, or race. Kanye lives by the terms he sets for himself. Through a disregard for societal expectations for his sampling choice in Blood on the Leaves, and his genuine opinions on the understanding of his music, Kanye denies the Sonic Color Line and the Veil. 

New Slaves:

Undoubtedly a song titled New Slaves is designed to be provocative. New Slaves follows along with Yeezus’ themes of confrontation and vanity with lines such as “You see there’s leaders and there’s followers, but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” (New Slaves). Kanye references “Broke ni**a racism,” being told he shouldn’t touch anything in the store, and “rich ni**a racism,” when he’s profiled for what he wants to buy, being told “all you blacks want all the same things” (New Slaves). These lines demonstrate Kanye’s experience with the Sonic Color Line and the “imposed racial identities and structures of racist violence” thrust upon him as a black man (Stoever 4). Kanye connects contemporary racism to Jim Crow, “the era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin,” and to slavery, both in the song title, and lines such as ‘they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself’ (New Slaves).  He asks us (his audience) to re-evaluate our concepts of racism in America and he acknowledges, as the Sonic Color Line explains, that sound has been “ever present in the construction of race and the performance of racial oppression” (Stoever 4). In forcing us to re-evaluate their perceptions of racism, as opposed to reinforcing them, Kanye disregards the Veil and the Sonic Color Line. 

I am a God

I am a God is perhaps the song on Yeezus that most directly challenges our societal expectations of race and music, as exemplified through this short interview of Kanye describing the song. In the interview, Kanye makes clear that America expects black artists (especially rappers) to possess stereotypical characteristics such as ‘pimping,’ or being a ‘gangsta’ (Zane Low). He states that society does not expect black artists to be self-confident or articulate. And for a black man to claim he’s a god? Well society would find that blasphemous. Kanye chose I am a Godas the title for his track to cause a visceral reaction. Kanye understands how the Sonic Color Line operates “as an organ of racial discernment” (Stoever 4); that the Veil commands the black artist to “channel his natural abilities and personal aims into political and social arenas” (Browdwin 303). Nonetheless, Kanye challenges these expectations, and uses his music to alter society’s perception of what it means to be a black male rapper. Kanye does so by calling himself a literal God. 

Part 2: Endorsing Trump

            Not only does Kanye’s music on Yeezus exemplify his rejection of the Sonic Color Line and the Veil, but so does his endorsement of President Donald Trump. By supporting Trump, Kanye delivers the shock value that he went for on Yeezus. He is being genuine, and provocative, acting so they we think, why? Kanye challenges our expectations of race and does so intentionally. In his article, I’m not Black, I’m Kanye, Ta-Nehsi Coates writes about Kanye’s endorsement of Trump and claims that Kanye desires freedom in his actions. But not any kind of freedom- white freedom. Coates describes white freedom as, “freedom without consequence…criticism…to be proud and ignorant” (Coates).  Essentially, Coates claims Kanye simply wants to be freed from racial expectations and to function as an artist defined only by himself. When DuBois describes the Veil as something that, “yielded him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world,” he was describing the intense filtering of self through white culture that African-Americans are forced to do (UVA). In endorsing Trump, Kanye removes the idea that black men should filter themselves and their actions through the lens of race. In an interviewwith Jimmy Kimmel, Kanye states “everyone around me tried to pick my candidate for me,” further describing a worry that if he endorsed Trump, people would “kick him out of the black community because blacks are supposed to have a monolithic thought” (Jimmy Kimmel).  Kanye knows the expectations thrust upon him as a black man. He is perfectly aware of the veil society expects him to see himself through. This level of “true self-consciousness,” which DuBois claimed was impossible in a life with the Veil, is attainable for Kanye exactly because he refuses it. Kanye describes his endorsement of Trump as a representation of overcoming fear, and “doing what you felt no matter the consequences” (Jimmy Kimmel). Kanye refuses the Veil and the Sonic Color Line by dictating his own life, challenging societal perceptions of black men, and above all else- being true to himself, no matter the consequences.  

Conclusion: 

            Kanye West refuses the expectations thrust upon him by the Sonic Color Line and the Veil as demonstrated through his honest and unique work on Yeezus, and his endorsement of Trump. In his song Ye vs. The People, Kanye has a rap-argument with Atlanta rapper T.I, defending his endorsement of Trump. Kanye drops insightful lines such as, “Make America Great had a negative perception, I added empathy, care, love, and affection” and “is it better if I rap about crack, because its cultural?” (Ye vs. The People). In his rap, Kanye focuses in on one main point – Love. Kanye tells us that “yall be leading with hate,” but instead we should be leading with love, which he claims to have done by adding it to Trump’s slogan (Ye vs. The People). As he did in his SNL speech when he stated, “if you want the world to move forward- try love,” Kanye asks us in Ye vs. The Peoplenot to focus on perceptions or expectations of people, but instead to focus on being genuine and honest (Coscarelli). People like Pete Davidson may have a hard time accepting Kanye’s proud endorsement of Donald Trump, but throughout it all Kanye has made clear that he doesn’t care. Kanye, through his music and actions has consistently challenged societal expectations of race, as set out in the Sonic Color Line and the Veil and left us with his message of love. 

Works Cited:

  1. Stoever, Jennifer Lynn. The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening. NYU Press, 2016. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1bj4s55.
  2. Ta-Nehsi Coates. “I’m not Black, I’m Kanye”. Atlantic Magazine.7 May, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/05/im-not-black-im-kanye/559763/.
  3. The Veil and Double Consciousness. University of Virginia Press (UVA). http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug03/souls/defpg.html
  4. Ryan Dombal. Kanye West, Yeezus. Pitchfork Magazine. 18 June, 2013. https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/18172-kanye-west-yeezus/.
  5. Kanye West. Interview by Zane Low. “Kanye West Explains his Meaning behind “I Am A God” with Zane Low”. December 31, 2013.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ge33hrlN2Uc
  6. Kanye West. Interview with Jimmy Kimmel. “Jimmy Kimmel’s Full Interview with Kanye West”. April 10, 2018.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmZjaYdS3fA
  7. Joe Coscarelli. Kanye West Ends ‘S.N.L’ With Speech About Trump and Bullying. The New York Times. 30 September, 2018. 
  8. Weekend Update. Interview with Pete Davidson. “Weekend Update: Pete Davidson on Kanye West- SNL”. Youtube. Saturday Night Live. October 7, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=218&v=ASqnnZpsX1M
  9. Stanley Brodwin. The Veil Transcended: Form and Meaning in W.E.B DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk”. Sage Publications.https://www.jstor.org/stable/2783720 
  10. Kanye West. “Blood on the Leaves.” Yeezus, Def Jam Records, 2013. Youtube,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nn0Pu2Qun-E
  11. Kanye West. “New Slaves.” Yeezus, Def Jam Records, 2013. Youtube,   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wcFyBPcSpM
  12. Kanye West. “Ye vs. The People.” Def Jam Records, 2018. Youtube,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swQWUa5-9TM

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