Opinion

Kanye, Kimmel, Chappelle and the glass ceilings of the 21st century

Recently Kanye West gave an exclusive interview to the BBC’s Zane Lowe. This interview, and the resultant events, provides an enlightening pop culture moment. A debate around race, class and culture came up through West sharing his experiences in the music and fashion industry. He referred to ‘glass ceilings’ restricting the extent to which his genius is given a platform, the unfreedom of consumerism for the black American community, the politics of self-love as a theme on Yeezus and his music as activism. 

My initial reaction to this was typical: I wrote off the significance of his comments because of my assumptions his bank balance and celebrity lifestyle. Comments West made in the interview such as, “you drive past a homeless person in a Maybach, and you ask who’s more free” particularly annoyed me. It seemed to fit into the Kanye narrative already in my head: the out of touch egotist whose latest piece of musical work, Yeezus, is a meditation on megalomania. Million dollar vehicles standing juxtaposed against homelessness still principally brought up the image of Kanye’s unfreedom, in his mind.

Shortly after the BBC interview, Jimmy Kimmel poked fun at West on his talk show. Kimmel’s spoof was jarring, possibly because it didn’t focus on the megalomania or ego as sources of criticism, but rather the glass ceilings he referred to. How could West relating experiences of limitations on the extent to which his genius is received due to his race possibly be absurd, when racial inequality persists? West articulates problematic features of society (racism or classism) that should be relatable for many of us and should be recognised as problematic by the rest of us. However in the interview he does so in an un-relatable or alienating way, through reference to experiences in a Maybach or pitching ideas to the most well-known names in performance art or fashion. Having potentially trendsetting ideas dismissed because of racist preconceived notions by the ‘fashion powers that be’ must have been truly frustrating to Kanye, but instinctively, I wasn’t sure how to relate to this or understand it (I know nothing about the fashion industry).

It was an essay by Rachel Kaazi Ghansah on the comedian Dave Chappelle’s retreat from public life that ultimately proved decisive in changing my mind on Kanye’s interview. The essay describes a parallel example of the pressures around direction of creative content that resulted in Chappelle turning down a $50 million cheque and moving to the countryside. Chappelle was willing and able to provide stimulating radical social commentary. He did this through his regular television slot, basically using storytelling grounded in real events: read about the history of the Clayton Bigsby sketch about the story of the blind black white-supremacist, (which I think is my favourite comedic sketch ever). Chappelle’s show was met with popular acclaim  – season 1 on DVD was the best-selling TV-series of all time. It is a tragedy that Chappelle was forced to retreat to Yellow Springs, Ohio (population less than 4000) for reasons directly related to racism and restrictions on the direction of his body of work.

Chappelle was saying interesting things that needed to be said, but white America and cable suits wanted to hear more ‘Rick James, bitch!’

For Chappelle, delivering socially responsible comedy was something he was not willing to compromise on. What happened to him was unbelievable: a media campaign labelling him as crazy and on drugs was careful corporate manipulation as part of contract negotiations over remuneration and direction on creative content for a new season, with the cable TV suits trying to convince Chappelle that he was insane (at one point building a wall in his office that they claimed he requested, to play mind games with him) and forcing him to take medication for psychosis. There was an explicit relationship between Chappelle’s desire to provide radical social commentary and the campaign to suggest he was out of touch with reality. This explicit relationship is backed up by an implicit message: racism is not a social reality. You can watch more about that here. The similarities were too strong to ignore. Look at these Yeezy lines off ‘Gone’ on Late Registration, all those years ago, and ‘New Slaves’ off Yeezus, this year:

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“I’m ahead of my time, sometimes years out
So the powers that be won’t let me get my ideas out
And that make me wanna get my advance out
And move to Oklahoma and just live at my aunt’s house”

and

“Fuck you and your corporation
Y’all niggas can’t control me

I know that we the new slaves
Y’all niggas can’t fuck with me
Y’all niggas can’t fuck with Ye
Y’all niggas can’t fuck with Ye
I’ll move my family out the country
So you can’t see where I stay” 

This message was present in the Zane Lowe BBC interview. Chappelle and West have both always understood their work as distinctly political. This is a result of their family backgrounds. Chappelle’s mother, in her early twenties, met and was offered a job by Patrice Lumumba, while Kanye’s father is credited with association with the Black Panthers. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah had this to say about it: “Chappelle, like Kanye West, grew up in a home where black activism and black leftist thought were the languages of the household.” No wonder, then, that both Chappelle and West have wrestled so bitterly and publicly with their sense of responsibility to and also their failure to meet those same obligations. “It’s a dilemma,” Chappelle told Kevin Powell. “It’s something that is unique to us. White people, white artists, are allowed to be individuals. But we always have this greater struggle that we at least have to keep in mind somewhere”. In extending the comparison between Kanye and Chappelle, we can look to how an act of political defiance represented by Chappelle’s decision to end ‘Chappelle’s Show’ was not engaged on as the decision of an autonomous adult but simply written off as ‘crazy’. Similarly, when Kanye said some of the things in the New York Times interview that he would echo later in the BBC interview, the Daily Beast wrote a ‘craziest quotes of Kanye’ article.

Having shown how for Chappelle and Kanye their engagement with public life was distinctly political, let’s correspondingly acknowledge the reaction to their engagement as political. Here we can a critique the notion of black people defying racism and being written off by being described as ranting or crazy. In the aftermath of speculation about why Chappelle quit the show and escaped to South Africa, he addressed this issue, stating: “the worst thing to call somebody is ‘crazy.’ It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person. So they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit”. Further, Heben Nigatu of Buzzfeed notes that “to continuously label what Kanye says as ‘crazy’ is to dismiss him as not worth understanding and to flatten his deeply complex work and complex personality.” Kanye told Rolling Stone in 2004, “I’m the rap version of Dave Chappelle. I’m not sayin’ I’m nearly as talented as Chappelle when it comes to political and social commentary, but like him, I’m laughing to keep from crying”.

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The Jimmy Kimmel skit, which re-enacted the BBC interview with Kanye and replaced him and Lowe with children, can be viewed in this tradition. One can adopt such a critique for the reason that it writes off problematic features of Kanye’s experiences by framing them as illegitimate and out of touch with social reality, through getting kids to act them out. In short, Kimmel infantilized Kanye for relating experiences of racism. Having spoken in the interview of how the honesty of his interview would be dismissed and written off, this skit clearly angered Kanye who responded with a series of tweets attacking Kimmel. In an attempt by both to clarify their positions, Kanye accepted an invitation to Kimmel’s show last week. The show was initially disturbing, with Kimmel re-screening his skit to applause and laughter from his in-house audience. He clearly failed to see the racial dimension to his skit, which was ultimately clarified by his dismissive characterization of the beef as a “big dumb fight” and reference to people sometimes not understanding that celebrities are people too. Kimmel effectively adopted a post-racial worldview when he simply tried to understand Kanye’s anger and reaction as reflective of celebrity life in the spotlight.

Fortunately, Kanye was not visibly fazed by this and delivered a pointed monologue, restating and explaining much of what he said in the BBC interview. Kimmel just didn’t know how to react to this, having already used up his cheesy and insensitive prepared gags for the evening (giving Kanye a pair of leather jogging pants for his baby daughter, asking Kanye if he had a new ‘grill’ in his mouth and rescreening Josh Groban singing Kanye tweets). The best way to describe the Kanye/Kimmel interview was described by someone I follow on twitter: “Kanye: there’s a racial barrier in the fashion industry, Kimmel: hey I just thought of another black guy, he’s black too, like you”. Kanye’s monologue was a beautiful moment. Kimmel’s cocky and lame gags were shut up by Kanye’s confidence to speak about things holding him back without visible fear and apprehension on live television. Since Chappelle’s departure, there’s been a popular absence of this. Let’s appreciate, value and enable this. Ultimately though, no commentary should detract from Kanye’s words. They don’t need validation from more ‘reasonable’ sources. If you haven’t given them a proper listen, find them and hear them out. Bear in mind that white American racism laughs to pretend America is post-racial. It writes off the significance of racism as a social reality by claiming that black emotion is so impaired as to have lost contact with reality. People who live in a racist-ass city (as I do, in Cape Town) may know that this mechanism is highly effective, given that schizophrenic question that, as a person of colour, guides everyday contact with public life: ‘is it because I’m black?’

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