Kanye West on Aestethics and Revolution

On November 26, Kanye gave an interview to the Power 105.1 Breakfast Club. Throughout, West reiterates the fact that he is driven by artistic vision while (interviewer) Charlamagne tries to coral him into a role as a revolutionary/activist.

Charlamagne channels a stereotyped “Marxist cultural studies scholar” perspective to the point of arguing at a couple of points that West’s fans like his music because of his politics and message. While West has not shied away from an image as political agitator by any stretch, reducing him to his politics seems to miss the point that he is an artist. Bloggers like Jessica Ann Mitchell similarly treat West more as theorist than musician. In her post from December 2, Mitchell summarizes the (specifically) black cultural tradition of Marxist critique re: a totalizing “struggle” paradigm. Mitchell raises some fine points in which she (for example) challenges West’s uncritical use of the confederate flag. She is, unfortunately, a bit too eager to insist that West hasn’t read his Fanon and DuBois closely enough.

Mitchell takes Kanye West to task for desiring success within the racist structure of power as it currently stands… for wanting “a seat at the table.” While the socialist dreamer in me cannot help but agree, something about that critique seems too “easy” after watching (and listening to) Kanye in action. In the Breakfast Club interview, West’s response to similar attacks is partly about following his muse wherever it leads. This approaches a razor thin ethical “rationalization” but it is quite compelling if understood as a frame for interpreting his responses. West is not pursuing an abstract or rational program of political/economic critique. Both his fashion line and his discourse are best read as artistic statements. How else to understand his poetic virtuosity in this interview? Rhythm, rhyme, and flow aren’t just “techniques”: they are his mode of being in the world.

Neither West nor I are ignorant enough to pretend that art is apolitical but, at the same time, West appears to be issuing a challenge to the automatic rejection of the consumer capital machine. That is, West seems to suggest that money and artistic authenticity are not necessarily in opposition in every instance and that they might actually overlap in some places. If nothing else, he is pushing back against the popular wisdom that hip-hop is always a music about political struggle. To reduce his music and his discourse to messages about overcoming oppression strips West of his ability to create art. White scholars have long stripped African sounds of aesthetic sophistication by imagining black musics as “functional” or “socially accountable” in some way. While the concept of “absolute music” is troubled even when applied to Western art music and laughably inappropriate for a work like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” (regardless of its compositional sublimity), it is equally absurd to deny the possibility of appreciating hiphop as an aesthetic object. To do so only re-affirms the history of black music’s alleged degeneracy.

Note here that I am committing the same sin for which Mitchell and Charlamagne condemn Kanye West. Rather than smashing the hierarchy of Western art music’s structural complexity/virtuosity, I am arguing that there is something serious at stake in denying African Americans access to such rarified air. Many scholars reject Western aesthetics altogether, and with good reason. However, I think it might be more interesting in some cases to imagine that an artist like Kanye West is adapting and expanding the traditions of black art, of political resistance, and of western aesthetics. While I genuinely understand and usually support the assertion that one ought to challenge the hierarchy that oppresses you rather than climb it, it also seems to be the case that it isn’t necessarily counter-revolutionary to be well-fed.

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