Kanye West, White Privilege & The American Dream

“It seems we living the American dream

But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem

The prettiest people do the ugliest things

For the road to riches and diamond rings”

For an artist who has openly disavowed the American dream for a “World Dream,” Kanye West seems awfully obsessed with the iconography of Americana. In fact, the central questions of his post-Yeezus career seem to be: what is the American dream? and who has the right to it?

The first video released to accompany 2013’s Yeezus was for the bubble-gummy chipmunk-soul of “Bound 2,” an ode to Kim Kardashian. Wild horses gallop past the rust-colored mesas and violet mountains of the American west. West appears astride a motorcycle in a tattered tie-dye tee, alternating with shots of a curvaceous high-heeled vixen cast in shadow on the very same bike. When the two worlds come together, the black god and our generation’s swarthy but still blonde bombshell rumble coitally into the horizon, presumably towards a mansion in Calabasas. The myth of the homesteader striking west for his 48 acres, from the days of the Oregon Trail to Neil Young’s paeans to the road, had become Kanye West’s 40 acres.

In a 2013 interview with Power 105.1 in Chicago, West roiled at claims that anyone but his then-fiancee was Monroe’s heir: “Kate Upton ain’t Marilyn Monroe! Kim Marilyn Monroe! She was controversial. She controversial.” West projected himself as the new Norman Mailer (another poet-cum-candidate), and Kim his muse. But unlike the white hipsters of Mailer’s generation, who Mailer claimed looked to blacks as his source of hipness, “for [they have] been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries,” with “Bound 2,” West looks to appropriate the artistic license of the white American male and his dream, the only subject to have lived anything close to democracy in between our two shining seas.

Like the Bruce Springsteen and Rosalita, the Joads, and a century’s worth of white American strivers, Kanye was heading west, in our cultural heritage a preserve traditionally only offered to white males. To achieve this black manifest destiny, West has had to worry about things Springsteen and Steinbeck never contemplated. Springsteen objected to misinterpretations of his songs (Reagan’s tone-deaf appropriation of “Born in the USA”) and Steinbeck’s didactic fiction has been coopted by dull high school curricula nationwide, but even when misheard or tuned out, these white working-class heroes are always give voice. Kanye’s dream is simply to be heard. In a 2015 essay in Paper magazine about the American dream, West celebrated that: “[p]eople are starting to recognize and just give me a chance to be looked at, respected and a part of the conversation.”

His shouts, from twitter and cable telethons, are widely circulated, jeered at, and speculated over, but they are all perhaps just an effort to be looked at, to be respected, to be heard. The foremost genius in popular music right now is worried about being heard — something I guarantee Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kid Rock, and Pantera didn’t worry about. As white men, they were more assured of their right to speak and be heard.

The entire iconography of the Yeezus tour was oriented at getting West heard, just musicians like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kid Rock, and Pantera are heard — and thus his branding followed theirs. These shitty white bands don’t always deserve an audience, but use their privilege to proudly perform in front of the confederate flag or emblazon it on their merch, broadcasting “Southern pride” (racism) with their loud, unquivering voices (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/why-are-these-bands-still-selling-confederate-flag-merch-20150709). West saw the rebellion the stars and bars represented for the past generation, and wanted to own the same kind of devil-may-care defiance forbidden to over-policed and strictly regulated black men. Like Lynyrd Skynyrd, he plastered it all over his tour merch, and wore it around himself. When asked about it, he replied:

“You know the confederate flag represented slavery in a way — that’s my abstract take on what I know about it. So I made the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now. Now what are you going to do?”

Kanye West’s creativity is so capacious it can try to recycle a symbol of white suprematism for his own empowerment. If punks used swastikas and southern rockers used confederate flags, the self-proclaimed “Number one rock star on the planet” had to possess the same boldness and the same disregard for others’ sensibilities. Successful or not, the appropriation succeeded in getting West heard. Don’t like it? He don’t need you around, anyhow.

The new video for “Fade,” is an obvious reference to the movie Footloose, that mythologization of the escape from white working-class drudgery through talent and hustle. The choreographer, Jae Blaze, claimed dancer Teyana Taylor “took Flashdance to 2016[,]” which meant substituting Jamaican dancehall gyrations and for breakdancing, and of course, allowing a black body the kind of freedom of movement and artistic liberation achieved by Jennifer Beales’s character in Flashdance. More radically, it shows a beautiful, loving black family expressing their love for one another — add a house and a car, and its the rest of our American dream, just with more beautiful bodies than most could dream of.

In 2013, Kimmy Kimmel filmed a sketch for his late-night talk show with a child reciting some of West’s more grandiose assertions about himself from a recent interview with the BBC . In his defense, Kimmel had done this type of skit before with other musicians’ quotes. West, however, was not amused. He saw Kimmel’s skit as a cruel inversion of what he as trying to do. West thought he was being fearless telling the interviewer that he was a genius and a visionary, that he was demonstrating that he couldn’t care less about the media and their cameras. He released a line of scalding tweets, and the twitter beef got so big that Kimmel invited West on his show to clear it up.

At the beginning of the interview, Kimmel says to West “Somewhere in you, I think you want people to understand where you’re coming from.” West’s terse nod makes sense, because essentially Kimmel is asking him to confirm that he is not a sociopath. West speaks to his life as a celebrity, where: “everything people feel is ok […] to act like what [celebrities are] saying is not serious, that their life is not serious that their dreams are not serious[,]” but he is really speaking to people’s perception as a black celebrity. He compares the was people shoebox him like they shoeboxed Michael Jackson as “urban” to keep him off of MTV. When writers like Mailer asserted themselves, he was a genius. When West asserts himself as a genuis, he’s instead seen as an petulant black child.

West’s dream is something less ambitious than a loving family or a piece of property, and totally tiny in relation to his actual genius. It is for his talent to be heard and respected, and for that respect to afford him the freedom and acclaim it has afforded white American creatives for the past century. This is something denied him every time some asshole at a party calls him “crazy” or Taylor Swift lies about him. Good thing when middle America comes to kill King Kong, he had Kim by his side with her GoPro, to make sure that his side of the story is heard.’

Is this cool, Taylor?