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“Stop all that coon shit”: race and Kanye West

Racism is still alive, and Kanye West is the only mainstream artist out there who isn’t afraid to confront this head on.

Kanye-Yeezus

Kanye-West

“Shove my fist in her like a civil rights sign”. It’s just one of the many references to race that can be found all throughout Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus. As ugly and harrowing as hearing a line like that is, so is the truth about being black in America that he demands his audience face up to, something that is starkly different from anything you can hear on the radio at the moment.

It’s not the first time he’s brought issues of race to the fore.  As he raps in Never Let Me Down, from his brilliant 2004 College Dropout album, “racism still alive, they just be concealing it”. Flash forward nearly ten years later and the anger has risen to boiling point. Black Skinhead is a prime example of this. It’s about being a successful black man in a white man’s world, the King Kong imagery being a particularly striking. It hits you like a ton of bricks.  Racism is still alive, and he’s the only mainstream artist out there who isn’t afraid to confront this head on.

And it does have to be confronted, our own country not an exception. A news story comes out about a footballer being called an ape and everything comes rushing back up to the surface. Back in 2005, at a concert benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims, Kanye controversially strayed from his presenter’s script and talked about the negative portrayal of black people in the media coverage of the disaster, as well as the slow reaction to provide relief for the mostly black victims being a strong indication of racism.  Infamously, he then declared: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Kanye wasn’t attacking Bush as an individual, but for what he represented: the racist structure of the US. In other words, what he was trying to get people to understand is that racism is so embedded, so ingrained into the history of America that when a Hurricane Katrina happens, it doesn’t surprise him. It’s the same in South Africa, in Australia. When you build a country on oppressive foundations, the remnants of those foundations will always be there and sometimes reappear or manifest themselves in the most hideous ways.

Those foundations and what they’ve led to are inescapable in Yeezus. The repeated references to “blood on the leaves” in New Slaves and the sampling of Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit, originally containing the “blood on the leaves” line, conjure up the history of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and segregation, an evil past that hasn’t been wiped out, but is now seen in a new form.  Poverty is the new slavery, with corporations and prisons the slave owners. Kanye, as someone who’s black as well as privileged, struggles with this apparent contradiction, the fear of being owned by the system and yet a part of that system, built upon the blood spilled on those leaves.

The influence from his family and their struggles, bound up with this racist past, have clearly shaped who he is and what he stands for today. Take this verse from Never Let Me Down:

I get down for my grandfather who took my momma
Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat
At the tender age of 6 she was arrested for the sit in
With that in my blood I was born to be different

His mother’s experience of growing up in a segregated America comes up on New Slaves too:

My momma was raised in the era when
Clean water was only served to the fairer skin

Those two verses say it all. When you’ve grown up with stories like that about the people you love, you can’t hide it away. Their struggle becomes a part of you, and you have to deal with it somehow. Kanye does it with his music: it allows an outlet for all his frustration about the state of the world, about what he’s seen and what he’s experienced as a black man. Yeezus may be difficult to listen to, but you can’t deny its fearlessness, a fearlessness that’s absent from the popular musical landscape today, a fearlessness that speaks to the millions who keep him at the top of the charts. It’s this fearlessness that’ll see him continue to write music that doesn’t shy away from tackling issues that we’d rather not think about.

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