Lately I’ve seen a lot of rhetoric surrounding Kanye West and Jay-z as being fake revolutionaries; calling for revolution in one song while rapping about watches in another. There is a piece in Gawker, in particular. What is ironic to me isn’t the fact that Watch The Throne is politically contradictory. What’s ironic to me is that the supposedly progressive press is so eager to dismiss the two artists writing some of the most pointed political music in the mainstream. The struggle between the broken capitalist system in which an artists prevails and their desire affect social change is not, as sites like Gawker would have you believe, a modern black phenomenon. We have seen the likes of Bruce Springsteen - the undisputed voice of the working american - write songs about killing bankers while openly endorsing Barack Obama’s oppressive (and very bank friendly) regime. We have the Clash producing political music while reaping the rewards of mainstream hits. We have Bono of U2 (perhaps the only white classic rocker who gets called out) routinely made fun of for his own political advocacy work from the same media that ask why political artists don’t get involved?
Make no mistake, these musicians are not revolutionaries in the political sense. Kanye West is not engaging in Maoist adventurism anymore than Bruce Springsteen is starting a non-hierarchal commune on an occupied Asbury Park. Anyone who expected as much was bound to be disappointed when the release of Yeezus didn’t spark a sudden shift to post-capitalist utopia. Mainstream musicians don’t need to be discredited as revolutionaries, because the very concept of mainstream music under capitalism is incompatible with revolution. The music industry is subject to the same economic rules as other art industries under capitalism. Any art created and promoted through such an industry could not threaten its own mode of production. As such, music that is produced and promoted through the industry, regardless of content, is purposed to provoke an emotional response in its listeners rather than an intellectual response. I would argue that Kanye has moved away from this model somewhat with songs like New Slaves being much more Brechtian, but New Slaves is not single material. No Church In The Wild is ferocious, but makes no obvious political statement. Perfect single. Murder To Excellence is political and thoughtful but not intellectually forceful. You can dance to it without engaging with its message. It does not provoke you to understand, it offers a message to those already receptive. Even so, it was not a single.
If I don’t believe the music to be truly revolutionary in form, why does this bother me? For one, expecting music to live up to a complete political program sets it up for failure. Kanye West has never written a guide to overthrowing a capitalist system nor would he necessarily want to. Yet a song that frames itself with the question Is it genocide? and features lines like No shop class/but half the school’s got a tool doesn’t need to have a perfect revolutionary program to provide powerful descriptions of systemic oppression. The fact that these artists cannot, under capitalism, create totally revolutionary art is being laid at the feet of the artists and used to discredit whatever political content may remain. Gawker criticizes these two men as fake revolutionaries, at the same time ignoring the fact that becoming successful under capitalism was never bound to create revolutionaries.
This is the choice facing young people of color in the liberal media. You either remain unsuccessful in the capitalist system in which case you’re unlikely to get a write-up in Slate, Gawker, Jezebel et. al or you become successful enough that your work is immediately discredited. No matter that Gawker does not, obviously, exist in a magical press bubble outside of North American capitalism. No matter that this absolutist view suggests that having achieved success in a racist system means that these artists must support racism. No matter that comparing Kanye West and Jay-Z to the likes of Martin Luther King or Angela Davis sets up a criteria so rigid that literally no recording artist could be taken seriously if that’s what they had to compete with. Needless to say, I’ve never seen someone demand that Peter Gabriel act more like Fred Hampton.
There seems to be a bit of a push in particular to discredit Kanye West. He is both the more flamboyant of the two and the more politically extreme, so perhaps this is inevitable. The amount of reviews that have shamed West for using a sample of Strange Fruit in Blood on the Leaves without even considering the possibility that the juxtaposition of that sample with those lyrics might signal a deeper meaning attests to this. Then there’s the Allmusic review that casually refers to the same track as being about date rape drugs - something that is most certainly not an actual feature of the lyrics. There’s even a multitude of reviews that took the all you blacks want all the same things line from New Slaves out of context as if West was hypocritically trying to shame rappers - even though in the context of the song he is impersonating a racist shop owner. Kanye West is treated like an idiot in the press; a responsible reading of his lyrics reveals a lot of his boasting to be self-conscious and a lot of his political content to be well-reasoned.
Why does this matter? Does the revolution need tracks like Murder to Excellence or New Slaves? Not really - but I enjoy listening to them and having some strong music that compliments my politics. They may inspire listeners who are not as bothered by contradictions to seek out some political material. Music is not a political force in and of itself but it can certainly add to discourse. Still, content wise this obviously isn’t like Das Kapital getting banned.
What matters is that this is an example of the racist and counter-revolutionary bent in our media. After all, Kanye West and Jay-Z are perhaps two of the biggest recording artists in the world right now - if the press chooses to attack them as counter-revolutionaries, then whereare the true revolutionaries in music? Why have I never read the same argument that Gawker presents against West and Jay-Z presented for the likes of Rage Against The Machine or Radiohead or System of a Down - all political artists who found success in the same system? What kind of message does this send to artists who wish to spread a political message in their music other than that if you’re black and successful you won’t be taken seriously?
It is that which is disturbing to me, far more disturbing than a few jokes about rolexes and boasts about cars.