It is that time of the year again, the season of cold weather, Valentine’s day and the Grammys. As per usual, the media is teeming with coverage about the latter of those three.
The Grammys have failed to miss the critical eye of blackness since their origin. There is a never-ending stream of critiques of the Grammys, ranging from trivial matters (such as being too “staged”), to more critical claims (such as it being a blatantly racist event). Of all the voices that have critiqued the Grammy’s, Kanye West’s has definitely been the most iconic, presumably because of his crass execution.
Twice now, West has interrupted winners at the Grammys. In both cases, he said that the awards should have gone to Beyoncé. This has been portrayed by the media in a way that paints West as crude, vile and unqualified. Social media exploded about the topic and many have decided to attack Wests’s music as a result.
These are only a few of the thousands of tweets slandering not only West himself, but also his work. Just like the Grammys, the standing society puts lower value in hip hop compared to other genres. Although recognized as a culture, hip-hop is still not valued for the art it produces outside of the cool clothes and bangin’ beats. West is indeed an artist, and comparing him to Beck in terms of musical talent and artistry is not appropriate, as both having their own respective values.
For example, Beck is revered for having the ability to play a dozen instruments and writing/producing his last album alone. Yes, this is admirable, but when comparing Beck to a hip hop artist, and discrediting the hip hop artist for having multiple writers and producers, a problem arises because it ignores all of the cultural differences between the two.
Hip hop is known for questioning standing norms and CREATING social commentary, which West has done throughout his career. With that being said, one must acknowledge that creating social commentary requires a social awareness and discourse that allows one to be connected to and representative of the culture. Is discourse and collaboration not the best way to advance a social critique or commentary? If anything, West should be praised for consulting as many of his colleagues as possible in producing such prolific art.
Now that I am done my West defense spiel, I will move to the more celebratory side of black excellence in artistry. I would like to bring attention to one of my favorite West songs, “Black Skinhead (Blkkk SkkkN Head)”. To be brief, I will only lightly discuss a few verses here, but I encourage you all to listen to the whole song on your own.
“For my theme song, my leather black jeans on.”
In the very beginning of the song, West sets the mood by acknowledging that he is clad in black. And donning black, he then says he has his “by any means on.” This line is a Malcolm X reference, which is important because in this song West is making a claim that it is time for Blacks to fight society. After this, he moves to a much more explicit and aggressive spiel commenting on the race and class relations in America.
“Middle America packed in, came to see me in my black skin.”
This line reveals the obvious classism in America, advancing that blacks are valued less for often being in the lower class. And beyond this, that they are treated as spectacles for being so. This could span from the public mockery of “welfare queens” (people who take advantage of government funded financial relief) to the invalidation of many hip hop artists for not coming from as prosperous beginnings as other artists.
“Number one question they asking, **** every question you asking”
This line seems trivial, but in reality it is very valuable. In restructuring the identity of blackness, it is imperative to remember that it is not any black person’s responsibility to educate or act upon others. With that being said, this quote is a portrayal of the ideal that blacks can be entitled to their anger without having to provide a well articulated explanation for it. At bottom, West is advancing that blacks do not have to apologize or explain their reasons for being black.
“If I don’t get ran out by Catholics, here come some conservative Baptists”
This line is important because it identifies two kinds of racism, that from the privileged and from the other oppressed. The Catholic Church has long held a massive about of social capital around the World, and to this day are seen by some as an anti-black group. But more interestingly, West decides to also critique the internalized racism from other black people. By revealing that religion is used as a vector for racial prejudice (especially through the mostly black Baptist Church), he also reveals that internalized racism from other black people is just as much of a problem.
In all, I encourage you all to take a closer look at the same artists you see being degraded for, in my opinion, just being black. Listen to their music with a new set of ears. A set of ears that are willing to hear and appreciate the gospel of blackness.