One of the best pop culture commentaries I’ve ever read
Because the sound quality is so poor (I joined via cellphone) below is a transcript of my interview with Molly and John Knefel on Radio Dispatch
John: Now the Jimmy Kimmel/Kanye West sort of, controversy, thats happened, lets start with your tweet where you said “I just saw the segment”—and I don’t remember what word you used but you said something like “I’m furious”. Can you give us your first impressions on seeing the clip and why you reacted so strongly?
Me: Sure, I mean, what really stood out to me is how Kanye has always anticipated his critics in his songs and interviews. He says what they’re going to say and they inevitably do, proving how deaf his critics are. And thats the deafness that I’m personally really frustrated with. They don’t engage him the way he merits yet they feel qualified to evaluate him. Coming on the heels of a really wonderful interview he gave to Zane Lowe-for that to be treated on television—you know they didnt alter any of his words they purely took the very transcript of that interview and replaced it with a small black child saying those words instead. Which is so revealing of how he’s viewed. And how immediately he’s dismissed without a real recognition, or even the patience to sit down with his words and pay attention and hear what he’s been saying. I thought it was more than disrespectful but very emblematic of the way, as I’ve said, that White America sees Kanye. They really want him to fit into this box of comic relief, of an artist who can be undermined by being categorized as a douchebag/asshole/egomaniac-someone who doesnt know what he’s talking about. That attempt to delegitimize—I think is hilarious because the things he talks about have always been consistent themes of his work. He’s always been what we commonly refer to as a ‘conscious rapper’. The prison industrial complex, the civil rights movement, aspiring to wealth from the lower class—from All Falls Down, Murder To Excellent, New Slaves, all of these songs throughout his career have used those themes. Crack Music, Blood On The Leaves—the same imagery of lynchings. And you know, white people were fine dancing to it until his interviews reveal that he meant it. And he’s brilliant, he’s totally self aware, and he’s frustrated because of this reaction. Which has been so consistent. I think Jimmy Kimmel is just a small example of a greater trend in the way he’s been received in the mainstream media.
Molly: And so can you elaborate on why you think that is? And is it different for Kanye than it is for other you know, famous, black artists, hip hop artists? The tweets that you were putting out in reaction—so there was initially this Kimmel sketch, and then Kanye reacted and then twitter reacted to Kanye—and you pointed out all the similar ways, proving your point, the way people were being dismissive to Kanye. So can you elaborate a little bit more on that, and why you think people-especially White America—has the reaction to Kanye that it does?
Me: Sure when I talk about how powerful to me as a fan, and I think to a lot of fans of Kanye, his resistance to the message of staying in your place is, thats where these reactions are coming from. The people who dismiss Kanye as an egomaniac—which first of all thats a prerequisite to his field. You have to have some level of ego to indulge yourself the way a artistic careers require. But the rage that Kanye inspires, and I don’t mean people who simply aren’t fans of Kanye I don’t mean people who are indifferent to Kanye. I mean the specific hate and resentment from people who don’t think he deserves the success and attention that he receives. I think it can be better understood by using the myth that women talk too much. Now there have been lots of studies gauging the gender distribution of talk in classrooms, public spaces, conferences. And theres a feminist, Dale Spender in Australia, who noted that in attempts to restore balance in the amount of time women get to speak in a space, in this case in a classroom, the boys still dominated the conversation despite attempts to allot equal time for both genders. Another study came out where a male teacher managed to create an atmosphere in which the boys and girls contributed equally to the discussion. When that happened, both the teacher and the boys felt that 90% of the attention was going to the girls. And they complained about it so much. And how Spender explained this was, if I may quote him, “the talkativeness of women is gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men but whether they talk more than silent women.” And I think this can really explain how Kanye specifically strikes a chord with what I use White America as a shorthand for. People who very strongly react to-that he “acts out/talks too much” that he should be “grateful” for his success that he should not have such an ego about it or whatever. I think the reason he inspires that reaction is that in our very sort of monochromatic media we’re used to white artists, white actors, white faces, on our tv and news—and to see a black man speak on such charged issues, saying things like the CCA teamed up with the DEA, that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, talking about family members who were arrested for sit ins. For him to say all of these things, for him to have reached the success and position that he has. You know he’s new money, he’s joined the 1%. And I think he’s very aware that the 1% thinks he should be grateful and shut his big mouth about all of these vast social inequities and the ongoing racial discrimination in these spaces. And honestly, people aren’t used to people of color speaking out in this way especially creative people of color. One of my tweets was that there’s this idea: creative, confident, and person of color, pick two. That because so many of these artistic spaces are still mostly white, are still largely inaccessible to many artists of color; that when we do reach these spaces—and even as he said in his interview when he gets there and he sees how few people who look like him there are and the ones that are there are all so quiet. I mean that really strikes a chord with even me as a South Asian woman in America, as a Muslim, and the expectations of how you’re supposed to modify your behavior to demonstrate being grateful to be allowed in spaces you’re taught are not meant for you. And the fact that he speaks out about these trends and wants to change them. People think Kanye is selfish but everything that he says and speaks to on issues of race, it’s for other people. Even in his New York Times interview he talked about how social justice can be allowing people to dream bigger and be able to see themselves in these spaces. He really challenges, all people, not just White Americans on who we think is allowed to be a certain way. And I think for him to be a black creative, he doesnt want to be just a rapper. America can tolerate a black rapper, they’re very comfortable with that image. But a black rapper that wants to produce capital A art instead of lowercase a? Who wants to create runway shows and participate in this high brow culture—one of the few valid critiques of Kanye I’ve heard is that he places too much importance on White validation. Both his lyrics and lifestyle demonstrate a desire to join the very class of high brow white elites that have never opened their doors to people who don’t look like them. But I’m not sure that Kanye isn’t aware of this. I think much of the internal conflict he’s always laid open on his tracks is how his desire to live the “good life” will always be complicated by the knowledge that that life is largely inaccessible to a lot of other black Americans specifically from his hometown of Chicago.
John: We had Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah on the show several months ago and she talked about—in terms of black rappers, and the way a kind of respectability politics plays out. Where on the one hand you have Lil Wayne and sort of on the other side you have Jay Z. How do you feel Kanye exists—not to say that theres some sort of simple spectrum. But how do you feel he exists between a kind of black rapper that has—when it comes to Lil Wayne, just an appearance that freaks White America out—and on the other hand you have Jay Z who is welcome at Presidential galas. How does Kanye fit into that dynamic?
Me: Well, I think the way he fits into that particular dynamic is that he’s hyper aware of it. He completely understands how in joining the upper class and trying to get into these spaces of White elite, he may, by joining those spaces become complicit in the very oppression that he tries to highlight in his songs and interviews. It’s interesting that in a lot of the reactions I’ve received since tweeting about the Kimmel sketch is “well why can’t he be like Jay Z and Beyonce” again invoking respectability politics—invoking the idea that he’s somehow wrong to speak out in these spaces. You know, what you’ve said reminds me of the way he used Chief Keef on the remix to I Don’t Like. And how Chief Keef in many ways represents what we see as the mainstream White American fear of the black, violent, ‘directionless’ youth from Chicago. And even in his response to Kimmel, in using a Spongebob cartoon—Kanye is aware of the way he’s seen. He’s very deliberate in the way he uses White anxieties. He understands that as a middle class black American, and the way that compares with other narratives of black rappers—essentially I think his main goal is to confront America with all of that. With that entire spectrum. With the fact that you can be buttoned up and sitting front row at a runway show or at an art gallery and you’re still black. So he uses all of these expectations and anxieties to launch a conversation that we never get to have because people don’t listen. Thats the disparity I personally really want people to recognize and where my own frustration with the absolute hate Kanye receives comes from. He’s very much aware of his own materialism and he questions the way class signifiers like luxury brands and cars are used as trophies of upward mobility. He knows that his preference for jewelry and furs reflects on him—he sings “what you want a Bentley, fur coat, and diamond chain? All you blacks want all the things.” Again, he is completely aware of the spectrum of black representation in America and how he can both challenge those assumptions and play into them. People think oh he’s just another rich rapper who raps about ‘bling’ and thats absolutely not it, he raps about ‘bling’ as a way to illustrate how those things are used as class signifiers. He has a great deal of internal conflict about playing into certain stereotypes while trying to buck others. Again his whole frustration with trying to be taken seriously—that despite all his success all his critical acclaim for his music that we still aren’t listening to his message to the things he’s said over and over again consistently in his albums and his interviews—saying that he’s reached a ceiling in terms of what he can do creatively—I think thats whats interesting about Kanye and compelling, and thats what I think we should finally be paying attention to.
Molly: And as a final question; I was trying to follow the conversation that was going on about this last friday, and one of the points that I saw on twitter as kind of a counter argument to some of what you were saying in your tweets. That although Kanye is critical of white supremacy as it manifests and capitalism as it manifests in America, he uses women to boost himself up. Like the line “fuck you and your Hampton house I fuck your Hampton spouse”, by way of saying fuck you to the corporate executives he subjugates women. I don’t know a ton of Kanye’s music, I happen to really love Yeezuz. I do think theres a lot of misogynist lyrics in it too. So since we have you on the phone I want to hear your take on the way he talks about women. And on the one hand not every artist can be all things to all people, how important is the way way he speaks about women?
Me: Well thats the ongoing cognitive dissonance required of any feminist who enjoys rap music—to reconcile that with way women are used very graphically as props and trophy of masculinity in rap. Like most feminists I don’t think I have a satisfying answer to that. Even feminists want good music to listen to. But the way I see it is he’s using the tools available to him. I don’t think you can say it’s ok, and it’s rampant in all music. I wish we paid as much scrutiny to the misogyny in rock music that we do to rap. Again it’s part of the extra scrutiny black artists will always receive—the fact they have to check a lot more boxes in order to be fully acclaimed and appreciated. As far as the way women are used in rap music, I think the way that black masculinity has been stunted in America historically, women then offer something on which to exercise it. I don’t think we can excuse that use and I hope one day we get a better way to deal with it. For now I just take it as part of the music I enjoy. An unfortunate aspect, it’s there. And I think like a lot of women who listen to rap music, in listening to it we always identify with the male protagonists. We don’t identify with the ‘bitches’ that are passed around. We end up turning around saying ‘yea Ive got bitches too’ we just put ourselves in the position of that rapper and in that voice to deflect the way our oppression is used in this genre.
Molly: Right it’s not like feminists have to stop reading all novels and listening to all music.
Me: Right I mean we dream of a better world but we don’t have it quite yet. Of course rap music gets the most attention for it but it’s absolutely not unique in it’s misogyny or in using women as props in order to define masculinity. Violence against women has always existed in rock songss but gets glamorized as more poetic. Which again is part of the racial coding or rappers and rap music and the way we pathologize behaviors that come from people with more melanin, basically.