There are countless ways to talk about Kanye West in 2013. There’s egoism, the bravado, the fashion. You can talk about the music, the “rants” or Kim Kardashian. Kanye isn’t a sentence, he’s a conversation. But no matter how the conversation starts, whether it be Kim, Taylor or Jimmy, it will ultimately turn to race. And that’s by design. This is about race. This is about classism. It always has been.
This past weekend the Yeezus tour kicked off in Seattle, and with it came some new merchandise featuring, among other images, a number of confederate flags.
When it comes to race, Kanye doesn’t beat around the bush. In this country there is no symbol (short of a Romney/Ryan sticker) more tied to prejudice than the old Stars and Bars. It’s a symbol of slavery, oppression and inequality. And yet, it’s a flag that is still flown in select areas of the country and in even more frat houses and after-hours bars.
While Kanye’s racial commentary may have once been buried deep beneath the lyricism and sped-up soul samples, if you’ve been following the artist in any context over the past year, you’ll know that there are no more veils shading the message.
Of Kanye’s three interviews this year he’s made it a point to talk about race and the glass ceiling that he just cannot crack. The message gets jumbled with tangential arguments about celebrity, egoism, self-satisfaction and social responsibility, which though equally important, derail some of his better arguments. His ever-present need to set the record straight is only a problem because there are so many moving parts that the record will be totally unplayable to the casual observer.
The casual observer doesn’t understand why Kanye would be offended by Jimmy Kimmel having, literally, a boy impersonate him, and wish he would act like a normal celebrity. That’s the difference between people who have been paying attention and people who still make “I’mma let you finish” jokes. Kanye has no interest in conforming to anyone else’s rules. So while you can pick and choose ridiculous quotes to offer up as evidence of insanity, anyone following along is putting the pieces together.
The confederate flag violently strewn on tour merchandise is part of that narrative. For those not paying attention, it’s going to be even harder to escape the fact that the conversation surrounding not just Kanye, but our entire American experience was born of a prejudice. Sure, it’s heavy handed and will lead to some middle school suspensions, but the key takeaway is that Kanye is not going to allow the race conversation to be glossed over. He’s not going to let you forget that his last name is a slave name and that just 150 years ago we had a war over whether it was okay to own another human being.