The bass guitar on that chorus
**Chance The Rapper // Chain Smoker**
Not right now… maybe when school wraps up soon and I have more time to spare. This anonymous thing is kinda random though lol who’s asking?
I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family it says they’re looting, if you see a white family it says they’re looking for food. […] The way that America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off; it will be as slow as possible. George Bush doesn’t care about black people.
- Kanye West
September 2nd, 2005 –
LIVE on NBC’s A Concert for Hurricane Relief
April 10, 2012
In the midst of a well-meaning yet almost offensively self-promoting and sterile affair, NBC’s ‘A Concert for Hurricane Relief’ broadcast saw an injection of pure, unscripted, anger-fueled emotion that managed to shake the core of every single one of the 7.4 million viewers watching across the United States of America as well as all over the world (Cheung 2005). At a time when the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina had absolutely ravaged through much of east United States and had cemented itself as one of the most devastating and cataclysmic hurricanes in the history of the nation, musician Kanye West felt compelled to articulate his disgust at the media as well as the lack of leadership in government reaction – pinpointing the delayed response to the flooding of the predominantly African-American region of New Orleans in particular. It highlighted the presence of a resurfacing juxtaposition that has since come to define the 18-time Grammy Award winning musician not only through as an artist, but also as a person. That juxtaposition being, of course, the presence of an undeniable drive and ability to meticulously sample and patiently craft intricate music from scratch contrasted by the impulsive, almost reckless need to passionately express thought and foster the spread of truth – even if it is at the expense of widespread contempt, scrutiny and damage to a reputation built well within the confines of a largely politically-correct world. I vividly recall preparing for my first day of high school that Friday evening on September 2nd, 2005, as I watched one of my favourite artists become the subject of widespread media scrutiny. While the majority of the resulting media backlash covering the outspoken artist’s incident saw it as an outburst of recklessness, one could not discount the undeniable presence of truth in Kanye’s frustration-fueled statement. This moment, however, was an especially critical one for me because it was here exactly that I came to the concrete realization that Kanye West didn’t just tackle with the realities of white privilege and identity through his music; in fact, he truly struggled with these concepts with his entire being on a daily basis.
Over the course of this paper, I argue that Kanye West’s commanding and powerful use of language across the vast spectrum of media throughout his accomplished career has brought the racially-charged realities of white privilege and the negative effects of the mythical norm on an individual’s psyche to the forefront of the world’s conscience – producing shared meaning and disrupting the status-quo in the process. I will examine the manifestations of these ideas in language from all across Kanye West’s critically-acclaimed album catalogue, as well as in his highly publicized and controversial forays with the media. The first section of this paper will focus on establishing how Kanye West has addressed the shackles of white privilege and the mythical norm through his music, looking at relevant songs from his now classic debut album The College Dropout as well as his equally lauded sophomore effort Late Registration. Through examining this body of work, not only will I establish the different ways in which the producer slash emcee has managed to disrupt longstanding genre conventions, but I will also analyze moments of self-reflection that express how being outside of the ‘mythical norm’ causes one to have no choice but to develop an almost contradictory, confidence-damaging “double consciousness.” Audre Lorde’s framework for the ‘mythical norm’ will serve as the foundation in understanding how Kanye West’s eventual financial success left him squarely outside of its jurisdiction in one definitive way – race. At this point, I will switch gears by transitioning into the second section of the essay, focusing on the cultural impact of Kanye West’s use of language through his now infamous run-ins with the media and examining how these incidents have brought the sometimes veiled concepts of white privilege and the mythical norm to the surface of the public’s conscience. An analysis of his controversial statements during the live, nationally-televised Hurricane Katrina relief efforts ultimately serves to aid our understanding of Kanye West as an individual who brings the presence of racial tensions existing in the United States of America today to the front page, fearlessly acting out in direct response to white privilege and the psychological impact entailed by the long-term institutionalization of a ‘mythical norm’. Finally, I will conclude the essay with an analysis of Kanye West’s impact on culture by analyzing the circulation of these ideas, emotions, themes and feelings over the course of his illustrious career through the use of language, and examining the overall meaning that has been represented.
In Age, Race, Class and Sex, renowned Caribbean-American poet and writer Audre Lorde introduces the concept of an existing ‘mythical norm’ – a normative societal standard residing on the edge of the public’s collective consciousness, as individuals proceed through life knowing that, like many others in America, they do not meet it. Lorde defines this mythical norm as “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure,” arguing that within American society, the trappings of power reside within these boundaries (Lorde 1997, 375). As Kanye West began to write the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed debut album The College Dropout in 2004, he was finally able to find the financial security he had strived to attain since his start in the industry as merely an unheralded producer. This success was attributed in large part due to the massive commercial success experienced by his first album, selling 441,000 copies in only its first week and going double platinum in the span of just three months (Nelson 2004) (RIAA n.d.). The production of 2005’s Late Registration, thus, came at a time when the artist had finally overcome a once financially-stifling stigma of being a producer first and a hip-hop emcee second. Ultimately, this left him outside of societal boundaries of the mythical norm in the United States of America through only one distinct factor – race.
As Lorde theorizes to be the case in her writings, at this point the African-American artist began to single out race specifically as the primary cause of all oppression in the United States and addressed these frustrations prominently in his lyrics, arguably putting other potential distortions around difference on a proverbial backburner (Lorde 1997, 375). West begins the follow-up album with the melancholic and contemplative Heard ‘Em Say, a song that sees him express the frustrations of the black community in the United States of America to the best of his ability while trying his best to remain optimistic in the process. The lyrics ultimately serve as a testament to Kanye’s belief that being black in America makes it very difficult to break-through and find success. An example of his conviction is evident when the rapper recounts how many of his friends, “can’t cop [buy] cars without seeing cop cars, I guess they want us all behind bars…I know it,” – alluding to the existence of institutionalized racism and succinctly blaming the high rates of criminal activity in his community on the harsh realities and struggles experienced in the everyday lives of many of his fellow young African-Americans due to the colour of their skin alone. During the same song, Kanye West echoes the cyclical nature of these problems by noticing the emergence of the same plight when discussing the relationship between his younger cousin and his employers. “His job’s trying to claim that he’s too niggerish now,” he recites before wondering, “Is it because his skin’s blacker than lickerish, now? I can’t figure it out – and I’m sick of it now.” The assertion that Kanye’s younger cousin’s skin colour is too dark also tackles the white privilege of universalizing white characteristics as the “proper ways to be” – a notion which continuously undermines the efforts of non-Whites while breeding universal norms that produce self-loathing among individual members of minority groups (Kincheloe and Steinberg 2000, 179). The rapper takes a far more aggressive approach on the song Crack Music, venting his frustrations on what he perceives to be a sabotage of the African-American community as a whole, committed by the United States government under former President Ronald Reagan decades prior. The controversial artist once again cites race as the central factor behind the long-standing oppression of the African American community and the downfall of its most empowering figures by rapping, “How did we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan ’cooked’ up an answer… You hear that? This is what Gil Scott was Heron, when our heroes or heroines got hooked on heroin.” In this excerpt, Kanye West maintains that the distribution of heroin and crack cocaine to predominantly African-American communities was a calculated move – done with the intent to weaken Black empowerment organizations, its leaders, and ultimately its community. These accusations play into the writings of Audre Lorde, who argues that the institutionalized rejection of difference, “is an absolute necessity in the profit economy that needs outsiders as surplus people” (Lorde 1997, 375). These lyrics postulate the reasoning behind the elimination of, in this case, the “others”, serving as a tactic in order to acquire true self-determination for white America (Da Silva 2007). Ultimately, they highlight how the manifestation of white privilege and the mythical norm can impact the psyche of an individual, and this is undoubtedly a fact present in the language used within Kanye West’s esteemed body of work.
The analysis of song-writing is generally a tremendous avenue for one to explore, as in many ways it allows one to study the mindset of the author and perhaps get to know them better than they might even know themselves. Upon further examination, one finds that the residue of the ‘mythical norm’ on Kanye West’s psyche is also present in the form of a deeply-engrained case of “double consciousness”. Influential American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois initially defined double consciousness as a trait possessed by black Americans which forced them to be, “caught between a self-conception as an American and as a person of African descent,” while acknowledging the presence of, “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (McWhorter 2003). One can argue however, that black America today is permeated with an evolved sense of double consciousness, one which forces itself as a way of life for those outside of the mythical norm. This developed sense of double consciousness today highlights competing cultures often trapped in a bicultural bind that has African Americans dividing their public and private personas and constantly switching between being, “dependent and strong, self-reliant and powerless, strongly motivated and hopelessly insecure” (Ratcliffe 2005, 136). In Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender and Whiteness, Krista Ratcliffe points out that while those fully represented by the mythical norm enjoy the white privilege of choosing whether to participate in culture or develop a double consciousness, those that aren’t represented do not even possess that choice (Ratcliffe 2005, 136). The presence of this paradoxical nature of double consciousness is crystal clear in Kanye West’s music, as the hip-hop emcee proved to be one of the first individuals to break genre conventions and acknowledge the internal struggles of showing off when feeling inherently self-conscious. These themes of materialism and self-esteem issues are tackled head-on in the classic song All Falls Down from Kanye West’s first album, as the rapper reveals that he’s, “so self-conscious, that’s why you see me with at least one of my watches.” During this song, West also acknowledges the presence of a mythical norm in the United States of America as well as a double consciousness engrained deep within his core by first admitting, “We shine because they hate us and floss [show-off] because they degrade us,” then concluding that regardless of what illegal acts his community may be forced engage in, in the end, “a white man will get paid off of all of that.” Therefore, by examining Kanye West’s use of language in his music, we find that the artist tackles the societal and psychological impact of the prevailing mythical norm as well as the realities of white privilege in the United States of America – ultimately creating awareness, circulating culture through representation and sharing meaning with the vast amount of individuals that listen to his music. As Stuart Hall posits, it is through culture and language that the production and circulation of meaning takes place, and the songwriting of Kanye West exhibits this very fact (Hall 1997, 5).
During the introduction of this essay, I cited Kanye West’s nationally-televised appearance on NBC’s ‘A Concert for Hurricane Relief’ as a turning-point in my perception of the award-winning hip-hop artist and the extent of his struggles with the grasp of white privilege and the mythical norm in the United States of America. Although I was not necessarily aware of the existence of such terminology at the time, I did feel that the outspoken artist brought up exceptionally relevant points and bravely articulated them on live television for millions of viewers to acknowledge and think about. Aside from the strong use of language in his music, Kanye West has brought the existence of white privilege in the United States of America to the forefront of public’s conscience by way of media – having done so through a fearless use of language in order to represent meaning and, in-turn, circulate culture in the process (Hall 1997, 1). During the telecast, West decided to veer off script and tackle the realities of white privilege by expressing his disgust with the way media portrayed people differently on account of their race. “I hate the way they portray us in the media,” he said, adding that, “if you see a black family it says they are looting, but if you see a white family it says they are looking for food.”The validity of this statement is discussed in White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, asprominent American writer and anti-racism activist Tim Wise argues that, in the United States of America, there is undoubtedly a white privilege of, “never having to worry that you (that we) will be viewed through the prism of a negative stereotype, just because some of our number do bad things from time to time” (Wise 2007, 181). In the midst of this open letter to ‘White America’, Wise also reminds them that during the flooding of New Orleans, the media replayed the same clips of the same dozen or so looters over and over again – arguing that in this country one can say anything about black people and, no matter how absurd the claim, it will most certainly be believed (Wise 2007, 181). In my opinion, Kanye West’s unscripted statement on NBC ultimately put the spotlight on this inherently white privilege, and at the same time displayed the sociological and psychological consequences of its absence for others. By disrupting the status-quo through a discursive approach to the use of language, Kanye West’s use of media outside of his art serves as a representation of pre-existing ideas usually absent from the circulation of mass-culture (Hall 1997, 7).
In conclusion, Kanye West’s commanding and powerful use of language within music as well through the scope of other forms of media has in turn circulated meaning and brought the racially-charged realities of white privilege and the negative effects of the mythical norm on an individual’s psyche to the forefront of the world’s conscience. If culture truly is, “the production and exchange of meanings between the members of society,” then one must acknowledge Kanye West’s contribution to it as exceptionally substantial. By becoming the voice of a community’s inherent struggle on classic albums such as The College Dropout and Late Registration, Kanye West unquestionably breeds a culture which is forced to deal with previously the veiled concepts of white privilege and the existence of a mythical norm in the United States of America. The award-winning musician also strives to continuously acknowledge these ideas outside of his art, circulating the relevance of white privilege and the mythical norm in America through culture and language in various forms of media. Regardless of whether one stands to be a fan of Kanye West and his grandiose, heavily-orchestrated brand of thought-provoking hip-hop or not, we must at the very least acknowledge the sheer consistency of his efforts to bring the everyday realities and consequences of white privilege and the mythical norm to the forefront of a culture’s conscience.
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Hall, Stuart. “Introduction to Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.” In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, by Stuart Hall, 1-11. Sage, 1997.
Kincheloe, Joe L, and Shirley R Steinberg. “Constructing a Pedagogy of Whiteness for Angry White Students .” In Dismantling White Privilege: Pedagogy, Politics, and Whiteness, by Nelson M Rodriguez and Leila E Villaverde. New York: Peter Lang Inc., 2000.
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