Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Malcolm West

Kanye West, GorgeousMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy:

Verse 1:
Penitentiary chances, the devil dances

And eventually answers to the call of Autumn

All of them fallin’ for the love of ballin’

Got caught with 30 rocks, the cop look like Alec Baldwin

Inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums

Based off the way we was branded

Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon

Verse 2:
Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion

The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing

But this is more than just my road to redemption

Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention

As long as I’m in Polo’s smiling they think they got me

But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me

In light of our discussion about Malcolm X, appropriations, and radical praxis, I want to offer a short reading of some lyrical excerpts from Kanye West’s song, Gorgeous. In the song, West immediately harks to the prison and law enforcement as the site of injustice and white supremacy. He cites the cause of his musical inspiration as stemming from “the way we was branded,” thus linking the production of the “inner city” to the legacy of slavery. This continued structural inequality manifests in the observation that “Jerome” would get more time than “Brandon” due to the racial assumptions that survive in the prison industry.

In his second verse, West elucidates the complex position of hip-hop among young listeners. He juxtaposes it with “soul music of the slaves” and provocatively compares it to a “new religion.” Rather than actually analogize the different types of expression, West is pushing against traditional methods of conceiving ideology and radical resistance to oppression. He argues that his artistic career is “more than just my road to redemption, Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention,” in which he stresses not just the economic mobility fostered by his hip-hop production, but also his place in the legacy of Malcolm X, tied rhetorically to West himself through the moniker, “Malcolm West.”

How can we interpret the appropriation of Malcolm X in this instance? I would like to suggest that this deployment has many levels of semiotic significance, but importantly it bridges the gap between the “Malcolm Renaissance” of the early 1990s with contemporary black cultural production. West is producing after the immense popularity of Public Enemy and the release of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Yet he employs Malcolm’s name to tie his own project to one of larger political aspirations, larger than mere class mobility. Juxtaposing West’s career as more than a mere “road to redemption” with the famous transformations of Malcolm X can push us toward a generative discourse on Malcolm X as ideology, as Amiri Baraka suggests. In analyzing the material conditions that brought about Malcolm X’s shifts in beliefs, his messages can be interpreted and applied thoughtfully. West’s assertion that, “As long as I’m in a Polo smiling they think they’ve got me, but they would try to crack me if they ever see the black me” illustrates the ways in which class status and whiteness are still coded as mutually coextensive and highlights West’s own struggles with his presentation of his racial identity. In this way, West insightfully inhabits the contested legacy of Malcolm X and provokes his listeners to hear the resonances of X’s words today.  


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  2. I like your discussion of racism within the U.S. administration of justice here. I mentioned in class today that Manning Marable claims that Malcolm exaggerated his youthful criminal history in his Autobiography in order to better express the injustices of the U.S. penal system on our society at large (11). This is an issue of institutional racism that is still occurring today and that I believe should garner more awareness from the American people than I think it truly does. For black men in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any day. This disparity was greatly influenced by the Drug War, which has disproportionately targeted African-Americans and has resulted in two-thirds of all people in prison for drug offenses to be black. These are only a few of the statistics we discussed in my Race and Minority Relations sociology class with Professor Wenger, the class where I first learned about our discriminatory prison system, especially the effects of the Drug War on the prison population.

    I have heard the Kanye West song “Gorgeous” but had not read the lyrics in depth before reading this blog post. Kanye’s use of the title “Malcolm West” here expresses the controversial yet powerful influence that both African-American figures have had on black culture through their use of words (Malcolm as public speaker and Kanye as hip-hop singer). I do, however, take some issue with Kanye’s personal comparison here. From what I know about Kanye’s and Malcolm’s backgrounds, and I may be incorrect in saying this, but Kanye did not seem to experience nearly the same level of misfortune that Malcolm had bestowed upon him while growing up. Yes, Kanye became very economically successful because of his musical talent, but he did come from a middle-class upbringing. I think Kanye tends to show off his ego in his lyrics sometimes, and this notion of “Malcolm West” represents one of those instances.

  3. I agree with you that Kanye West had a radically different upbringing than Malcolm X. That being said, I'm unsure why his tendency to "show off his ego" is a pertinent critique of this comparison. Unfortunately, the often iterated criticism of famous black men is that they are egotistical, which rings uncomfortably similar to the accusation that upwardly mobile people of color are "uppity." I think we should take time to consider the wider cultural ramifications of claiming that West is egotistical, considering the immense racial commentary he brings to bear on contemporary US society. Of course he is not completely analogous to Malcolm X (indeed, who would be?) but I think that the image he crafts of "Malcolm West," a dialectical synthesis that places West in a historical trajectory of outspoken black intellectuals can be generative in our discussions.

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  5. When I said that I think Kanye tends to "show off his ego," I meant that I take issue with Kanye West comparing himself at all to Malcolm X in his lyrics for "Gorgeous" because I do not think the two have much in common to warrant this comparison, therefore I think Kanye calling himself "Malcolm West" is just a way for Kanye to "show off his ego." They are both controversial and influential famous African-American men, but is there much else that relates the two? I agree that Kanye's racial commentary on our society is great, but has he experienced the adversities and struggles he talks about in his lyrics? Malcolm X did, but I don't know about Kanye.

    Kanye emphasizes his power in contemporary society not only in "Gorgeous" but in his lyrics and music video for "Power," ("I'm living in the 21st century doin' something mean to it / Do it better then anybody you ever seen do it / Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music...") and I find this egotistic in a way that Malcolm X was not. I just think that generally speaking Kanye has an ego, which is something he has been criticized for in the media, but I don't think that this criticism has to do with his race, as you mention. Personally, I have the same criticism about famous American men such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to only name a few. For some, with power comes egoism.

    Lyrics to "Power" can be found here: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/kanyewest/power.html

    As I have said, I may be incorrect in saying all of this because I, obviously, have not known Malcolm X or Kanye West personally, but this is the sense that I get from what little I know of them. I have noticed in our class discussions that, before this class began, you had more background knowledge than I did about Malcolm X, and about US black freedom movements at large, so I would be interested in discussing this with you further. I have already learned a lot from your participation in class.

  6. Chelsea, I would like to thank for introducing yet another very prominent form of injustice in our Great society, this two-tiered justice system. I think that more often than not, as we discussed very briefly in class, Hip Hop is dismissed as a cultural fad or trend, when it fact it very blatantly, yet articulately revives a painful history that was intended to be killed, buried and forgotten about. I think that even more interestingly Hip Hop confronts the progress of the very community in which it was birthed, and because of this artificial indoctrination of embracing the familiar, the Black community also fails in interpreting what is already plainly stated, but can recite the lyrics verbatim.

  7. As much as I think that Kanye West can be insufferable sometimes, there is no denying that his art often makes a statement and provides some great social commentary. He would have been a teenager during the "Malcolm Renaissance," though there is no way of knowing to which degree that affected him. In the song "Heard 'Em Say," he sings, "But they can't cop cars without seeing cop cars / I guess they want us all behind bars / I know it," which draws directly on the same theme of the justice system in the US. This is also echoed in "Jesus Walks," which includes the lyrics, "Getting choked by detectives yeah yeah now check the method / They be asking us questions, harass and arrest us." So I think Kanye West does a great job of bringing significant social injustices to light, and I think that the utilization of a certain form of music in order to do it lends value to the art form.


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