If you are waiting for Jesus’s second coming, today is the day, in the sonic form of Yeezus – Kanye West’s 6th solo album that has everyone talking, criticizing, buzzing, praising, and worshipping. Like the figure Jesus – and many scholars, I might add – Kanye is a master rhetorician (so don’t worry about his lyrics becoming flesh). He takes words, and twists and bends them into pliable strategies that more often than not work well for his market. He commands power and authority – not by virtue of what he claims, confesses, and professes – but rather, by using the pre-packaged power and authority that society has granted to particular words (and ideas) – like slave and god. Social theorist Bruce Lincoln reminds us that things such as authority are not entities unto themselves. Rather, they are effects that have to be authorized in particular ways across time and space. So what’s all the hype about?
At the recent listening party held in NYC, West tackled the issue head on, saying, “I wanna explain something about the title Yeezus, simply put, West was my slave name and Yeezus is my god name,” – and there you have it, new name, new identity, same old problems. I am intrigued by what type of social work this accomplishes for West, and how the thinking and listening public – myself included – spin such claims to identity?
The public conversation regarding two songs off the album, in particular “New Slaves” and “I am a God,” suggest something about the push pull between two signifiers – slave and god. I have to admit – I like both songs, and even more, appreciate the crafty, witty, and different way in which West debuted “New Slaves.” More than a rhetorician, he’s a good illusionist, too – creating social magic by projecting his image on sixty-six buildings around the world to debut this much talked about song. Quite fitting for a god I’d say – appearing in different places, around the world, around the same time – pretty close to burning bushes and walking on water.
Online articles, tweets, and Facebook posts laud “New Slaves” for being socially conscious and calling out the racism and capitalism of American society – of the prison industrial complex, in particular. Above all – this song places race on a pedestal – with Kanye reminding the public that despite his social status, he still experiences “broke nigga racism” and “rich nigga racism.” The question, for me, is not whether or not West makes an accurate assessment and portrayal of this new racism for 21st century color line problems, but rather, how might we think about identity, change, and difference, over time without getting caught up in essentializing or romanticizing a static notion of origins. Regarding the prison industrial complex in particular, West writes:
I know that we the new slaves…/Meanwhile the DEA, teamed up with the CCA/They tryina lock niggas up, they tryna make new slaves/See that’s the privately owned prison, get your piece today/They prolly all in the Hamptons, braggin ’bout what they made
What’s more – West lyrically time travels by inserting lines from the widely-cited historical protest song “Strange Fruit,” which mourns lynching in the segregated South – also a song that would become a historical cornerstone for the civil rights movement:
I see the blood on the leaves/I see the blood on the leaves/
I see the blood on the leaves/I know that we the new slaves
In and through this maneuver, the appearance of no change over time – West executes a powerful illusion of historical stasis and continuity of social ills, an ‘effect’ as Lincoln might suggest, racialized in nature. Above all, the public response was affirming and positive (myself included), many agreeing with West on the points made about the unchanging status of the [black] slave in American society – himself included, reinforcing one effect with another. This type of historical illusion, pulling from the [unchanging] past, to make claims about an un/changing present, largely goes unquestioned and serves to create a powerful effect in the public imagination.
On race, blackness in particular, Kanye is applauded for wielding his national platform in the service of calling out, and speaking too, racialized oppression, producing his authority through a synchronic appeal to history. After all, this is one of the ways in which an artist can earn a gold sticker for “consciousness” and maintain positive and pro-social attention – not a bad market to have on your side. In fact, some of the sexist and misogynistic aspects of “New Slaves” [which would usually be called out fast and hard] largely go unnoticed in the face of racial certainty and awareness.
West might have scored some big points on race, but in terms of the other slippery signifiers he wittingly plays with – like the title Yeezus and his song “I am a God” – For some, he seems to have gone too far. “Do what you will with race, but don’t you play with god and Jesus,” seems to be the sentiment of many. A quick Google search on this issue yields a plethora of such positions. One Tumblr site stated:
Ever since his mom passed & he broke up with his finance before he dropped his 4th album, Kanye West has had an increasingly WARPED relationship with GOD. We’ve been saying that West comes off as a notorious egomaniac at times, but I think it’s way beyond that. From his verse proclaiming that he’s ‘formed a new religion’ & that ‘love is cursed by monogamy’ on “No Church In The Wild” to “I Am A God” on “Yeezus”, Kanye for some reason writes from an idea that he’s on equal footing with GOD or maybe he’s examining how fame can fool people into thinking that they’re ‘gods’ to the point of absurdity.
This type of moral policing is certainly not a new occurrence for, nor unique to, rap music. Other artists, such as Meek Mill, the Game, and Rick Ross, to name a few, have experienced similar public critiques in recent times.
Might many of the same people who embraced West’s claims to 21st century new slave status now be turning their back on him in the face of a claim [Yeezus = god] that stretches too far their own personal religious commitments and beliefs? Maybe so – and it’s also a slick move, er effect, that we scholars seem to do quite well, too. In fact, the very protection we afford certain categories – and not others – is curious in and of itself and serves as a way to make private and personal what is, in fact, a social product up for debate and contestation. Do not the same rhetorical effects that allow West to be a “new slave” also work to situate him as “a god?” In other words, is the category god utterly that unique, different, and distinct from the term slave? Sure, if we make it so. Seems to me, on this album, West gets to be a modern day apostle Paul, all things to all people – he can play the slave role and remain “on the ground” and “with the people” showing off his knowledge of history on the underside – and also – still retain his hubris and omnipotence by claiming god status at the same time. [And perhaps, my own use of this metaphor is a consequence of my own inherited rhetorical strategies].
The use of both slave and god – allows West to occupy multiple sites of social significance – one site appearing to be weightier than the other. Those still outraged at Kanye’s new god-status can loosen up their buttons just a bit – Kanye doesn’t seem to have grand theological plans to take over the world anytime soon. West recently stated, He recently stated, “I have a new strategy, it’s called ‘no strategy.’ I have a plan to sell more music it’s called ‘make better music.”
In the end, the public conversation leaves a tension unresolved between “slave” and “god” – two terms, or claims to identity that do a certain kind of work and heavy-lifting for West. On one hand, producing enough authority to cultivate more positive effects for oneself – and on the other – producing so much authority that it turns on the producer and they end up crucified by their own effects. God of the new slaves, or slave to the idea of god?