Over the past fortnight I’ve watched as a familiar narrative re-emerged around rapper Kanye West. Basically, Kanye’s an arrogant ranting asshole who needs to shut up, and stick to music. The end.
Admittedly, Kanye doesn’t help his cause. At times his behavior lends credence to what I think is a shallow theory.
Yes, Kanye West regularly makes outrageous statements about his overstated abilities and does silly things. But based solely on the Zane Lowe and Jimmy Kimmel interviews, Kanye’s fury can be distilled down to a single factor -- he’s frustrated that despite his wealth, passion and accomplishments, he's unable to start a joint venture with any of the major fashion companies. This frustration is deepened by the fact that he’s demonstrated he has influence over consumer buying habits and trends.
In a time of government shutdown and people doing all they can just to get by, Kanye's brand of rich people problems don't connect with your average person. Most people don't face them and never will. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
It’s important to grasp that Kanye’s publicly having a conversation wealthy people of color usually have in private. What’s at the core of this conversation? The fact that no matter how much they accomplish, the systemic power of racism means they inevitably hit a wall. Sometimes they bulldoze through the wall but more frequently than not, that wall represents a frontier they’ll never transcend.
This conversation rarely takes place in the public sphere due to several factors. There’s a genuine fear. This fear is rooted in the belief that speaking up about racism makes you more of a target. There’s also the fear they’ll be dismissed and told it’s all in their head. After all, their success is proof there’s no glass ceiling and we’re post-racial.
Finally, no one likes people who complain, especially successful people.
Kanye is facing what occurs when classism and racism intersect. What’s been dismissed by the media as “ranting” contains insight into what it's like to be wealthy and black, and how in the Western World the latter construct will always outweigh the former.
Kanye seeks approval from the European fashion world, people whose power and influence is based on not letting people in. They don't want Kanye to sit with them. It's not due to his eccentricity, idiosyncrasies or seemingly volatile character. This is a world where allowances are made for men on account of their genius. Whether it’s Karl Lagerfeld, Terry Richardson or John Galliano, their gift means they’re allowed to get away with outlandish behaviour.
However, Kanye isn't a white man.
Famous black men who regularly engage in public displays of confidence irk simply because they’re not an acceptable face of blackness. We like our famous black men to behave like Denzel Washington. Quietly intelligent, humble, smiling and non-threatening. President Obama is equally palatable.
Kanye doesn't fit the acceptable archetype. He speaks rapidly and gets progressively louder to emphasise his point. And then he closes his argument by staring menacingly, in what seems to be an act of defiance. You never quite know what Kanye’s going to say next. Simply put, people find this scary.
In a world where people want men like Kanye to just be happy to be where there are, his response is, Why should I be happy to be here? I worked to be here. I was born to be here. I demand to be here on my own terms.
It’s not arrogance, Kanye just knows he’s capable. Kanye reminds me of most of the men I meet who work in finance. They name drop shamelessly, are brashly confident, list their accomplishments and unapologetically state how great they are at what they do. The sole difference is Kanye has some sense of social consciousness and his drive for success doesn't seem as nihilistic as those bankers.
In Kanye’s mind, what he does pushes the culture forward. He wants people who can't afford Versace to feel fly wearing his garments and wear them as a statement against the machine. He doesn't seem to grasp that you can’t subvert Capitalism and its effects with more Capitalism.
Over the summer I had a conversation with a friend about Jay Z’s involvement in the Brooklyn Nets. My friend described Jay Z as a "glorified season ticket holder."
"I mean the guy has no real power. He’s just a nice prop for the men with real money.” For some reason his words stung. Then I realised my friend wasn’t being deliberately dismissive or insulting. He was being honest. In the world he’s from, men like Jay Z aren’t powerful, they’re the new kids trying to get in.
It's critical to understand that men like Kanye West and Jay Z don't have real power. Influence? Yes. Power? Absolutely not. And Kanye’s complaint is about his lack of power and how the prejudice of those in power means they’re blocking him from moving forward. Dismissing Kanye as an arrogant asshole who rants is simplistic. The truth is Kanye’s the complex face of black wealth, and from what I can tell, it’s not much fun.