“Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it.”
—James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
Kanye West is the man America wants to lynch. Perhaps he has always been so; perhaps he invited it, when one of his first music videos, 2004’s “Jesus Walks,” depicted a fat white man apparently atoning in a rainstorm after planning to build a burning cross. You could accuse West of courting public distaste, as he appropriated the fashion of a preppy, Hamptons set and indulged a habit of interrupting awards-show winners and, at one high point, swerved off-script in order to insult the sitting President of the United States. By refusing to stay in his lane, Kanye reminds us where the lanes are—lately, more emphatically than ever. Kanye is the black man who refuses to stay dead, who keeps whistling at white women, then brags about it. “HEADING HOME NOW,” he said. America is furious at him. Didn’t we kill you already? Why won’t you die?
West stands at the center of a huge amount of discourse. Everything he does—the lyrics he writes, beats he produces, films and music videos he’s behind; the fashion lines, whatever you think of them; the tweets, the constantly changing website, the public presentations of his work and the well-employed SNL appearances; and, lately, his increasingly frequent media appearances—spawns its own small universe of media coverage. If you like West, you know the talking heads tend to knock him down; if you don’t like him, you’re well aware of the things he’s done to earn it. But West doesn’t work in an ideological vacuum; his reception, as he well knows, is deeply informed by a powerful American history of racialized rhetoric. Since the Jim Crow days of lynching—days that West has explicitly invoked in his art—watching uppity black men suffer and burn has been a central preoccupation of the media-consuming American public. West’s problem—our problem with him—is that, burned again and again, he refuses to stay dead.
By the time I headed to Anaheim to see West’s tour on December 13 of last year, the nation had lived six months with the brash audiovisuals of Yeezus. On May 17, a cryptic, all-caps tweet from the man himself announced, “NEW SONG AND VISUAL FROM MY NEW ALBUM BEING PROJECTED TONIGHT ACROSS THE GLOBE ON 66 BUILDINGS, LOCATIONS @ http://KANYEWEST.COM.” That night, the video for “New Slaves” played on the tony facades of primo real estate across the world—not the country, the world—from Tokyo to the 5th Avenue Prada store in New York to the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park in Chicago. With this bold move, Kanye showed he knows how to give us what we want: primary source material. In the era of the chattering classes, when everyone with a BA and a smartphone thinks she’s Roland Barthes, in swaggered Kanye, who knows how to debut a motherfucking album. This tactic, which West himself referred to in a press release as “guerilla outdoor projections” producing “online viral captures,” stands in sharp contrast to the stealth attack, for example, of Beyoncé’s new self-titled album. Yet both marketing schemes reflected a kairotic understanding of the current media moment. Beyoncé and Kanye’s debuts were all about the nature of fandom and cultural production today. Bey’s “stealth” debut knew that we would pay to talk about what everyone was talking about; ‘Ye’s “guerrilla” debut allowed his fans to create hundreds of individual pieces of primary source material for us aspiring scholar writer types to gush over, and for all the fans to watch. While Beyoncé ferociously controls and curates her image, releasing a Tumblr to quell our thirst for her and infamously demanding unflattering images of her not be published, West took an opposite, but related, approach, bringing firewood to the fires of user-generated content. That’s cultural innovation that’s not arbitrary but directly responsive to the environment in which it functions.
In the YouTube videos that emerged of West’s worldwide music video debut, we can hear kids react to their first sight/sound of “New Slaves” in New York, Chicago, Toronto, in French, English, Japanese, Portuguese. On a clip of the debut at the Prada Store in Manhattan (below), as West’s video opens with a colorful series of price tags, sale notices, and barcodes, we can hear a female spectator ask, quite reasonably, “Is that an advertising spot?”
On the side of Wrigley Field, the image projected over Chicago Cubs graphics, the video’s high-resolution imagery seemed designed for this kind of imperfect medium, especially in a white, wealthy neighborhood like Lakeview. As Kanye’s starkly black face and white teeth mingled with the images on a billboard beneath it, West’s high-contrast chiaroscuro seemed to ask, can you see me? can you hear me? Or aren’t my white teeth and my chain all you see anyway?
See it’s that rich nigga racism, that’s that come here, please buy mo’.
What you want—a Bentley, a fur coat, a diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same thangs.
And it played on the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park, where usually, on either side of a granite reflecting pool, close-up videos of Chicagoans’ faces play on two towers made of glass bricks. At the end of one minute, these Chicagoans of all ages and races, old men and women, kids, teenagers, young people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, look straight at the camera, purse their lips, and a stream of water spouts from their mouths and flows into the reflecting pool.
But on the night of the guerrilla debut of “New Slaves,” a warm Saturday night last May, a black man’s face appeared. Kanye’s face. And instead of blowing a kiss at you, and disappearing after a minute, the face started rapping, and it was angry. In the context of the Crown Fountain, his language acquired new meaning, an expensive installation for the well-paid workers of the Loop, Kanye’s visage said, “Fuck your pat multiculturalism.” The timing couldn’t have been better. The next month, the unelected Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to shut down 49 Chicago Public Schools, all in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “Fuck your race-blind rhetoric,” Kanye’s virtual appearance seemed to say. Hovering above a fountain where Chicago’s children often played, Kanye’s video resurrected a history multiculturalism forgot. “My momma was born in an era when/ clean water was only served to the fairer skin.” He sang:
I know that we the new slaves
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
At the close of the song, Kanye stops speaking his own words, which already called on the legacy of black protest music with quotes from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and begins lip-synching to vocals which to me sound like, “We can’t get too high, we can’t get too high, again, Oh no, so low, so low…” After this video’s debut, DJ and artist Meaghan Garvey catalogued three categories of dismissive media responses to West’s new art: “He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention.” “New Slaves” ends with an allusion to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which opens by asking, “Can we get much higher?” Here he seems to answer, “No.”
In the YouTube videos of these debuts, you can hear kids already singing along with him: “I know that we the new slaves/I know that we the new slaves.” Soon the critics would come out to shut him down. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper told Kanye to “stop bitching….nobody embraces capitalism, consumerism and crass commercialism more than Kim and Kanye.”” Yes, Kim Kardashian’s partner’s new video debuted on Wrigley Field, on a Prada store, on the tony Crown Fountain. But Big Money’s complicity in the debut of “New Slaves” wasn’t ironic, it was the point. West explained it a decade ago on “All Falls Down”: “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” And he’s still preaching the same song. We’re all participating in the systems that enslave us. “Not For Sale,” his video says. Of course he’s for sale. But aren’t you? Aren’t we all?
The next day, Saturday, West performed “New Slaves” and another new track, “Black Skinhead,” as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. In a powerful pair of performances, the visual focus on West’s white eyes and dark skin conjured the specter of minstrel shows, coonery, and animalistic portrayals of black men which West called out explicitly in lyrics like, “Stop all that coon shit, early morning cartoon shit” and “They see a black man with a white woman on the top floor they gon’ come to get King Kong.” There on network TV, West’s fresh excoriation of corporate interests over human lives was enough to excite Michael Moore, who tweeted, “Wow. Kanye! Did that just air on TV? Amazing. ‘We da new slave.’”
A month later, on June 18th, Kanye’s album dropped—teased, no less, by Kim Kardashian’s Instagram account. Ultimately, the album was released—contrary to the corporate censorship of his miscegenatory My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy cover—with no cover art, as though Ye had burned you a CD on his own desktop and written Yeezus in Sharpie on a red sticker.
This begrudging offering stood in sharp contrast to what West described, in an interview with the New York Times called “Behind Kanye’s Mask,” as the groveling beauty of MBDTF. He explained, “‘Dark Fantasy’ was my long, backhanded apology. … I was like: ‘Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.’”
What Kanye said he was apologizing for—sort of—with MBDTF, what the interviewer had just asked him about, what is still dogging him, was his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift during the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. It is impossible to talk about West without mentioning this incident. In extended interviews, when not prompted by the journalist, West brings it up himself, because this moment defined his celebrity narrative, setting the terms of his contract with the public. Being a black asshole offender of white women is the line Kanye signed his name above. It’s why he is a meme. It’s inseparable from his Yeeziosity, his Swaghili, his superfamousness. Not an addendum or an appendage to his fame, but the very nature of it. Kanye is famous for being the man America wants to lynch. This truth is because of his extraordinary talent, not in spite of it. He is a black man who offended the innocence of a young, country white woman and who repeatedly, then and after, has refused to stay in his lane. Lately, in fact, he’s even been calling out that there are lanes—an offense punishable by media death.
Media lynchings are different than actual lynchings, but they are related. Scholars of lynching like Philip Dray and Ashraf Rushdy suggest that an entire community is complicit in a lynching, from the “cell of highly motivated perpetrators” (Dray) and their immediate supporters at the center of the crime, through outspoken or tacit approval from onlookers and esteemed community members, and ending with commentary and image circulation in the media. Kanye’s alleged crime took place at the VMAs, but his figurative lynching occurred across social media, starting on Twitter. After Kanye interrupted Swift while she received the award for Best Female Video of the Year, some of the first to indict him were what Philip Dray calls “gentlem[en] of…authority.” Besides booing him at the event itself, celebrities—mostly B-list ones—took to Twitter to insult West and defend Taylor and the justice of her award. In the narrative that emerged afterwards, the most important tweets came from other white female starlets of the pop culture universe. Katy Perry tweeted, “FUCK U KANYE. IT’S LIKE U STEPPED ON A KITTEN.” And Pink, the seemingly angrier of the two, wrote a long series of tweets about the incident, describing Kanye as “the biggest piece of shit on earth” and a “douche bag,” adding, “Quote me,” and coddling Swift as “a sweet and talented girl [who] deserved her moment. She should know we all love her.” (Pink also added that “Beyoncé is a classy lady.”) These tweets from white female pop starts, which used strong profanity, directly linked Kanye’s douchebaggery to Taylor’s innocence. Perry likened West’s interruption of Swift to actual injurious violence—stepping on a kitten—and Pink repeatedly attacked West’s character. For both, the attack on Kanye was rhetorically linked to an elevation of Taylor Swift’s innocence, cuteness, sweetness, youth. Her #whitegirlstatus.
Apparently during this time the President also called Kanye a jackass.
This echo of an old, old trope—that black men who insult white women’s gentility deserve to be harshly attacked—is why no one really cared when Kanye interrupted the white male members of Justice at the 2009 MTV Europe Music Awards. But when he interrupted a white woman, West was soon inundated with tweets calling him racial slurs and arguing, explicitly, that he should be lynched. (While these tweets have since been deleted, you can read them at Henry Allen’s “Media Assassin” blog.) Like Pink and Katy Perry’s tweets, many of these directly link West’s criminality to Taylor’s innocence. Sometimes succinctly:
“Kanye West is a nigger. I love Taylor Swift!!” – @skinnybitchh
Sometimes with more imagery:
“Kanye West is nothing but an ignorant uneducated field nigger. Taylor Swift got her award because her music isn’t GARBAGE. FUCK KANYE WEST” – @act7286
“kanye west is monkey as nigger! and should be lynched! taylor swift i love you girl!” – @ODV1985
Also interesting were the repeated tweets calling West a “racist nigger,” one user, @ScoutieOs, clarifying that “He’s clearly racist against white people so I’m gonna be racist back.”
Comedic denunciations of West quickly went viral. A popular meme emerged, in which a cutout of Kanye as he interrupted Swift was superimposed upon various backgrounds, with the words “Imma let you finish, but [X] had the best [Y] of all time.” Funny as they may be, these images descend from a sinister history. They echo the work of lynching photographs, which white supremacists circulated as mementos in the glory days of Jim Crow, and which were later circulated by anti-lynching advocates as propaganda to their cause. In those old photographs, black bodies are divorced from their social contexts and re-presented in the only role white supremacy would cast them in: that of criminals, justly executed, denied their humanity and known only by their alleged guilt. In this sense, the video of Rodney King being beaten is a lynching photo. So is the drawing of OJ in the courtroom, looking sad. The meme, “Trayvoning,” is a lynching photo. “Imma let you finish” is also a lynching photo, separating West from any discussion of the event. These images indict him on the basis of his blackness itself, centering on his use of Black English and the fact that he broke social convention, offending a white woman’s and our sensibilities. Part of this meme’s power stems from a long American engagement with images that put outspoken black men back in their place.
Knowyourmeme.com reports that the “Imma let you finish” meme had appeared on sites like 4chan and Neoseeker by September 14, the day after the VMAs; immaletyoufinish.com was registered the following day; and the Tumblrs Kanyegate and Kanye Interrupted were created later that week. On September 15, Comedy Central played the “Fishsticks” episode of “South Park,” which portrays Kanye West as a violent, illiterate idiot, four times in a row.
Back in the day, the Kanye news cycle moved more slowly. 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye’s third studio album, was released on November 24, 2008; the “Fishsticks” episode, which directly mocks the aesthetics of that album, was released in June of 2009; the Taylor interruption was that September. That story persisted for a while but eventually died down in intensity; Kanye went underground for a long while, until MBDTF was released on November 22, 2010.
Kanye is aware of the dynamics of his celebrity. A survivor of his own meme-ification, Kanye sees the automatic, recurring mechanisms by which the media seeks to devalue his words and his art. In an incredible interview he gave Zane Lowe of BBC 1 Radio in September of 2013, he said, “Every time my name goes up, there’s a series of people that write negative comments—they wanna joke around and say, why is he still trying?…They dis me as a person for still trying [even though] I’ve brought ten years of products to the world.” Like him or not, West’s media critique is correct. “Every time my name goes up”—every time! Every time West expresses himself holistically or artistically, a member of the white media arises to bash him, demean him, make him look stupid again. Even after this interview, which touched on industry racism, West’s creative process, and the nature of celebrity, the Jimmy Kimmel Show aired a sketch that had two seven- or eight-year-old boys playing West and Zane reenact some of West’s most self-aggrandizing moments in the interview. A few months later, after West premiered the music video to “Bound 2” on Ellen, Seth Rogen and James Franco created a shot-by-shot spoof called “Bound 3.” These men weren’t acting out of cruelty or racism—Kimmel regularly has children reenact real-life celebrity moments, and Rogen and Franco have made a career on stoner goofball comedy. They probably didn’t recognize their own complicity in discourses that engage West only as a figure to be attacked and made a fool of, not listened to.
Near the end of the interview with Zane, West looked straight at the cameras and predicted the fate of this interview. “This gonna get taken off the internet. Quick. Zzp, zzzp, zpp!” He slashed the air, mocking the sound of a buzzing hard drive. “Send the paparazzi at him! Send the paparazzi at ‘im. Get ‘im locked up!” Whether by brute media force or the insidious gossip-industrial complex, West expected to be censored. Ruminating on the outsized response to his track, “I Am a God,” West suggested that the discourse was racialized, that there isn’t space for a high-achieving black man on America’s public stage. “Who does he think he is?” West mimed people asking of the track, “I Am a God.” He continued, exasperated. “I just told you. Would it be better if I said I am a nigga? Or I am a gangsta? Or I am a pimp? But to say you’re a god, especially when you got shipped over to the country you’re in and your last name is a slave owner’s name, how could you say that? How could you have that mentality?”
What’s unique about the current media moment is how hard West is trying to break through this cycle of mockery to speak directly to America. Sometimes these efforts have been immature, as in his response to the Kimmel skit, dispersed over a series of tweets which included, among other things, a picture of Sponge Bob Square Pants holding a rainbow, superimposed with the words “JIMMY KIMMEL FACE MOTHERFUCKER,” as well as Kimmel’s own face with the words “NO GOOD PUSSY.” Sometimes West’s communiques have been through traditional media—in recent months, besides the BBC interview, he has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel (after the spat), on Power 105’s The Breakfast Club, and on Ellen. Each of his concerts has included an autotuned interlude, ubiquitously described in the media as a “rant,” in which he addresses the audience directly in an effort to, as he said to us in Anaheim, “outsmart the media” portrayals of him.
But, as it’s always been, West’s most direct and effective communication with America has been through his music. In that stadium in Anaheim, what struck me most forcefully was that all those kids in there knew all the words to Yeezus. The stupid, profane, outlandish lyrics to Yeezus, those lyrics so inferior to those beats—they knew them. They knew “get this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s.” They knew “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” and they knew “eating Asian pussy all I need is sweet and sour sauce.” Institutional policing be damned, the children of Orange County waited quietly in line outside for their bags to be searched and their bodies wanded, all to stand twenty thousand strong in the Honda Center in Anaheim with their diamonds raised to a masked Kanye West strutting about. Without rioting, without screaming, without even smoking weed, they screamed: “Middle America packed in, here to see me in my black skin.” And we saw that this weird disturbing album which was not made to be danced to or driven to or fucked to—which was made, perhaps, to be listened to intently in your bedroom with your headphones on or through your parents’ superior sound system when your family had left the house—this album, most essentially, was made to be performed by Kanye himself in an enormous amphitheater to a crowd of twenty thousand standing fans who knew every profane word, every sampled snare, every sensuous drop in their body and their lungs and their hearts, singing back the fuck-you Kanye dedicated to the media he depended on and fought with every day—“Fuck you and your corporations, y’all niggas can’t control me.”
The show had begun with “On Sight” and it ended with “Bound 2,” and in between them he glossed a whole oeuvre, performing songs from each of his six solo albums and from Watch the Throne and from Cruel Summer, locating each in the narrative and sonic universe of the new album—a mythic landscape where hero-mortal Kanye West scales mountains, consorts with writhing women, faces demons and gods alike, all while parading a succession of Maison Martin Margiela designed full-face masks, black, white, plastic and bejeweled, one worn by his fiancée Kim Kardashian in the teaser image to her cover of Carine Roitfeld’s CR Fashion Book. But no mind the references, lest you think this performance was derivative.
But actually, it was derivative. Or rather, it was sampled. The sets from Julie Taymor’s Lion King, the monster from Where the Wild Things Are, the mountain from Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, the masks a combination of Jason and Ye’s shutter shades, the soundtrack a mashup of Yeezy’s whole discography. The setting—sports stadiums across the country—reminiscent of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, Michel Foucault’s Panopticon.
Near the end of the show, when Kanye played “All of the Lights” and asked us to put our phones in the air for him—long past my realization that I knew all of the words, past my transcendence of that weird embarrassed feeling I have when my students ask me if Kanye is my favorite rapper, long past my disembodied noticing of my hand in the air and realizing I looked like a mom (my mom, any mom) at a rock show, screaming for the aging Stones—I raised my phone, and my friend pointed out that the number of lit phones in the air was a clean index of who was really with him—who stayed with ‘Ye through the ten minutes of talk, who was in it with him—in Kanye’s words, who was “wired by their parents to understand me” (BBC). I had listened, taking notes, while Kanye delivered his auto-tuned smash-the-media disquisition. We were near the end of a grand opera, probably the best theater many of the fans in here had ever seen—a hero’s epic of strength, struggle, and redemption, the story of Yeezy rising through the fire.
When West screamed out to the crowd, “Do y’all wanna hear ‘Blood on the Leaves’? Do y’all wanna hear ‘Blood on the Leaves’?” and the crowd screamed back, I flinched. Did we really? What kind of question was that? Did you even hear what he just said? Who wants to hear that shit?
And yet more than this album’s lyrics, which shifted violently from brilliant to idiotic to profane, these kids around me knew the music. They were or weren’t processing the irony—genius or otherwise—of quoting a classic anti-lynching song under verses about divorce and alimony. When Kanye jumped, and fireworks spat from the mountain behind him with the pocket of the beat, the whole crowd lurched. “We used to be somebody!” we cried. But these kids around me weren’t anybody yet. And Kanye knew it. “He’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want.” A sub-generation younger than me, the children of trap and EDM, their heartbeats hungered for the drop. The sonic warning cry of Yeezus was not lost on them. These kids knew how to listen with their breath. Their phones were held in the air, glowing. Maybe they hadn’t seen Kanye fall, but they were here now, watching him with their own eyes, witness to Yeezy rising.
Tessa Brown tweets @tessalaprofessa.