Capitalism and the degeneration of Kanye West

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by Hassan Reyes

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While the jury is still out on Kanye West’s statement that he is the “most influential artist” around today, it goes without saying that he is one of the most talked about artist-celebrities out there and has been for sometime.

Unfortunately however, the conversations provoked by his music and especially his statements, gets more confused and hollow by the year. How did this happen?

Born in Atlanta, Kanye West moved to Chicago at the age of three. His father, Ray West, is a former Black Panther and photojournalist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution; while his mother, Dr. Donda C. (Williams) West, became the Chair of the English Department at Chicago State University before retiring to become her son’s manager.

In the late 1990s Kanye started producing for local acts in Chicago, but got his break by producing beats for artists from the Roc-a-fella label and in particular, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. Kanye also had considerable underground recognition as a producer through his work with Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, and fellow Chicago native, Common.

A few years later, after years of trying to get recognition as an MC, Kanye made his mark on hip hop, releasing The College Dropout to critical acclaim and commercial success. The album went triple platinum in the US, and received 10 Grammy nominations. Kanye’s humour and sincerity broke with the bravado and flash that was dominating hip hop at the time through the likes of 50-cent and others. The album also contained social commentary that, while lacking the clarity of acts like Dead Prez, was very rare for a commercially successful hip hop artist at the time.

Kanye also featured on Def Poetry Jam and the Dave Chappelle show, and was generally recognized as being within the ‘conscious’ element of hip hop, despite his success. Kanye appeared in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party movie, which not only brought a number of conscious artists together, but also gave a prominent platform to Fred Hampton Jr, the son of murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton and the chair of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee (POCC).

It’s rumoured that Hampton was also influential on Kanye’s scathing attack on George Bush during the Hurricane Katrina television fundraiser, where he spontaneously stated that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”.

Since then, beyond his continued musical success West began to move into other business areas. Aside from his GOOD Record label, West owns a chain of Fatburger restaurants in the Chicago area through his KW Foods LLC, as well as a line of athletic shoes for Nike called Air Yeezy, another shoe line with Louis Vuitton, as well as other lines of shoes and clothes. Currently Kanye’s net worth is estimated at $100 million.

In 2013, Kanye released Yeezus to mixed reaction not only due to its different musical direction but also because of its lyrical content. Not surprisingly, as Kanye’s wealth has soared, his social criticisms have become more confused and convoluted, as seen in numerous interviews in 2013. On the popular Breakfast Club show on NY’s POWER 105.1, Kanye was directly questioned on the shift in his message:

Charlemagne da God: “Why do talk so much about money nowadays, man? I used to look at you, like, as a real revolutionary. You know real revolutionaries didn’t need money to change the world? Malcolm X wasn’t rich. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t rich”.

Kanye: “Cause you need product. You need to own something to have a voice…”

While Kanye continues to speak about racism and corporate control, his reference points have shifted. The old Kanye saw racism as the government keeping black people poor, including how the police “harass and arrest us.” He saw corporate control in the manufacturing of consumerism, preying on people’s insecurities while ravishing places like Sierra Leone for their resources.

The $100 million Kanye sees racism as the scandalization of his relationship to a white woman (although Kim Kardashian has Armenian background), or his inability to be ‘taken seriously’ by the fashion and clothing industry. He sees corporate control in that he is not being let into the circle.

So who is to blame for this? Is it Jay-Z, Russell Simmons and the black bourgeoisie in the US? Can a popular artist be a millionaire and stay true to a social message?

With his recognition and talent, Kanye has the potential to be a modern-day Bob Dylan or Marvin Gaye – a popular artist capable of reaching a large section of the people while speaking honestly about what’s happening in the world and on the streets. In a different era, it’s conceivable that Kanye could have taken direction from the Black Panthers or even something of a broader political, social movement. But without such a movement, it is likely that we will lose many more talented artists and voices to the logic and ideology of the capitalist ruling class.