The mainstream rap music game may once again be returning to the church of black empowerment via its newly self-ordained minister, Reverend Kanye West. After years of rap music struggling in the muck and mire of misogyny and money, one of the greatest rappers ever has had it up to here with the 'New Slavery' of commercialism, materialism and hedonism. I cannot think of a voice more prepared to enact a radical sea change in black music than one of the main perpetrators of the aforementioned materialism and misogyny. Hallelujah.
A few weeks ago Kanye performed two new songs, "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves" on Saturday Night Live. One day prior to the performance, he simultaneously projected the video for "New Slaves" onto the facades of 66 buildings in six different countries. The titles and lyrics of these songs have had the Internet buzzing for weeks, with hopes that he will help return black music listeners to their musical revolutionary roots. For too long, our ears have wallowed in an unhealthy aural hedonism that has benefited no one but the large multi-national corporations peddling it. There was a time when the entire nation mobilized for rights and freedoms simply because Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield crooned them into doing so. In 2013, rap music mostly only propels us to stand in line for 48 hours to purchase a pair of Michael Jordan tennis shoes. Only to be murdered for these sneakers 48 hours later, during a robbery. Current rap music dictates freedom (financial), yet manages to keep its listeners chained to a mentality that does nothing to cultivate the listener to individual or communal growth, blaspheming the hip hop gods.
A cynical burden is cultivated in the psyche of young black people that grew up in America listening to the gospel of James Cleveland, the funk of Rick James and the native tongues of A Tribe Called Quest. This cynicism was developed with the knowledge that our ancestors were traumatized by the effects of slavery and racism. In spite of our legacy of pain, we are able to "make it in America." The odds were stacked against us, but our ancestor's strides during the civil rights era swayed many of those odds in our financial freedom's favor. The birth of rap music was a byproduct of the civil rights era. It took us places and bought us things the soul singers of Motown dreamed of. Rap music has also made us so rich that we have conveniently forgotten we still need to overcome.
"New Slaves'" lyrics are only controversial to those blacks who think electing an African-American into the White House has removed us from the last 400 years of oppression. The lyrics are not narcissistic, posturing or arrogant, nor are they being spouted as rhetoric. The previews for his new album Yeezus not only display the evolution of a man and his music, but show the result of a black Generation X'er coming to an epiphany: In no way, shape or form are African-Americans in the Diaspora equal to their white counterparts. We may, in fact, have reverted to a position worse than that of our parents and grandparents. We are under the impression that the money, houses and jobs we have acquired are without consequence. The consequence is perpetual debt and the miseducation of youth who have all but forgotten what their ancestors suffered through in order for them to be free.
Kanye is a 70s child born from black power afros but raised in electronic funk backed by the heavy rhythms of revolutionary, fight the power hip hop. Our generation has viewed the racism enacted against our parents along with the 'one step away from 'sharecropper oppression' against our grandparents through dual lenses. Our oppressed relatives used the audacity of hope to fill our heads with dreams of middle class sugar plums before tucking us into our suburban Montgomery Ward twin beds at night. Yet, they raised us with caution and awareness that no matter how far we "make it"; we are still black in a country built on the genocide of our people.
The difference between Kanye and wax revolutionaries Chuck D and KRS One is that he has been accepted into the inner circle of pop culture. He has amazingly done this without being viewed as a 'sellout.' This impossible feat took place soon after the spontaneous and truthful "George Bush does not care about black people" line that he spouted during the Hurricane Katrina telethon. Kanye had fooled the moneyed, imperialistic corporate people into thinking he is going to be a well-behaved, go along with it Uncle Tom, until that poignant moment in time when he showed his true color(s).
There is a nation of potential genius music leaders like West existing in America. Stevie Wonder is one that comes to mind. The glaring difference between these two is that Mister West is privy to all the wonderment of black music, including rap. Kanye is a son of hip hop. Stevie wonder is the do better, love everyone and save the world soul man. Kanye has soul, but it has morphed into an 'I don't give a f***' attitude that is an amalgamation of every road paved by American black music artists before it. He is now at a crossroads. His path could be the easy 'please everyone' route chosen by Michael Jackson, (which inevitably led to his 'early' death). Or, he can own this moment. His lyrical content seems to be rife with material that accompanies adulthood and fatherhood knowing that his race has and will affect every moment in his life no matter how rich and famous he becomes.
It is beautiful to witness the artistic evolution of a human being. For hip hop fans, we have the pleasure of watching Kanye West being born on earth again from the comfort of our armchairs and keyboards. This birth has been nothing but figurative, his mother did all the hard work. We have been able to experience the fluffy cheeked toddler goodness of his debut and his awkward, adolescent college dropout musical stages. Kanye breathed new life and energy into the house of hip hop. Now the time has come for him to breathe new life into his people via his music. West is the dream of Martin Luther King influenced by the funk of George Clinton and raised by the black power fists of the sonic anarchists Public Enemy. If Jay-Z were not the greatest rapper of all time, I could almost pretend that Rocafella Records only existed to lead us to the rap music savior, Yeezus.