Podcast: Kanye + Junot: The Art vs. The Artist
You’re listening to the Uptown Bourgeois podcast.
I’m your host, Jefferey Spivey.
Let’s be weird, snobby, and intellectual together.
This week, I want to talk about fallen heroes.
In a piece published May 8 for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote:
“West calls his struggle the right to be a ‘free thinker,’ and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant, freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next.” The piece that quote comes from is titled, “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye”. For those who don’t know, it’s a reference to JAY-Z’s song, “The Story of O.J.”, from last year’s 4:44. That song served as a commentary on race, through the lens of O.J.’s success and downfall. And in a similar fashion, Ta-Nehisi’s piece examines race through Kanye West’s downfall.
In case you missed it, which is literally impossible, Kanye West has courted controversy once again, but this time, it doesn’t seem like an issue he can shake off. After a pretty lengthy period of public silence, Yeezy returned to Twitter and showed up for a slew of interviews, which included a 2-hour sit-down with Charlamagne the God and a surprise appearance on TMZ Live. It’s the TMZ appearance that generated the most controversy.
During his time there, he defended his support for Donald Trump, and he pontificated about slavery, saying it was a choice. And he justified his stance by saying he was “thinking freely”. That people can’t handle free thought because it goes against their own opinions. Um, no. One—this isn’t thinking freely; this is reckless absurdism that’s also historically inaccurate. And two—you can think freely without offending your entire fanbase.
I have to hand it to Van Lathan. I don’t normally look to any TMZ staffer as a voice of reason but he so eloquently shut Kanye down in a moment when he probably wanted to punch him in the face. Van got to the heart of the issue, that Kanye is now so far removed from the average black man’s plight that he feels comfortable discounting slavery, the very root of racism and injustice that has survived in this country in various forms for 4 centuries.
We don’t have to revisit the history books-my African ancestors did not choose to come to America, they did not choose to work in fields, they did not choose to live in unlivable conditions, and they did not choose to remain enslaved. They were forced into servitude, and they were completely unarmed to get out of it. If slavery was a choice, The Birth of a Nation would’ve happened when the first slave ship reached America.
But really, this whole thing is about so much more than Kanye saying crazy shit. Kanye has always said crazy shit.
Being his fan has always meant accepting that he might do or say something out of pocket. And a lot of the time, he was speaking the truth. He may not have done it with couth, but his musical output was so strong that I was willing to overlook it. I’m a Kanye fan from way back. I remember listening to “Slow Jamz” while I got ready to go to the club in college. “Faded” was on my wedding playlist. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasyis one of my favorite albums of all time!
But now, with his latest comments, he’s essentially abandoning me and all his other black fans—you know, the ones he originally made music for. This a guy who made beats for The Blueprint. He was known for chopping up old soul samples. He was a student of black music, and he made some amazing contributions to black music. He further elevated and enhanced it. And you know who listens to black music? Black people. Yes, his fanbase has expanded, and he’s a household name regardless of ethnic background. But he built a career on black music, and now, by trivializing slavery, he’s flipping a finger to all those black people who loved his black music and supported it from day one.
So, Kanye raises some important points for me. One—if an artist you admire does something awful, how does that change your relationship with them? With their work? Two—is it ever okay to separate the art from the artists? Or are we living in an age where that’s impossible? And Three—am I disappointed in him because of what he said or because he’s not the person I want him to be?
Good questions, right?
I’ll also explore this through some recent allegations against one of my favorite authors, Junot Diaz, right after a short break.
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I’m a big fan of Junot Diaz. I was a little late to the party. I just read his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao last year. That book led me to his two short story collections, Drownand This Is How You Lose Her. The combination of the three earned him a spot on my literary greats list, a list that included Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, and James Baldwin. He is inarguably talented, with a strong, authentic voice that pays homage to his Dominican roots. I was so inspired by his talent, and I was so willing to support him, without question. So, that has made the last couple weeks especially difficult to process.
Two weeks ago, he was accused of trying to forcibly kiss writer Zinzi Clemmons, and displayed aggressive, misogynistic behavior towards Carmen Maria Machado and Monica Byrne. It seemed he too was facing a reckoning—one he took responsibility for but that’s no less damning or upsetting.
What’s especially troubling about Junot is that a) women are a huge part of his stories, and b) he just published a piece in The New Yorker about being sexually abused as a child. When I read it, I felt sympathy and anger on his behalf. But in hindsight, it almost seems like a preemptive attack, to try to explain or justify the behavior that he knew would soon come to light.
In a matter of weeks, it was a second icon, a second creative genius that I looked up to, taken down. And I don’t want to be selfish—there are people out there who have been truly hurt by these two men, either directly or indirectly. And my disappointment is nothing in the face of their pain.
But still, I can’t help but feel let down. These are two men of color who are immensely talented, who’ve churned out work that I love, who’ve come from backgrounds or experiences that I can relate to. And they were winning. Their success and creativity inspired me. I’ve bought their work, I’ve shared it with others, I’ve touted it on social media, I’ve recommended it to friends. These guys were my heroes. And now, after all the time I invested in believing in them and loving their output, it only took a couple weeks to break it all down.
It makes me wonder if it’s safe to look up to people, to identify and worship icons. Because they’re just like us. Yes, they have this otherworldly talent, but they also have flaws. They are not perfect simply because we want them to be. I can’t excuse their behavior—I don’t want to and I’m certainly not attempting to. But I am saying that we should be careful with who we place on the pedestal.
Or at least, if we place them on a pedestal, we can’t expect them to be flawless. They’ll probably fuck up at some point, and ruin the image we have of them, and fall below our expectations. And then we’ll have to search for someone new to idolize, simply because the old ones failed to be perfect.
I’m not deleting my Kanye albums. I’m not pulling him off my playlists. I’m not taking Junot off my bookcase. But I am being cautious, about who I choose to support, about how I support them, and about how I draw connections between the art and the artist.
New on the blog this week, dive deeper into this show’s topic with the essay, “When Our Heroes Fail Us”.
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The Uptown Bourgeois podcast is written, produced, and edited by Jefferey Spivey, and is an official property of Uptown Bourgeois, LLC. All original music is provided courtesy of RMVD.