“Don’t try to antagonize me, cuz you know what, it’s not safe for you in this zoo.”
There isn’t a Black person in America, lead alone a Black creative, who hasn’t at one point in his or her life felt like a lion in a zoo; an animal whose fear-inspiring grace and spectacular power is praised as long as its spectacle can be controlled. Kanye West went on Jimmy Kimmel Live to voice these sentiments, and to reconcile with Kimmel for the war of words a parody of West’s in-depth interview with Zane Lowe sparked.
When Ye went on his social media rampage, the public responded with ambivalence. Some people understood why Kanye was so mad and applauded him for defending the himself. Others dismissed the chastisement as another “rant”, and dismissed the whole situation as Kanye being an “asshole” as usual. Personally, the exchange reminded me of a different moment history.
There seems to be key parallels that connect Black artists to Black militants. Kanye’s numerous tirades followed by moments of fluid, profound brilliance is reminiscent of another controversial black figure in the public eye, like Malcolm X during the Black Power Movement. Brother Malcolm’s importance in the historical conscious of Black people in America (and the Diaspora in general) is in a whole different stratosphere, level, echelon, etc. than Kanye’s, and cannot be expressed in a quick, concise paraphrasing, but the parallel they share is their cultural significance doesn’t exclude their controversial acts or ideas from legitimate criticism.
Kanye calls for “truth, information, and awesomeness”; for creatives to protect their dreams, believe in themselves, push the limits of taste, and refuse to be boxed in. But his genius is overlooked when he jumps into headlines for negative reasons, like the Kimmel saga or his run-ins with paparazzi. Malcolm called for Black cultural dignity, self-respect, self-love, and self-determination; he eloquently urged a nation of oppressed people to take control of their own destiny. He also called White people “white devils”.
After all the atrocities that Black folk endured before, during, and after the Civil Rights Era, plenty of Blacks agreed with and were energized by this sentiment. But many did not agree, spiritually, morally, or politically. It dismissed the majority of non-racist, decent Whites, some of whom fought and died side by side with people of color, out of love and for a truth that fighting to liberate another is the same as fighting for the liberation of oneself. It also avoided dealing with the fact that many Black people (through love or force) had White blood in them, and that former slaves and former slave masters are forced to live in peace, whether they like it or not, or else this nation would have imploded.
But with both X and West, there are times where the Black community strikes an unspoken moral bargain when controversy spews from their mouth. When it came to Malcolm, criticism was offered, but certainly not censorship. And it wasn’t just because Black folk enjoyed seeing a Black man stick it to Whitey in front of the world. They were inspired by the sight of a strong, dynamic, Black man telling a world which dehumanizes Blackness that he loved it, was proud of it, defined by it, and was willing to die for it.
Drawing the parallel, Kanye is a creative genius (I probably can’t engage in a debate with someone who suggests otherwise). But part of me just wishes he would package his brilliance in a more respectable, personable way, and not let over-arrogance turn people away from his profound ideas. There are moments where he talks and I think “Why is he such an A-hole?”. I also don’t agree with other things, namely the concept of Yeezus. I enjoyed the album sonically, but it is the first and only Kanye album I didn’t buy. My religious and spiritual beliefs compel me to not agree with anyone calling himself or others a god.
But a deeper part of me overlooks his jerk moments because I don’t want any role in the censoring of genius, especially from a black man, especially from a black artist, and especially from a black artist from my city. I won’t lend any hand in muzzling Black militants or stripping him or her of the transformative power of defiance. I rather fight by his side against a popular media trying to constrict his contributions to our culture, or diminish Black artists venting legitimate frustration as the ramblings of “the Black who cried racist”.
This is why a quote like “it’s not safe for you in this zoo” made me almost jump out of my seat in praise. I understood why the Zane Lowe interview was so important to Kanye, and why he immediately went on the defensive when it was parodied. I understand that Kanye’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show accomplishes so much more than just squashing a dispute.
People have been telling Kanye what he couldn’t do his whole life, and each time, he not only proved them dead wrong, he helped redefine popular culture. We tell him to shut up and enjoy his fame, but don’t critically engage concerns that if a glass ceiling can even block him, there’s no telling what it does for many others. And we stifle his brilliance as punishment for not conforming to one-sided politics of respectability.
But maybe I’m not being objective about this. Maybe I’m overreaching and Kanye is the asshole people paint him to be. We can have a debate on that, and I absolutely believe there would be valid arguments for both sides. But I’m going to ride with him, because a small part of me knows what it’s like to be a Kanye West. As a Black man in America, as a Black artist in America, people constantly questioning your sanity in a world that is so laughably far from sane can be aggravating as hek.
It can also drive you fuckin’ crazy.
“The worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. I don’t understand this person. So they’re crazy. That’s bullshit. These people are not crazy. They’re strong people. Maybe their environment is a little sick.” – Dave Chappelle
We Out Here,