When Kanye West was ten years he old he spent a year in China due to his mother’s participation in an exchange program that enabled her to teach at Nanjing University. For a young person of colour from the inner city of Chicago one cannot being to fathom the effect that this trip had on the mind of a young Kanye West and how that exposure opened up his mind to how large the world is and conversely opened him up to the possibilities of who he could be.
As a social worker who has spent much of it working with youth from the US and now Australia, so much of young peoples potential is limited by their perspectives and for many, if not the vast majority of young black youth, that potential is limited by what they can see within their city or ten block radius. When we are exposed to experiences outside of our present reality it significantly expands the limitations of what is possible and what we can be.
As I reflect back on my youth as a black male who was born and raised in the UK to a Jamaican mother and an African American father who was serving there in the US military during the height of the Cold War I feel blessed to have been exposed to the level of culture and diversity that I received.
As the inverse to many African American youth, I assumed that my reality was the reality for all kids who looked like me until I started making trips back to the states to visit my father’s family in Oklahoma City where I was confronted with a myopic understanding of culture that was foreign to me.
“You’re from England?” “There’s Black people over there?” Their response shocking me because I assumed that people of color where almost everywhere. I also found my vernacular was out of place, the words I used being received as if I spoke a foreign tongue that delegitimised my Blackness. I was told, “You talk proper” or “You sound white”.
Like most kids, out of necessity and a desire to “fit in” I corrected my dialect so that I could speak in a manner that could be understood, that was more pleasing to their ears and gave me some partial form of acceptance with my Black peers which is so important to a young kid of any color trying to find themselves.
However, the conversations I had as child visting my cousins during those hot summers in OKC did not stop there and have continued well into adulthood. It’s not that I wasn’t speaking English or that my hue wasn’t of a dark tone, it was that I was speaking a different type of English. A language that sounded a bit more refined and foreign to their ears, due to my exposure to culture and the arts and conversely, due to their lack of, perpetually placing me on the periphery of Blackness in their eyes.
I see this same disconnect in dialect in the discourses that Kanye has been having during his media tour of many of urban radio’s most popular stations during the last week. They’re talking but not necessarily having the same conversation. Kanye’s words are like the staccato of gun fire that erupt in his hometown of “Chiraq”. We hear it but are perplexed, neither understanding where its coming from or the reason for it.
Between his time in China, the release of ‘The College Dropout” and more recently “Yeezus”, Kanye has went on to earn a proverbial PHD during his time spent in Paris and has transformed from Kanye West to the nom de plume of his latest album. Like a prophetic figure cut in the mold of Moses, Kanye went up the mountain that he depicts in his current tour for the Yeezus album and he’s come back down transfigured into Yeezus, his cultural exposure elevated to new heights providing an expansion of language and insight to a world that was once foreign to him and one that is completely foreign to the average American, even more so to the average African American. This new “revelation” now placing him on the outside of the peripheries of Blackness that he had worked so hard to attain when he was in the more acceptable role of the “College Dropout”. Kanye returns off the mountain as Yeezus, angered to find us happy with our chitlins having seen that we’ve been left out of so much more.
Renzo Rosso owns Margiela , Diesel, Marni and Viktor and Rolf for a net amount of 5 billion.
Francois Pinault owns Balenciaga, Saint Laurent and Stella McCarnety for a net worth of $15 billion.
Bernaud Arnault owns Louis Vuitton, Celine and Givency for a net worth of $29 billion.
In the free market world of laissez-faire free market capitalism these names represent the new plantation owners. The lack of understanding in the reaction to Yeezus’s “rants” reflect the “New Slave” mentality that Yeezus is screaming about. Rap music, platinum necklaces, Maybachs and Roc-a-Fella tees represent the chitlins of the slave negro and rightly so for what are people who have never had the whole pig to know about the fruits of it?
Sway perfectly captures the distance between what Yeezus is saying and what is understood during his interview with him when he humbly says “These names you’re saying sound all foreign to me bro”.
His statement serves as evidence of the marginalization that we have yet to be awakened to, reflective of a myopic understanding of the world and a lack of exposure to finances and culture by way of purposeful economic and societal marginalization.
Thus, there is a loud chorus of dissenting voices that echo “Charlamange the God’s” response to Yeezus during his interview with one of NY’s most popular radio shows, Power 105.
“We don’t care about your designing sneakers and clothes. People don’t care about your rich nigger problems. Those are rich nigger problems, the fact that there are fashion designers and Nike won’t accept you”
We should care because this is deeper than rap. This is deeper than leather jogging pants or designing shoes for Nike. What Yeezus is talking about is Black Economic Empowerment. Not just for himself but also for African Americans which contrary to Charlamange the God’s statements that “Black revolutionaries didn’t need money”, has always been a central component of any justice movement from Martin to Malcolm. This is a conversation that is steeped in an understanding of wealth vs rich, something that comedian Chris Rock captures succinctly in this piece:
African American unemployment is at a FIFTY year high and has been sitting at 10% consistently during that time period.
Furthermore, according to data provided by PewResearch, Black incomes are up but wealth isn’t .
Black incomes, while up since the 1960’s, haven’t led to a narrowing of the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks in America. Even more telling statistics are that while the value of primary residence was the single biggest asset for both Blacks and Whites, it was much more so for black households. On average, housing wealth accounted for 49% of black household assets, compared with 28% for the average white household. But the average home value was far lower for black households: $75,040 versus $217,150.
Additionally, a 2013 Brandeis University report noted that not only is home ownership lower among blacks than whites, but that black-owned homes tend not to appreciate in value as much as white-owned homes, which the Brandeis researchers attributed to “residential segregation artificially lower[ing] demand, placing a forced ceiling on home equity for African-Americans who own homes in non-white neighborhoods.” Blacks also tend to carry proportionately more mortgage debt, at higher rates, than whites. As a 2011 Pew Research Center report found, the housing crash was harder on blacks than whites (though both groups fared better than Hispanics).
More evidence to the wealth vs rich debate is found beyond housing in that the one striking difference between black and white household assets was the role of business ownership. Equity in businesses was the second-biggest asset class among white households, accounting for 18% of average assets, and grew 106% in value between 1983 and 2010. Among black households, however, business equity accounted for less than 4% of assets on average, and actually lost value between 1983 and 2010. After primary residence, the single biggest asset type for black households was “other residential property,” accounting for about 12% of average assets; but that asset class only grew 37% in value between 1983 and 2010.
As Yeezus stated in the Breakfast Club interview “We ain’t got it like that. We don’t know nobody with a nice house. You know we don’t know nobody with paper like that who we can go to when we’re down”.
Yes, Kanye is a millionaire like other popular artists but their wealth is directly connected to their voice as it relates to the fickle whims of the music industry where you can easily be hot one summer and gone the next. Like the NFL, the music business, especially when it comes to hip hop, is a young man’s game where the estimated playing career is “3 summers/seasons” and then you’re finished with many artists ending up broke like their athletic counterparts. It’s a story as old as Motown. Jay-Z as the elder statesman of hip hop at 44 is an anomaly for his position, sitting in the mold of a Brett Favre.
How many rappers have come and gone since Jay-Z’s time? How many “clothing lines” whose viability is connected to the relevancy of that artists voice or hip hop trends have come and gone: G-Unit, Karl Kani, Wu-Wear, Phat Farm, Fubu, Baby Phat, Sean John, Rocawear.. the list goes on and on.
What Yeezus is fighting for is couched in economic security for his family that transcends the now. He’s speaking on legacy, something unfamiliar to people of colour, that goes on to his children and their children’s children and that type of security can also be used to transform communities when in the hands of someone who has that vision.
This is not just formal equality in the way we perceive equality today ( the right to vote, equal opportunity to apply for jobs etc) but equality in substance because as the data bears out African Americans are economically enslaved and marginalised. We are in the era of new slavery and we are the “New Slaves”.
In David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the SCLC” Garrow recollects a time where Dr King arrives to speak at a church rally in Harlem and he is pelted with eggs.
“For King it was one of those moments when you think about what you are going through and the sacrifices and suffering you face that your own people don’t have an understanding- not even an appreciation of one’s efforts”
While Yeezus certainly isn’t King, his message is “King-like” when it comes to the importance of Black economic empowerment. It ain’t all good is converted into “It ain’t Ralph tho” by way of brand labelling, fitting language for the discourse of new slavery. Indeed it isn’t and we would do well to pay attention, despite our lack of cultural exposure and understanding because class is in session.