“The system broken, the school is closed, the prison’s open…
In this white man world, we the ones chosen.”
“Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?
The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing?
But this is more than just my road to redemption
Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention.”
Little separates the iconoclast from the prophet. The iconoclast smashes idols to dance on the rubble; the prophet smashes them from zeal for his Father’s house. But neither leaves idols unscathed, and both make enemies of idolaters. Kanye West’s enemies are legion, numbering conservatives, religious believers, racists, anti-racists, progressives, prudes, feminists, and even Taylor Swift. What set of commitments could possibly alienate so many different groups? Does West simply walk into a temple and start swinging, or does he choose targets by some logic?
West’s political commitments are often seen as bizarre or lightly held, and no doubt this perception arises from his often bizarre and apparently careless expressions of them. But they become coherent against the backdrop of two biographical details: West’s father was a Black Panther, and West is a Christian. These facets of West’s identity animate his Black nationalism and Christian social conservatism. West’s unique combination of these values—the way they interweave and so reinforce one another—makes him one of the most interesting and genuinely transgressive political figures of the last several years. Although he is almost certainly not a serious presidential candidate, in our time of political realignment, he holds just the kind of heterodox combination of values that could prove powerful in the future.
West has been singularly forthright about his beliefs throughout his career. As University of Virginia Assistant Professor of Music A. D. Carson has written, “As Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby, Kanye writes KANYE.” Because West writes himself, his music constitutes the best window into his political thought. West agrees: “They want to edit the interviews… / You know that it’s fake if it’s in the news / So I let it fly when I’m in the booth” (“Wash Us in the Blood”).
West inherited his political commitments from his parents. Before becoming a Christian counselor, his father was a Black Panther. His mother participated in the civil rights movement at the age of six, getting arrested for sitting “in that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat” (“Never Let Me Down”). West concludes about that event, “With that in my blood, I was born to be different.”
These two Black political traditions have shaped West’s thought and music from the beginning of his solo career. He has often combined incisive commentary on internalized racism with a concern about external and structural racism, most notably attacking mass incarceration and police brutality. In Jesus is King’s “On God,” West raps, “Went from one in four to one in three / Thirteenth Amendment, gotta end it, that’s on me,” simultaneously highlighting both the ACLU’s estimate that one in three black men will be imprisoned at some point in life and that the Thirteenth Amendment permits the enslavement of the incarcerated. As he put it in “New Slaves,” “They tryna lock n***** up / they tryna make new slaves.”
Kanye consistently raps his suspicion of powerful whites and distrust of the government, and he joins a message of Black empowerment with critiques of Black culture—often in the same song. Take “All Falls Down,” for example. In this early single, West raps, “We tryna buy back our forty acres…They make us hate ourself and love they wealth…Drug dealer buy Jordan, crackhead buy crack / And the white man gets paid off of all of that.” In West’s telling, then, Black hip-hop culture’s obsession with opulence is internalized racism arising from several interlocking phenomena.
Following his march to the sea, Gen. Sherman promulgated Special Field Orders No. 15, granting freed slaves forty acres each on which to live. For most, the land never materialized. Black Americans were left landless, poor, and, by implication, bereft of agency. As West interprets the matter, Black Americans eventually turned to consumption in an attempt to prove Black worth. But in a cruel twist, the purchases by which they hoped to prove their worth and “floss” their wealth (“Jordans”) benefit white capital. West believes that white capitalism profits from Black consumption, which is itself a doomed attempt to claw back dignity from white America.
The parallels with traditional Black nationalist economics are unmistakable. As Malcolm X proclaimed in “The Ballot or the Bullet,” his famed 1964 speech, “The economic philosophy of black nationalism is pure and simple. It only means that we should control the economy of our community…Why should the economy of our community be in the hands of the white man?” It should come as little surprise that West’s new ranch in Cody, Wyoming is 4,000 acres or that West publicly advised a newly wealthy Black man to buy land; nor should anyone marvel that West is “passionate” in his commitment to the political goal of moving U.S. companies’ manufacturing back to the U.S., beginning with his own Yeezy apparel brand. His interest in American production is tied to his concern for the self-sufficiency and well-being of the Black community. He’s trying to recover their forty acres.
Furthermore, far from constituting a sea-change in his political commitments, West’s Republicanism arises in part from his increasing suspicion—well-founded or not—that wealthy white Democrats are attempting to control Black Americans in an effort to keep their extraordinarily high share of the Black vote. Referencing Joe Biden’s much-maligned statement to radio host Charlamagne tha God that “you ain’t black” if you vote for Trump, West said, “That’s what the Democrats are doing to my people. Threatening them to the point where this white man can tell a Black man if you don’t vote for me, you’re not Black.”
Far from an about-face, then, West’s newfound interest in the Republican party and in conservatism should be seen as an attempt to uphold Black autonomy, in part by refusing to be cowed into Democratic political allegiance. Or, as Malcolm X put it, “I’m not trying to knock out the Democrats for the Republicans…But it is true; you put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last.”
West’s social conservatism, in turn, is rooted in his abiding love of family, his Christianity, and again, in Black empowerment. The College Dropout, his first album, features “Family Business,” a moving dedication to family, with all of the pains and joys entailed by it. His second album, Late Registration, features an ode to his mother, Donda, who provided for him singlehandedly (“Hey Mama”); “Follow God” details his adult interactions with his now-Christian father, who admonishes him to be “Christ-like” and, in the music video, declares the importance of fathers providing examples that their children can walk in.
“Wouldn’t Leave” begins by explaining the pressure that his wife, Kim Kardashian, was under to leave him following incendiary comments he made about slavery, and it ends with him expressing his gratitude that she loves him enough to stay. West is himself an enthusiastic father of four, says he would like seven, and his music shows that he is sensitive to the evil of fatherlessness (see, for example, Late Registration’s “Crack Music”). And after his “born again” conversion experience, he has become more intent on raising his children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Thus, West’s commitment to family is borne from a deep affection for his parents, a desire to nurture and protect his children, and a commitment to marriage as an institution.
West’s views on abortion and contraception combine Christian concerns with concerns about Black solidarity and empowerment. In his recent interview with Forbes, he claims that he’s opposed to abortion because he’s following the “Word of the Bible” and alleges that “Planned Parenthoods have been placed inside cities by white supremacists to do the Devil’s work.” On a recent feature-verse recorded before he converted to Christianity, he minces no words: “Your girlfriend gets knocked up / Plan B was they plan A, to lower the count of our families / To lower the count on our damn votes” (“Ego Death”).
West’s claims about Planned Parenthood and contraception may seem ultra-conservative to contemporary progressives and outmoded to today’s evangelicals, but even here, West is following in a long line of Black nationalists and Protestant Christians. Civil Rights icon and Philadelphia City Councilman Cecil B. Moore actively opposed the establishment of Planned Parenthood in a majority-Black Philadelphia neighborhood, worrying it would “help the Negroes commit race suicide,” and many civil rights leaders were deeply suspicious of government funding for contraception, seeing it as a means for the U.S. Government to commit “genocide” against Black Americans.
With concerns not far removed from West’s, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin argued in his Commentary on Genesis that, by using contraception, “one quenches the hope of his family.” The family, West thinks, is not only a natural and Christian good; it is also an indispensable source of Black political and social empowerment. Those who threaten the family threaten the well-being of the Black community.
When Kanye West announced his presidential run, some supported him, most scoffed, and everyone wondered, “Can he be serious?” Whether West is serious about running is anybody’s guess, although there are signs he isn’t serious and signs he shouldn’t run. Since he declared his candidacy, some media figures have claimed West would peel votes from Joe Biden and throw the election to Trump.
But this is to misunderstand West’s heterodoxy. The political positions that make West appealing to the left—his positions on mass incarceration, police brutality, Black empowerment, opposition to the death penalty, and admiration for Bernie Sanders—are rooted in values that endear him to the right—faith in God, the importance of family, the good of children, and the power of owning property. He combines Bernie-style fiscal liberalism with social conservatism, Black solidarity with evangelical Christianity. It’s a potent combination. Let’s see what the nation does with it.
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- J. Bailey, ed., The Cultural Impact of Kanye West, 2014 edition (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 185. ↑
- Caron, Simone M. “Birth Control and the Black Community in the 1960s: Genocide or Power Politics?” Journal of Social History 31, no. 3 (1998): 545-69, 546. Accessed July 18, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/3789714. ↑
- Jean Calvin, Joseph Haroutunian, and Louise Pettibone Smith, Commentaries, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), vol. 2, p. 281. Note: in the 1996 Baker Books edition of Calvin’s commentaries, this passage has been inexplicably (or all-too-explicably) omitted by the editor. ↑