Kanye West appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show Wednesday night after their recent Twitter “rap feud”– the one started after West didn’t take kindly to Kimmel’s spoof of the rapper’s BBC Radio interview with Zane Lowe.
Wednesday, West talked with Kimmel about seemingly everything from how the paparazzi treats celebrities like zoo animals to his love of fashion. But as per usual, commentators are reducing his remarks to senseless rants rooted in bravado and narcissism.
“Kanye reveled in reminding the ABC-watching universe of his own creative genius, artistic reach, love of Malcom Gladwell and ability to talk for a really long time without breathing,” wrote Katie Van Syckle in Rolling Stone.
But West’s interviews with both Lowe and Kimmel, like much of West’s past controversies, are much more complicated than most acknowledge, reflecting how West constantly looks at the world through the lens of race.
In both interviews, West discusses how hard Michael Jackson had to fight to get his videos on MTV in the 1980s because he was labeled “urban.” Drawing parallels to his own challenges in breaking through barriers in the fashion industry, West voiced anger about not being able to “break that [racial] wall down” despite all of his experience, starpower and proven commitment to fashion.
His frustration is one of validation and legitimacy, as he speaks of not being able to break the industry’s glass ceiling as a person of color and as a rapper. He doesn’t fit the “old money” mold and is therefore constantly confronted with classism. It’s a racialized classism that West knows is hurting his creativity and capacity for greater profit. He has every right to be angry about that.
West didn’t find humor in Kimmel’s portrayal of him as a child, because it mirrors the same dismissiveness and disrespect that he and other African American men and women face daily. In publicly pushing back against Kimmel’s spoof, West demanded that his thoughts, hopes and fears be taken seriously. This isn’t to say there’s no room for humor, as West found humor in the skit that mocked his past tweets, but the line that likely got crossed for West was one of emasculation.
Despite how often West spoke from a place of unmitigated ego, he qualified all those statements when he explained how radical it is for a black person to self-describe as a deity or genius. In contrast, the black pimp and hustler images, as he pointed out, have become normalized through rap culture.
While West’s comments highlighted celebrity culture, his “rant” was centered on his deep desire to be respected and to protect his loved ones. He stated, “I could care less about any of these cameras in all honesty. All I care about is my family. I care about protecting my girl, protecting my baby and protecting my ideas and my dreams.”
For West, that fight for self-affirmation and self-preservation is no different than the ones he had growing up. “There were moments I stood up to drug dealers in Chicago. I said, ‘you can’t have my publishing, come and kill me, do what you’re gonna do, but you’re not gonna bully me, you’re not gonna stop me, because my mother made me believe in myself.’”
Much of what West expresses today was instilled in him as a child from his caretakers who had roots in black nationalism and revolutionary thought. West echoed this when he spoke of his instinct to defend himself and preserve his humanity at any cost. As a self-described revolutionary, West will take on anything and anyone that he feels invalidates him or his community – the President, MTV, the fashion industry and now Kimmel. It’s no surprise that the media would rather mock him than deal with the racial undertones of his anger.