A week ago, Kanye West said that 400 years of slavery was a “choice,” appearing to blame enslaved black people for not freeing themselves sooner. He said that the discussion about putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill made him want “to use Bitcoin,” because, “It’s like when you see all the slave movies: Why you gotta keep reminding us about slavery?” And West said that certain black icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are “just too far in the past and not relatable and that’s what makes them safe.”
That much may be true, wrote the acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic on Monday — but that freedom of thought champions a certain kind of freedom, Coates wrote: a “white freedom.”
Coates is a National Book Award winner for “Between the World and Me” and national correspondent for the Atlantic, writing most frequently about social issues affecting black people in America.
Coates’s latest essay, “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye,” reads like a eulogy for something lost at the same time that it is a takedown of West for his “ignorance,” which Coates described as “not merely deep, but also dangerous.” He compares West to both President Trump and Michael Jackson. And he laments West’s evolution from a hip-hop revolutionary — “a god” who “made music for them, for the young and futuristic” — to a revolutionary who is also a blustery “mouthpiece” for the types of theories and beliefs that play down racism in America.
Coates joins Snoop Dogg, Janelle Monae, Jordan Peele, John Legend, Samuel L. Jackson and others in condemning West’s comments. None have done so as systematically as Coates, a master essayist.
“West calls his struggle the right to be a ‘free thinker,’ ” Coates wrote, “and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom — 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; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak.”
To Coates, West’s comments playing down racism (in 2015 West said racism was “dated” and a “silly concept”) is akin to Michael Jackson’s whitewashed face. Jackson’s “physical destruction,” he wrote, “was our physical destruction, because if the black God … could not be beautiful in his own eyes, then what hope did we have … of ever escaping the muck?”
“Who can really stop a black god dying to be white?” Coates questioned.
To Coates, it’s the same deal for Kanye West, a “god in this time.”
Coates, who said that he was enthralled with West’s music when he first heard him two decades ago, devoted significant space to noting West’s support for Trump and even likening the two of them. Trump was recently so smitten with West’s support that he questioned how much influence West had with black voters, claiming poll numbers for that demographic shot up following West’s recent praise for him.
In comparing West to Trump, Coates wrote: “Like Trump, West is a narcissist, ‘the greatest artist of all time,’ he claimed, helming what would soon be ‘the biggest apparel company in human history.’ And, like Trump, West is shockingly ignorant. Chicago was ‘the murder capital of the world,’ West asserted, when in fact Chicago is not even the murder capital of America.”
Coates also recalled Trump’s comments after the Charlottesville protests, in which Trump appeared to place white supremacists and neo-Nazis on the same moral plane as the counterprotesters decrying racism.
“West’s thoughts are not original,” Coates wrote. “The apocryphal Harriet Tubman quote and the notion that slavery was a ‘choice’ echoes the ancient trope that slavery wasn’t that bad; the myth that blacks do not protest crime in their community is pure Giulianism; and West’s desire to ‘go to Charlottesville and talk to people on both sides’ is an extension of Trump’s response to the catastrophe. These are not stray thoughts. They are the propaganda that justifies voter suppression, and feeds police brutality, and minimizes the murder of Heather Heyer,” the woman killed when a car driven by a self-professed neo-Nazi rammed into demonstrators in Charlottesville. “And Kanye West is now a mouthpiece for it.”
West, Coates wrote, “will likely pay also for his thin definition of freedom.”
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