The debate over whether we can enjoy Kanye West’s music is frustrating, but necessary
With the weight of that responsibility on our backs, it can be difficult to navigate enjoying art that doesn’t support the Black community
On October 12, Howard students awoke to a 6 AM email from the university’s administration with a special announcement. Controversial rap legend Kanye West would be performing his infamous Sunday Service, a choral performance of his gospel-infused discography, in the Yard that very morning, in accompaniment with the many celebrities that perform during Howard’s Homecoming extravaganza. The Chicago artists arrived at 8 AM, gathering an adoring crowd at the prestigious historically Black university.
But he wasn’t welcomed with open arms. His presence on campus inspired vehement mixed reactions that ranged from total disdain to euphoric redemption. Some were horrified that the administration allowed Kanye to perform, citing his claims that slavery was a choice and his vocal support of President Donald Trump. Associate professor at Howard’s Department of Afro-American Studies Greg Carr sent out a powerful tweet calling upon Kanye to go to the university’s library to read The Miseducation of the Negro.
If @kanyewest is indeed at #HowardU this morning, send him to the third floor of Founder’s Library after he’s done. I have some books for him.#TheMiseducationOfTheNegro
— Greg Carr (@AfricanaCarr) October 12, 2019
Others were inspired by the beauty of Kanye’s repurposed music. Howard freshman Mia Lawrence said that despite the rapper’s polarizing presence, the performance was breathtaking. Those outside of the Howard community, myself included, experienced all of this via social media. The videos I saw highlighted his interaction with the crowd, and the triumphant harmonies layered over Kanye classics like “Jesus Walks”, and enthralled me.
I was shocked at my connection to the performance, and my visceral response to it.
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As I stared at my screen, clapping my hands on the upbeat and humming familiar melodies, I felt a strange shame in relation to my enjoyment. I couldn’t help but feel guilty for my joy. Kanye’s politics and opinions have been deemed by many as “anti-Black,” which is a categorization that is not far-fetched. His frequent donning of MAGA hats and his summit with President Trump have felt like a very public abandonment of the Black community. But I couldn’t deny the fact that his new gospel-music felt good to me. Really good.
The internal dilemma I went through while watching Kanye’s performance is indicative of the complicated experience of a Black consumer. Particularly in this socio-political climate, there is an intense need for Black people to protect, respect and uplift our community. With the enormity and power of social media, the ability we have as consumers to support, promote and consume art gives us new agency to set trends, and even catalyze movements. With this, there is an urgency for us as Black consumers to demand, by way of our monetary and public support, art that is holistically representative of the Black experience.
With the weight of that responsibility on our backs and ringing in our ears, it can be difficult to navigate enjoying art that doesn’t support or uplift the Black community.
The struggle is multilayered. First, there’s determining what line has to be crossed by a brand or individual that warrants refusing to consume their product in the name of supporting the culture. Is a company employing a racist CEO enough of a transgression for us to refuse to buy their products? Is an artist saying something inappropriate or ignorant about Black culture enough for us to stop enjoying their art?
Then, if you do make the choice to no longer support that brand or artist, there’s the disappointment and betrayal you feel in adjusting your feelings. I experienced this recently when non-Black Jane the Virgin actress Gina Rodriguez was caught saying the n-word while singing along to popular Fugees hit “Ready or Not”. I, an avid fan of Rodriguez, was appalled and made the personal decision to no longer watch, listen or support the art she produces.
Like I felt with Rodriguez, I think those who feel passionately about “cancelling” Kanye are justified in their choice. Separating the man from the music is near impossible—they live in the same vessel and the consumption of the art supports the man. But I also understand those who are gravitating to Kanye’s new album, and I don’t think acknowledging both of these realities as valid should be mutually exclusive.
Both the inclination to cancel Kanye and to listen to him are valid. The experience of the Black consumer is challenging, and as we move forward in this digital age, our experience will only increase in complexity. This debate won’t cease to exist, and I think that is a good thing. We need to hold each other to the highest standard when it comes to truly standing by the community we are a part of, and in order to do so we need to acknowledge everything we think and feel without needing to label it good or bad.
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As we continue to debate and push each other to do better for the community, however, let’s make sure that we approach these conversations with kindness and understanding. If we want to uplift the black community, we have to practice that in everything we do, especially when having these kinds of conversations.
I’ll be listening to Kanye’s album, Jesus is King, to hopefully ignite the joy and freedom of spirit I feel when I listen to music. While I’m still cautious in expressing my choice as a Black consumer to my peers in the demographic, I do look forward to the conversations about the Black experience that this piece of art will surely spark that will help me determine how to better uplift my people, and I think we all should welcome it.
Kui Mwai is a freelance writer based out of DC. Her passion is using the written word to offer authenticity, humor, and truth to the issues that face the communities she is apart of- the black community, the international community, the feminist community. She prides herself on using her third culture perspective to offer compelling and fresh commentary on a myriad of social topics, from women’s issues in sub-Saharan African to black culture in America.