Kanye West’s controversial slavery comments merit reflection

Kanye West’s comments about slavery—calling the situation in Africans imported to the Americas as slaves a “choice”—has sparked widespread controversy in the Black community. If there’s one thing rappers are supposed to be at all times though, it’s controversial.

Not only has West courted controversy over the years, but also he’s basically married to it. He married into one of America’s most publicized and controversial matriarchal families, the Kardashians. He interrupted the Grammy Awards by rushing onstage to complain about Taylor Swift having been awarded best album instead of his best friend (at the time) JAY-Z’s wife Beyoncé. He famously accused President George W. Bush of not caring about Black people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He has had well-publicized breaks with sanity, including most recently having canceled a world tour and entering a mental treatment facility. Most recently, he has buddied up with President Donald Trump, a seemingly controversial choice for a rapper with as much street cred as West.

At the end of the day, West craves attention. He loves this game of public persona building as much as he loves his musical craft. That is the lens through which we should view West’s slavery comments. As West has probably learned from his buddy President Trump, even negative publicity is good publicity when you are a person who feeds on attention. Almost the entire hip-hop community as well as noted prognosticators, including ESPN sportscaster Stephen A. Smith and late night news host Don Lemon, have roundly criticized Kanye’s statements, telling him in effect to “stay in his lane.”

Wait—Haven’t we heard something like that before? When conservative news host Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” and stop poking his nose into politics, she got blasted by the Black community for having launched a racist attack on James. It is curious now that the very same community is telling West to in effect “shut up and rap” (a physical impossibility by the way).

West is not new to the slave analogy and actually has a lot to say. He famously talked about “New Slaves,” in a brilliant rambling rap song about the transition from physical slavery to being enslaved by ignorance and consumerism. The former “broke racism” excluded Blacks from equal participation in American life. The newer “rich racism” has Blacks being urged by the images in media and rap music lyrics to engage in mindless acts of conspicuous consumption to compensate for the psychological wounds caused by “broke racism.” Forget offering an artist a real contract, he says, imitating a record company exec, “You know that Blacks can’t read…just throw ‘em the Maybach keys.”

He rapped even on his debut album “College Dropout” about the journey from “slave ship” to “grave-shift.” He attempted to juxtapose the decreasing value of college education caused by the debt burden and a shifting economic structure, with the dangers of consumerism and the pitfalls of wealth. He warned against the pathologies of consumerism, citing the case of an unwed young mother struggling to finish college who “couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexus.” He urged his fans to consider dropping out of college and creating businesses instead. Of course, many of the country’s leading entrepreneurs have urged just the same thing—Steve Jobs, industrialist Peter Theil and Seth Godin are just a few of them.