Fans of rapper Kanye West are struggling to see the artist who announced that “George Bush hates black people” wearing a MAGA hat and tweeting praise at Elon Musk. But Kanye’s observations from the era of Blkkk Skkkn Head to the current moment aren’t totally disconnected—they are all exploring American culture and history. A lot of what Kanye says sounds like the ideas that are thrown around in American Studies—by both students and colleagues. Sometimes you have to read between the tweets to get the whole story.
1. “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.”
This statement got Kanye more flack than calling Trump his “dragon brother,” but I think it deserves to be unpacked. Admittedly I have never had a student call slavery a choice, but I have heard the common misconception (or interpretation) that American slavery lasted for 400 years.
According to UT Professor of History Dr. Daina Berry, many people confuse the institution of slavery with the particular history of slavery in the United States. Four-hundred years is the length of time that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, according to the Bible. The transatlantic slave trade spanned 246 years. The term “400 years” ties the enslavement of black people in the modern world to biblical allegory. It also presents 20th-century and contemporary racism as a continuation of slavery. Scholars of American History stand beside hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco in using “400 years” as a description of the condition of black people in the United States. Out of context, the metaphor encourages one of many misconceptions about the history of American slavery.
By using the term “400 years,” I’m inclined to believe that Kanye is not calling chattel slavery a choice as much as it is about the choices people make about how they discuss slavery—though he could just be getting his historical facts from pop music.
2. “Basically Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays capitalized off of his uncle’s philosophies and created modern day consumerism.”
Kanye West is giving his Twitter followers a short-form recap of the Adam Curtis documentary, The Century of Self. Despite being four-hours long, the film makes for a good American Studies text. It traces the origins of modern American marketing to the “father of public relations,” Edward Bernays, who used psychoanalysis to manufacture desire in advertising. Kanye will likely be using Bernays’s lessons to sell sneakers.
3. “There’s a silent majority of people that have been silenced for too long.”
This is the sort of line that a student might say before expressing an unpopular or controversial opinion—probably because s/he heard it thrown around during the 2016 election—but it has a history far beyond its use in Donald Trump’s campaign. The phrase “silent majority” was first used by former President Richard Nixon. He believed that newsmedia portrayals of antiwar protests and the liberal slants of many journalists manufactured the illusion that the United States was against the Vietnam War. Nixon believed that his election served as proof of this stance.
Kanye uses the term “silent majority” much more liberally—he feels that unpopular opinions and movement away from the Democratic Party have become too taboo in American society, especially for famous people of color. Whether or not Kanye’s opinion is the majority, he certainly is not silent.
4. “We are programmed to always talk and fight race issues. We need to update our conversation.”
I would be hard-pressed to find a Professor or Teaching Assistant who has not heard a student make a similar statement. Kanye’s aphorism reflects the confused consciousness of a generation of people who have been simultaneously told that we are living in the least racist time in history and that racism is as present as it has ever been. It can be exhausting and depressing to talk about race issues all the time when fighting them often feels futile. Maybe this is what Kanye means as well, or maybe it is not. Updating a conversation does not have to mean abandoning it.
5. Joseph Beuys
Kanye West tweeted a scan of this image of a Joseph Beuys performance titled “I Like America and America Likes Me.” Beuys locked himself in a gallery room with a domesticated coyote, and insisted that this act could cure the negative energy and relations produced by the colonial conquest and genocide of Native American people in the United States.
Is Kanye West just doing some kind of performance art to make his audience question American history? Are my students performing when they make inflammatory statements or ask difficult questions?
In all seriousness, I have learned a lot from engaging with Kanye’s public reemergence. I hope this article helped you do the same.
Read Dr. Daina Berry’s article, “American Slavery, Separating Fact from Myth”
Experience the magic of Kanye West’s twitter
More about the author, Zoya Brumberg