Are you an individual? Or are you a cog in the great machine of race? Are your achievements your own, or do they belong to that machine? That’s the big question bubbling up over Kanye West, and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has finally brought it to the surface.
Yesterday, Coates tore into West in brutal fashion, alleging that West had bowed to the power of whiteness, leaving behind his own people. Coates stated that West had acted as an apotheosis of blackness, the apex of black cultural history: “When [Michael] Jackson sang and danced, when West samples or rhymes, they are tapping into a power formed under all the killing, all the beatings, all the rape and plunder that made America. The gift can never wholly belong to a singular artist, free of expectation and scrutiny, because the gift is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it.” West’s music is not his own — it is the collective property of black people across the world. West is not a creator; he is merely a conduit for black history and culture.
And so West has broken faith with that role by thinking for himself. By embracing Trump — or at least expressing openness to him — West has given way to white history going back to “before there was an America, when the first Carib was bayoneted and the first African delivered up in chains.” West, Coates wrote, has “chosen collaboration.”
What Kanye West seeks is what Michael Jackson sought — liberation from the dictates of that “we.” . . . West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a 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, the freedom of rape buttons, [p***y] grabbers, and [f***] you anyway, [b****]; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.
Put aside the innate racism of linking all of these elements — as though living in a suburb puts one in league with John C. Calhoun, as though supporting Stand Your Ground laws (which were not implicated in the Trayvon Martin shooting, by the way) somehow makes you an advocate for “antipathy or indifference to the weak,” as though support of the Iraq war comes naturally along with rapist tendencies, as though all of these variegated positions and tendencies fall under the rubric of “white freedom.” Put aside the fact that white people aren’t the only “proud and ignorant” people in American politics — there are plenty; put aside the fact that white people aren’t the only people to brag about grabbing women by the genitals (listen to some top-40 rap). Put aside the fact that Trump hasn’t bayoneted any Caribs or enslaved any Africans, and that his supporters haven’t either.
Focus instead on Coates’s argument that the “we” of Kanye is more important than the “I.” He returns to that theme at the end of his 5,000-word screed: “I wonder what he might be, if he could find himself back into connection, back to that place where he sought not a disconnected freedom of ‘I,’ but a black freedom that called him back — back to the bone and drum, back to Chicago, back to Home.”
In attacking West in this fashion, Coates actually proves West’s larger point.
Imagine that the races were reversed. Imagine that this were Kevin Williamson writing about Garth Brooks endorsing Barack Obama, or at least expressing openness to Obama’s political viewpoint. Imagine that Williamson had written that Brooks’s “free thought” actually represented “black freedom,” or that Brooks’s music obviously owed something to a particular legacy of folk music predominant in the white community — that Brooks was the apotheosis of whiteness, and could not simply leave his whiteness behind on behalf of his individual politics. Imagine Williamson writing that Brooks ought to return “back to the fiddle and the bagpipes, back to Texas, back to Home.” No doubt he’d have been run out of work at The Atlantic. But Coates is the sort of fellow who can, with a straight face, write those words after chiding himself for having briefly stood up in Williamson’s favor: “I feel like I kind of failed The Atlantic in that advice. I feel like I failed the writers of color here in that advice.”
In attacking West in this fashion, Coates actually proves West’s larger point. West argued that he was an individual, capable of making individual decisions and thinking individual thoughts; he argued that there were many Americans who wanted to box him in, deliberately prevent him from thinking outside that box. Coates’ response: Stop thinking outside the box, or I’ll call you white.
It’s not West who’s got a hidebound view of freedom. It’s Coates, whose view of freedom is ethnic loyalty — ethnic loyalty apparently defined by willingness to fight more traditional definitions of individualism and freedom on behalf of a racial collective.