Kanye West at the listening party for Nas’ “Nasir” album in New York, June 14, 2018 (David X Prutting/BFA/REX/Shutterstock)
Rebel is Rebecca Carroll‘s regular column on race and pop culture. You can hear Rebecca talk about these issues with guests on Wednesday mornings on WNYC, or participate in one of Rebel’s monthly conversations in The Greene Space.
Kanye West may be trending, but he’s also actively regressing. This week in an interview for The New York Times, West addressed his struggle with mental health, his support of President Donald Trump and that whole “slavery was a choice” comment from last month. He failed, though, to comment on or even recognize how his fame has warped his moral compass. And that is dangerous for anyone, but for a black male artist in Trump’s America, it signals a certain kind of delusion and atrophy.
Provocative quotes peppered the interview —provocative in the sense that West hopes they will sound like original thinking, but really just sound like anti-thinking — but the one that gave me the most pause was West’s thoughts on what privileges an artist should be afforded: “We need to be able to be in situations where you can be irresponsible. That’s one of the great privileges of an artist. An artist should be irresponsible in a way — a 3-year-old.”
My first read of this was that it falls squarely in line with the “I’m not black, I’m Kanye” bromide, which has come across the transom in both implicit and explicit ways over the past couple of years. But then I thought, wait, who is the “we” here, and also, in what situations are we talking about being irresponsible? Because if there was ever a situation to not be irresponsible, it’s the one we’re in right now.
Hear Rebel on WNYC—Rebecca Carroll’s conversation with Mike Ladd on the moral responsibility of black artists is below.
Many black artists, including Ava DuVernay, Jesse Williams and Lena Waithe, currently feel legitimately concerned about the state of America, because of the steep increase in hate crimes and emboldened racial violence, the sick and unconscionable immigration policies that have ripped children from their parents, and the list goes on. And so they are using their platforms across genres to take a moral stand against what is pretty clearly shaping up to be a fascist regime. Among those artists is Mike Ladd, the Paris-based American hip-hop artist who has been bending the genre to showcase his own form of moral consciousness for 20 years.
Ladd is the obverse of West. He’s been in the business just as long, but instead of West’s ethic of impulsivity, he’s embraced an ethic of responsibility. His seminal album, Welcome to the Afterfuture, recorded around the time that Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by police in New York, is, sadly, still relevant today. He returns to the subject of police violence this week as part of a collaborative performance at The Kitchen, commissioned by composer Vijay Iyer for The Racial Imaginary Institute.
I spoke with Ladd on WNYC on Wednesday, and was struck when he said, “You can’t avoid morality. You know, it’s like oxygen. You know it’s still going to be there.” Especially because I couldn’t imagine Kanye West —- who has a much higher profile and so a much greater influence —- ever doing the equivalent.
Ladd says that he is creating socially-responsible work not out of a sense of obligation, or even necessarily as a form of political activism, but as a reflection of how he chooses to live his life. Other artists are doing the same. In this context, what does West’s credo on irresponsibility as an artist say about how he’s living his life? And at what cost? West doesn’t need to be a role model or a beacon of morality. But to say that because he is an artist he shouldn’t be responsible for what he puts out into the world is not a privilege, it’s a fallacy. Privilege is living in a bubble of wealth and celebrity and adulation that allows you to redefine words and concepts to justify a lack of political literacy.
No one but Kanye West knows what’s in the mind of Kanye West, but he and we are witnessing an era when it feels like the entire country’s moral compass is being distorted. For West to absolve himself from responsibility is to be complicit in that distortion.
Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also a critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, and a regular columnist at Shondaland in addition to Gothamist. She is the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely.