Hip hop’s treatment of Kanye is bad for free expression

‘I didn’t come here to be liked, I came here to make a difference.’ Kanye West said these words in a Radio 1 interview in 2015, and there is no better articulation of the spirit of hip hop. Rap music has always been about giving a voice to the voiceless, saying the unsayable and using controversy as an engine for cultural change. As the great Ice T once said in his seminal old school song ‘Freedom Of Speech’:

‘Your opinion is yours, my opinion is mine
If you don’t like what I’m sayin’? Fine
But don’t close it, always keep an open mind
A man who fails to listen is blind
We only got one right left in the world today
Let me have it or throw The Constitution away…’

However, Kanye West’s recent endorsement of Donald Trump and some prominent black conservatives, has led to many leaders of that same hip hop community turning on West, defaming his character, calling him a sellout and questioning his mental health. The reaction became even more virulent after West gave an interview on TMZ where he said that 400 years of slavery, ‘seems like choice’. West later clarified his comments on Twitter, emphasising that he was in no way victim blaming, or saying that black people had chosen slavery of their own free will. What he meant, according to his tweets, was that slavery can’t exist without a corresponding mindset that keeps the brutal institution in place.

West’s comments were unfortunate. An overall message about letting go of the past and giving a fresh perspective on the challenges black people face in modern America, has now been swallowed up in social media misrepresentations and the predictable cacophony of outrage. The TMZ interview backfired, and in many ways, West has himself to blame. He was clearly manic, and caught up in a breathless, stream-of-consciousness rant. Had he taken time to collect his thoughts, his appearance on the channel may have been a positive and empowering cultural breakthrough.

In the wake of his provocative statements a petition was started online urging Adidas to sever ties with West. The Care2 petition accused West of being rich and out of touch with the black community, and called for consumers to vote with their feet in protest to what they see as West’s ‘dangerous propaganda’. The petition said: ‘Kanye West has a right to free speech, and he has the right to spout lies and misinformation and misplaced opinions — but we as consumers have the right to fight back against this type of dangerous propaganda.’.

Hosts of Detroit radio show 105.1 The Bounce have announced that they are going to ban Kanye’s music from their show. In a statement posted on Facebook, the hosts said: ’…we are taking a stand and we aren’t playing his music anymore; we just are refusing to give him a platform.’ This no-platforming battle cry was followed by the chilling hashtag #MuteKanye.

On New York’s Hot 97, morning DJ Ebro Darden has repeatedly slammed Kanye for his support of Trump, and after the rapper tweeted a picture of himself wearing a MAGA hate, Ebro publicly accused him of ‘cooning for cash’. In response to the TMZ statement, Darden has also attacked Kanye for being ignorant of black history, before triumphantly tweeting: ‘The Kanye boycott has begun.’Following on from his celebrity peers like Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar and Drake – who have all conspicuously ‘unfollowed West on social media – Snoop Dogg joined in the groupthink by sharing a photoshopped image of Kanye as a white man. 

There is something decidedly non-hip hop about all this outrage. Kanye himself has recently released a new track where he and rapper T.I. battle/debate the ideas he is experimenting with, showing that West is clearly sincere in his desire to spark new dialogue and empower people with innovative ways of looking at social problems. Yet, such open-mindedness is not enough for the guardians of the ‘cool’.

Surely it is better that our rappers are wrong but thought and speak freely, than to have them say all the ‘right’ things while contracting out their critical thinking to a parasitical bourgeois class of radio DJs, late night hosts and self-elected ‘woke’ pundits?

Any effective movement of creative emancipation requires a diversity of voices each with their own solution to the common challenge at hand. The hip hop backlash against Kanye, however, is symptomatic of the Robespierrian fanaticism that has arrested the counterculture in general. Anyone who deviates from the party line is branded an ‘enemy of the revolution’. Such intolerance of dissent is the same reactionary anti-creative populism that sent Oscar Wilde to the treadmill and drove the likes of Jim Morrison and Lenny Bruce to self-destruction.

The very culture that gave young black men like Kanye a voice is now casting out one of the most inventive and singular artists of the age. Let’s just hope that Kanye’s trademark massive ego is as tough as it appears to be. Free expression and the future of popular culture depend on it.


IAM bring true rap music to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire

The sharp, mint fragrance of refined marijuana drifted across the crowd. The festive noise of the audience was half soccer derby, half 90s rave. Red cigarette dots glowed from the standing rabble on the Victorian baroque gallery where there hung Marseille football shirts like tribal flags.

IAM gave a tight, battle-tested performance this weekend at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. Their blend of lyrical French poetry with old school hardcore production makes for a sophisticated aesthetic. The insistence of rhythm mixes with commanding storytelling, opening up wounds in your subconscious whether you understand the lyrics or not.

From the seminal album L’École du Micro d’Argent, the group performed one of their most famous songs, Nés Sous La Meme Etoile. It deals with the seemingly eternal problem of social injustice and racism, and the question of why some people are cursed to live miserable, deprived lives in a supposedly free society.

Born under the same star – the song is not so much social commentary as a cry of despair, the weight of rage at undeserved fate, all the while living in a society that promises a bourgeois emancipation. The heaviness of the themes are driven home by a sweet, near-melodic refrain, which the crowd dutifully took part in.

La Saga also featured on the set, a song in the classic 90s hardcore vein, mixing political defiance with a powerful personal swagger.

Sometimes referred to as the French Wu-Tang, IAM also performed the song L’Empire du Côté Obscur, which mixes pop culture iconography with politics and social protest. The ‘Dark Empire’ in the song is the culture at large, which promises convenience and comfort in exchange for a Faustian pact from each citizen. In order to live in the contemporary culture, we trade our souls, we become slaves, and it is all done on a subconscious level.

The meaning here is subtle. Far from being merely a polemic against the culture, it is more of an unflinching description of the double-bind everyone faces in modernity, particularly if you want to free yourself from the hell of marginalisation and poverty. You can’t beat the devil, you have to join him or declare yourself at war with him.

The themes work on various levels, one of them perhaps being the terror of losing your identity, as an immigrant community becomes swallowed up by a host nation. Something has to give; either it’s your connection to where your from, or it’s your chances of making something of yourself in a corrupt and homogenised culture.

Another classic was Petit Frère, which tells the story of a young boy’s discarded innocence in the face of meaningless crime and deprivation. There’s something Blakean about the picture the song paints; one minute a child is playing in the snow dreaming about fairy tales, the next minute the same child is enslaved to addiction, chasing a fantasy of violence and money.

This brilliant show ended with the epic Demain C’est Loin, a ten-minute work of performance literature. The subject is the street once again, but rather than pushing a political point it simply shows the complete landscape of inner city life.

You didn’t need to understand the lyrics to be drawn into the groove that this track creates, sucking you into a vortex of finely sliced funk, the words spitting in balletic movements across a monumental beat. The effect was meditative, the whole crowd unified in one philosophic mind.

True hip hop is the beat, and the word made flesh. The era from which IAM emerged was a golden age of rap music, one which brought together the intellect and the primal body in a way rock n roll only ever managed in a fragile way.

With rap acts like IAM you think and dance at the same time, and as a result the depth of meaning becomes a part of your nervous system, even before you comprehend the message.