A lot of digital ink has been spilled in pursuit of the roots of Kanye West’s seemingly inexplicable alt-right turn. While some believe that he’s just doing it for attention or out of spite for slights on the part of the past President, and others praise him as legitimately seeking to free his thinking, I’m less interested in the “why” than the “how” — namely, “How do we show Kanye just how wrong he is?”
After all, the views he’s espoused have been condescending toward Black folks, reinforced alt-right talking points that justify deplorable, harmful policies, and supported the President who’s repeatedly expressed openly bigoted and misogynistic views during his first term. It’s normalizing all those things to have one of the most recognizable Black faces in pop culture reiterating them, and while the damage he’s doing can’t be measured, he’s definitely reassuring bigots and idiots — both right and left wing — that their worst biases against Black people are confirmed.
Incidentally, the “how do we fix this” solution comes directly from something Kanye himself explained during the run-up to the release of his coffee table book detailing his Watch The Throne Tour with Jay-Z. “I am a proud non-reader of books,” he once said, both giving us the prime explanation and the easiest fix for his current tailspin. Kanye West just needs to counteract the Youtube clickhole he’s undoubtedly found himself trapped in with some good, old-fashioned pages of words of the well-researched, peer-reviewed, primary-sourced variety that inform the reader and nourish the soul.
However, if that undertaking seems too taxing for the written word skeptic, at the very least, it might behoove him to incorporate some viewpoints other than those of the “next Tomi Lahren” Candace Owens. Rather than continuing to berate Mr. West for parroting these condescending and ignorant views, here are some suggestions for books from Black authors and true thought leaders that may do the work that thousands of troll responses on Twitter will never be able to — replace those ill-informed opinions with genuine knowledge and understanding of just why his statements have been so hurtful in the first place. We miss the Old Kanye — maybe a better-informed New Kanye is the first step to bringing him back.
The Autobiography Of Malcolm X by Alex Haley
For all of Kanye’s talk of “free thought” and being a revolutionary, it seems he needs a refresher course in just what those things actually look like. Malcolm X was a true revolutionary at a time when the world most needed one, taking on not just the racist system that had oppressed Black folks for centuries, but also the Nation of Islam, when he began to chafe against their restrictive view of Black liberation (which, incidentally, looked a lot like white supremacy, just upside down).
Amani Al – Khatahtbeh
The Trump administration’s travel ban is capitalizing off of Islamophobia to rip apart Muslim families and keep hardworking taxpayers out of the country they’ve made a home in. The egregious policy affects countless people, including many (possibly former) fans of Kanye.
He should pay attention to Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, who co-founded Muslim Girl, a media outlet which aims to normalize the word Muslim and present firsthand accounts of what life is like as a Muslim woman not just in America, but throughout the world. She also wrote a memoir entitled Muslim Girl: Coming Of Age, which offers insight on just how difficult it can be to navigate life as a Muslim woman.
Kanye has mentioned on Twitter that he feels we need to break “the simulation.” He’s a father, a husband, an artist, and the head of a brand that he says is on the course to be worth a billion dollars. It’s got to be taxing to be inundated with the demands he faces every day.
That’s how it was for cultural critic, writer, and “futurist comedian” Baratunde Thurston, who decided to “unplug” for 25 days in 2013. Though it’s unlikely that Kanye would be able to become a minimalist and live his life with one pair of jeans and shoes, taking an annual reprieve from the digital world — and whatever else is eating at him — may be healthy for his spirit. Also, Thurston is a pretty funny guy. Maybe Kanye needs some reality-based humor to enlighten him to what Black people who aren’t one of the biggest music stars in the world go through.
Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ heartfelt letter to his son describes the world that Yeezy feels he’s left behind, the world of the everyday Black person just trying to survive in a world where a cell phone, a wallet, or loose cigarettes can be considered grounds for the police to issue fatal sentences in the moment. Without a judge or a jury, thousands of Black men face execution any time they are stopped for a traffic violation, for “fitting the description,” or for no real reason at all. Kanye may be privileged enough to have never dealt with this before his rise to fame and fortune, and may feel sheltered in his cloistered Calabasas community, but this uncomfortable reckoning of just what his fans face on a day-to-day basis may serve as a reminder that his words only bolster authority, blaming the victims for their own oppression.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Even before Kanye got with Kim Kardashian and started saying “racism is a dated concept,” Black women called out the sexism and colorism rampant in his music. It’s sad to think that it would be nice if that were the only criticism he could be levied with in 2018, but it’s not. That’s why Kanye would do well reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Feminism Is For Everybody or paying attention to one of her speeches, since he doesn’t like reading.
When a French journalist who asked if “there are Bookshops in Nigeria,” she told him, “I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you’ve had to ask me that question,” which showcased a quick-wit that would pretty easily tear Candace Owens’ rhetoric to shreds in a debate.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
While Kanye continues to burrow further into the belief that only colorblindness can save American race relations, a deep reading of James Baldwin’s 1963 treatise on the central role of race in American history may just open his eyes to the fallacy of that belief. As long as Kanye — and America itself — continue to buy into the myth of white supremacy, the true cancer of society will continue to fester and metastasize throughout every aspect of our government, our media, our jobs, and our homes. Baldwin pointedly calls out the failure of the policy of denial in addressing the true problems of American society, and many good folks, including Kanye West, could stand to hear his message.
Frank P. Wilderson
Before Kanye had everyone pissed off by intimating that “slavery was a choice,” he initially veered his return to the spotlight off course by expressing admiration for Owens, a YouTube personality who runs with the worn-to-shreds trope that Black Americans are slaves to the Democratic Party — oh, and she believes oppression doesn’t exist. Her takes aren’t “free thought,” though Kanye continues to extol her as a beacon of just that.
It seems he’s conflating the concept of “free thought” with merely being a contrarian. No one has to deny the existence of systemic oppression as a baseline signifier of being a “free thinker.” — in fact, no worthwhile thought begins without that acknowledgment.
Afro-Pessimism, for instance, is one of the most provocative manifestations Black thought and grapples with the reality that dismantling white supremacy — including slavery’s effects — involves abolishing political institutions and social norms all over the world, as they’re infected with the stench of racially-biased treachery.
Given how artistically adventurous Kanye has always been — and how distressed he is with the status quo — it would be intriguing to see him explore Frank B. Wilderson’s interpretation of Afro-Pessimism that, “one cannot know Blackness as distinct from slavery, for there is no Black temporality which is antecedent to the temporality of the Black slave.”
Kanye should feel a way about Trump mischaracterizing Chicago as a veritable war zone while on the campaign trail, but as GLC noted, Kanye’s been away so long that the insult may not resonate for him. It certainly does for Chicago activists on the frontlines, such as Ja’Mal Green. The 22-year-old speaks every day about police predation, civic negligence and the toll that gun violence takes on hardworking communities. He also trumpets the need to challenge Chicago’s current Mayoral administration. But he’s not just talking, he’s running for Mayor in 2019.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
As preoccupied as Kanye seems to be with telling people how they should endeavor to live, it’s telling that he lives a sequestered, out-of-touch life for himself. Maybe if he saw how people lived, the true breadth and depth of the Black American experience, he’d reconsider some of his views. To that end, Zora Neal Hurston’s tale of a Black woman’s journey through the Reconstruction era South might go a long way toward changing his perception of how the average Black person sees themselves. There’s less fretting over the sociological implications of an inherently racist system and more thought being given to how to live a life, complete with joy, love, pain, passion, rejection, and confident self-love in the face judgment and derision. Maybe it’s something he’ll relate to which will open his mind to how much more he still has to learn.
Juan Felipe Herrera
Kanye released “Blood On The Leaves,” but former national poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera wrote Blood on The Wheel, a powerful poem that explores the different connotations of the word “Blood” — as a placeholder for family, and as an effect of the violence that’s permeated American culture. Too much blood was shed at Trump rallies, as opposing sides fought over his polarizing pathology, specifically a promise to build a wall to keep Mexicans from entering the country.
Perhaps if Kanye heard what Herrera told KPBS, he’d be as moved as he was from Van Lathan’s stern talking-to and rethink any sort of alliance with Trump:
It’s a terrible crime to border people off. People are starving, people are suffering, people are trying to keep their children alive and themselves alive and their families alive back home, where there is violence and poverty as well. So, to stop them and build a wall to prevent them from crossing and treat them as animals and put them in cages to sleep on the floor with a light thin wool blanket and water, that is not right, that is just not right no matter what ideology you have.
Lourdes Ashley Hunter
Trump’s proposed health care rollbacks would hinder the care that trans people receive, and allow hospitals to return to the practice of denying them services such as hormone therapy and gender reassignment procedures. He’s also attempting to bar transgender people from the opportunity to enter the military. There’s not a lot of empathy going on there.
Kanye should speak to activists like Lourdes Ashley Hunter, a DC-based, Black trans woman who co-founded the Trans Women Of Color Collective (TWOCC). She fights every day to not only dismantle micro and macro marginalization of trans people in American society but to foster “socioeconomic growth,” as she told Huffington Post.
Maybe Kanye would appreciate a quote of her’s that’s after his own heart: “My Mom reminded me that she has given me the tools to navigate this world and that every time I speak my truth, obstacles disappear, healing begins, [and] liberation manifests.”
Michael Eric Dyson
It’s no secret that Kanye is a spiritual person. His desire to look beyond racial constructs and play to the hearts of conservatives with his convoluted love movement is in part inspired by his devotion to Christ, which is all over his last The Life Of Pablo album. It can be hard for spiritual and religious people to separate their urge to see the good in people from the realities of structural racism — as evidenced by fellow musician Erykah Badu’s past controversy with “seeing the good in Hitler.”
One person who straddles that line best is Michael Eric Dyson, a powerful orator and incisive mind who’s both a cultural critic and a reverend. He’s committed to his Christian faith, but that doesn’t mean he’s the type to focus on prayer or clamor for love in lieu of laying out injustice and its perpetrators. He’s released countless books and done interviews speaking on the very real nature of racism. Even Trump once commended his intelligence. Perhaps he could give Kanye some insight on how to be a loving person — but still condemn institutional racism when he sees it.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
The best argument against Kanye’s rosy view of a post-racial society in which everyone gets the same opportunities and Black folks just need to “free their minds” to achieve success and avoid the pitfalls of American injustice comes from this 2010 non-fiction tome from legal scholar Michelle Alexander. In it, Alexander breaks down just how the War On Drugs, with its discriminatory enforcement and prejudicial sentencing, only reinforces white supremacy and the legacy of Jim Crow in the modern era. Alexander deconstructs the de facto caste system created by unbalanced incarceration rates and points out just how the “new Jim Crow” relies on the exceptionalism of personalities like Barack Obama and Kanye West himself to reinforce the idea of upward mobility despite overwhelming statistical evidence that it has never been as simple as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and the only thing needed to keep this system in place is the continued indifference of its beneficiaries.
Kanye went on a campaign in 2013 to promote his Yeezus album, demanding to be accepted into the European fashion circle and ignoring people’s advice to go at it independently. It seems like at the time, he had a good grasp of why these longstanding European brands weren’t willing to allow him to assimilate, but maybe he needs a refresher. Perhaps Prabal Gurung, a fellow fashion designer — and frequent critic of Trump — would be a good person for him to talk to.
Vogue magazine acknowledged that “activism is built into Gurung’s current agenda” as a fashion maven with his collection of feminist and immigrant-championing slogan t-shirts. But it’s not all imagery with him, as the Nepalese designer has routinely spoken against the Trump administration on Twitter and Instagram. He’s also leveraging his privilege in an attempt to phase out sexism in the fashion world. Kanye has collaborated on shows with him before, but hopefully, they can find some time to build on why wearing a MAGA hat to promote music is a corrosive fashion statement.
Roots by Alex Haley
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Maybe it’s the feeling of separation, the idea that slavery was generations ago and far removed from our modern troubles that lets Kanye and those he cheerleads pretend that there is no utility in acknowledging the devastation the institution caused. Alex Haley’s exploration of his family’s genealogy makes his ancestors’ stories real, and underlines the fact that these were real people, with experiences that informed what they taught their children, and what those children taught their children. America is nothing if not a timeline of learned traditions, but the one tradition that seemingly fails to get passed along is the one that is most needed: Honoring our shared humanity, and recognizing each others’ cultural differences while respecting them as part of that humanity.