Shortly before 2016 arrived, an at-capacity crowd filled the MCA Café for MCA Talk: Self-Portrait in a Kanye Mirror. Situated in terms of how Kanye West had personally affected them, or as the cohost School Night put it, through “the lens of their own personal Yeezus,” speakers shared stories of how Kanye West had touched their lives and reflected on his career, making a sometimes ostentatious artist much more human. Kevin Coval and Lisa Yun Lee presented a spoken word performance and while we can’t replicate their presentation, we can present the text from their performance in its entirety here.
Let’s begin with black excellence.
Black excellence is not like racist forms of white excellence, which manifests itself as exceptionalism—as in US foreign policy, as in demagogues like Donald Trump. Black excellence is engaged in the process of what Stuart Hall has described as “the decolonization of the minds and peoples of the black diaspora.” This project of decolonization emancipates black folk from the sense of inferiority and the “less-than-human” status brutally ascribed to them in the ship’s hold during the Transatlantic Passage.
Black excellence is the black arts—blues, jazz, and hip-hop—because black excellence creates collective joy in collective struggle.
Amiri Baraka says:
We are unfair
We are black magicians
Black arts we make
In the black labs of the heart
The fair are fair
And deathly white
The day will not save them
And we own the night
For some, black excellence equals black respectability: it is the Obama’s in the White House, Clarence Thomas in a robe on the highest court ruling against affirmative action, Condaleeza Rice playing Chopin at her Steinway after leading the country into war. Black excellence in these instances is well behaved, well mannered, and forgives any racist slights or attacks.
Black excellence is not supposed to be “unclassy.” It is not supposed to marry a white woman, it is not Kimye in the pages of Vogue, and it is not supposed to be filled with swagga, to jump onto stages and pump its fist, to state boldly, in the words of Kanye West, ‘‘That’s what it is, black excellence, baby.’’
unapologetically black poem
Ye unapologetically Black
on your income tax, Black
doin’ pretty good
rockin’ pink polos
Ye make white people want them
as far as geniuses go
Ye claim Black genius Black
gettin over on whiteness Black
gettin over whiteness
claim Black excellence Black
sped up Black soul
like a chipmunk
family business makes me cry
staring out the window
on the red line, seeing red lines
on Stoney Island
a Black Island
Ye a poet of Black poems for Stones
a Black accountant
accounting for the 6
and the 5
a college dropout
with a honorary doctorate
stuck on late
Ye stay handin out late passes
weed rolled up
this high art
puttin’ Fs on CPS tests
F for fascists
Fs on the art you like
gassed up /
Fs for the Fucks Ye give
you queezy in front of Yeezy
slept on the art
you can put Fs on the art
but it only makin’ you gaseous
F your Art
bury bond it a mausoleum
protect your crumbling coliseum
Ye build a Black museum
to counter the limited dreamless country
of the self-obsessed narcissistic European
black excellence cont’d
Some might read Kanye’s narcissism, as a fatal flaw, a form of hubris, which means in the ancient Greek context, extreme pride or self-confidence. Hubris typically describes excessive behavior, a loss of contact with reality, and an overestimation of one's own competence, accomplishments, or capabilities that offends the gods of ancient Greece. But what might this mean if we were all champions and we were all gods?
Kanye tells us we all are.
But, we are also, like Ye, human, all too human.
In Saidiya Hartman’s groundbreaking analysis Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, she describes an important way black people have been denied full humanity by white America’s insistence on both the hyper-visibility and the hyper-invisibility of people of color. Hyper-visibility, always being watched but never being seen. (Think of the prison industrial complex and the 745,000 black men and 200,000 black women incarcerated right now.) And hyper-invisibility: never being seen while always being on display. (Think every black security guard at this museum or the Art Institute of Chicago, or the entire force of service workers at UIC and U of C.)
Hartman also suggests the possibilities for resistance, redress, and transformation embodied in black performance and everyday practice in the world of the visual by flipping the script and creating a spectacle and demanding to be seen on one’s own terms and refusing to be ignored. It’s Kanye in his pink polo, at the VMA’s, at Fashion Week, and refusing to apologize to Taylor Swift, George Bush, or anyone for that matter.
Greg Tate asks: Why do white people love black music and hate black people?
What if we loved Kanye Omari West as much as we loved Ye?
unapologetically black cont’d
we don’t love ye
we police ye
we mad he love Marilyn
i mean Kardashian
Ye go fast
ye complex, F a magazine
ye only on the cover
ye the usher-er
into the era of skinny jean possiblities
ye the spectrum expander
extender of the native tongues
ye can’t hold his tongue
George Bush and every president
hate Black people
ye hyper honest
about the desire
for gold and shirts with a team
ye the dream
greater than America
ye the super human
King of the homonym
version of Baby
a virgin, a baby
ye the realist working class portraitist
of the homey Mali
of the mother of Alexus, after the car
after 5 beats a day for 3 summers
ye the child of Gwendolyn
the son of Donda
disciple of Black educators
ye the 1st generation
of Chicago Black migrants settled
Nate Marshall said when he heard HECKY NAW
he thought anything possible
ye the world builder
Ye the truth teller
the could give a fuck
lesser, depending on how you dress her
Ye the trend setter
the bar riser
the taste level
ain’t at my waist level
shop so much
Ye speak Italian
Ye kill them flows
Ye Top 5 emcees
you gotta rewind him
Cry baby / your library
Yeezus requires exegeses
Ye lyrics take time with
Ye buries lies behind him
justice not color blinded
even tho Clarence Tom inside it
Ye told the country ‘bout crack
and AIDS and who supplied it
Ye deconstruct the constitution
down to the fine print
but whiteness, it’s legacy & maintenance / we hide it
black excellence con’t
What if America loved black people as much as we love black culture?
This would require us to love Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Laquan McDonald, but also: Aura Rosser, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, Mya Hall, Janisha Fonville, and Natasha McKenna – Black women killed by police in 2014 and 2015. The African American Policy Forum’s new report #SayHerName documents the stories of Black women who have been killed by police and who have experienced gender-specific forms of police violence. It highlights black women’s experiences within the narratives of racial profiling and police violence, including broken windows policing, the war on drugs and stop and frisk. But it also demands that we look at other forms and contexts of police violence, including sexual assault, abuse of pregnant women and profiling and abusive treatment of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming black women.
What might it mean to love black women and to love hip-hop?
In a now infamous interview that appears in her book Outlaw Culture, bell hooks challenged and broke the codes of white feminism and black masculinity with respect to political and cultural engagement, and interviewed and got thick into it with West Coast rapper iceCube for the sake of truth, understanding, and most importantly, transformation. As an intellectual and a black woman, hooks asked him with critical generosity:
“Why do you say the things that you say about women in your music and in your life?”
We might ask Kanye too, Why are there so many bitches, perfect or otherwise in his lyrics?
Why is he slut-shaming Amber Rose on the radio?
Perhaps we might read into his troubled life and lyrics and offer an apologia because of his lost-ness after the loss of his adoring mother Dr. Donda West who unfailingly called him on his shit and always believed he could become the man he could be.
We might also ask ourselves in a world that historically undervalues women in general and black women in particular how can we expect Kanye to be any less misogynistic and patriarchal than the everyday world that we live in?
We might also embrace the sex in hip-hop and insist freedom can exist, but only when individuals are no longer oppressed by a socially constructed sexuality based on sexual puritanism, repression, guilt, and shame.
But really, understanding the context doesn’t make it acceptable, it is inexcusable. Ye needs to be called on his patriarchal misogynistic shit, and hip-hop itself as an institution 40 years old—a grown ass artistic movement, needs to be called out all day, all day on all that.
But not just hip-hop—all institutions need to be called on their racism and misogyny.
Over the last decade every report about cultural participation and the diversity of our cultural institutions in Chicago has been an indictment, a cultural calling out of the lack of race, gender and ethnic representation—in the art on the walls and artifacts in the collections, the lack of diversity in board representation, and the whiteness of the staff and the lack of women and people of color in positions of leadership.
Our cultural institutions are tragic and inexcusably racist and sexist, and should be ‘apologizing for their lateness.’
unapologetically black cont’d
13 years after thru the wire
the bars/mitzvah hit ya
on your lateness
these institutions should be grateful
we even showed up for this fake shit
but when get an invitation we gracious
nonchalant we take it & shape shift
y’all wouldn’t fuck with hip-hop ten years ago
five years ago
but now you on the dick
you filate it
Ye build Sun Ra Black Future space ships
and now you can’t say shit
we take Black culture
but Black bodies stay hated
Ye propel Black celebration
in the face of dehumanization
400 days to release a murder tape’s heinous
hip-hop been saying Black Lives Matter for 40
and 400 and 4000 thousands years
& Ye one of the latest & freshest & greatest to say it
we say Ye All day All Day & know the Police & white supremacy murdered Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd & Freddie Gray