Before I launch into any kind of examination or commentary on what I am about to attempt to understand, I should offer the following disclaimer. While I have found Kanye West simultaneously enchanting, interesting, infuriating, and confounding at times, I would hardly count myself as a part of his regular fan base. That said, I have in recent memory found myself paying rapt attention to his every move, listening and re-listening to every re-edit of the tracks on his new album and trying to understand that myth that surrounds this modern artist. Most recently, I came to a more nuanced appreciation for Kanye (as he will be termed from here on) during a talk from Dr. Monica Miller at the Center for Media, Religion and Culture’s bi-annual conference. This year’s theme was around Media, Gender and Religion. During her keynote presentation, Dr. Miller articulated the way “New Black Godz” such as Kanye can inhabit both their oppression and their God like arrival through their craft and through the way they recast ideas of survival, escape, travel, and flight.
Dr. Miller argues that if we think, as many feminists of color have, with plateaus we have a way of thinking that carries what came before it and holds possibility for what is to come. In this way, plateaus can be an articulation of the as-if space, or more specifically the third space engendered through meaning making and digital articulations as well as complex flows of media back and forth, in and through even more complex social landscapes. In her book Religion and Hip Hop, Dr. Miller argues that in exploring religion through hip-hop we can “rethink the category of religion as a series of processes that include construction, maintenance, and contestation.” Building from this articulation of religion as well as Dr. Miller’s arguments about the potential built into the potential of the play, movement and backwards and forwards flow of hip hop music in as-if spaces, I endeavored to make sense of the release of Kanye’s latest album.
A few weeks ago I found myself sitting in an almost empty movie theater in Boulder, CO with a group of mostly Caucasian, what I would term quasi-Hipster, bubbly and enthusiastic Boulderites with much more interesting outfits and haircuts than I. We sat in the darkened theater and for about 20 minutes we watched alternating images of clean sneakers moving around Madison Square Garden and an off white, satin looking tarp blowing around, disguising what it was tenting. We all sat in wonder as we waited for something hugely anticipated by some – the new Kanye album.
The ritualized nature of the unveiling of the latest album “The Life of Pablo” and “Yeezy Season 3” fashion line was explicit, and in true Kanye West nature, over the top. Building from his 2013 proclamation and assertion “I am a God,” Kanye articulates his rise to fame, his arrival, his travel to this point of success, his overcoming of the odds, culminating in the verse:
“I just talked to Jesus
He said, ‘What up, Yeezus?’
I said, ‘Shit I’m chillin’
Tryna stack these millions”
I know he the most high
But I am a close high
Mi casa, su casa
That’s our cosa nostra
I am a god
I am a god
I am a god”
His latest album, “The Life of Pablo” is a continuation of Kanye’s deep and complex interaction with faith and as a self-articulated carrier of his faith and object of faith itself. He argues that this is his “gospel album” hoping to engender a religious experience with songs such as “Ultralight Beam,” where he sings with a chorus “This is a God dream, this is everything, deliver us serenity, deliver us peace, deliver us loving, we know we need it.” Sitting in a small audience watching hordes of fans cheer as Kanye is shown listening to his own album in a room full of fans and friends, I found a moment of discomfort and disjuncture in what I was looking at. Kanye stood dancing with a select group of his closest friends and associates, his family, royal and dignified, marched in after the crowds had waited, and stood above the fray in coveted center seats, Kardashians clad in white, jewels and fur, all Balmain, all designed by Kanye himself. None of this, in and of itself was particularly disturbing as I have long been familiar with the showmanship that has exuded so deliberately from the couple known as “Kimye.” What brought me a moment of disquiet was the “fashion show.” Under the blowing tarp were models, assembled on and off various stages, standing still in the latest season of Kanye’s fashion line, Yeezy Season 3. While Kanye danced, celebrated, played and re-played songs, solicited specific reactions from the audience, and freely talked to a global audience, models stood silently, eyes down-turned, wearing his clothes without movement. Sometimes they sat, resting their clearly tired legs, then they stood, their faces stony and expressionless as Kanye danced, laughed, smiled and even expressed his desires to cope with the trials and tribulations of fame, of creation, of being an artist. I found it hard to watch, I found it difficult to comprehend the way this prolific artist, who claimed to “want to bring as much beauty to the world as possible,” saw beauty in the silenced bodies that served as a background on which he seemed to write his dreams. The somewhat problematic disjuncture between Kanye dancing and partying with his friends while his human art installation stood silently en masse is perhaps the very contradiction that allows Kanye to so fully inhabit the spaces of contestation and contradiction that are so fully a part of his ethos. Kanye, argues Dr. Miller is both God and Slave, and he reminds of us this with his music and with his physical embodiment of his music through fashion.
In his album release he showed both frightful narcissism and what felt like a sincere, though perhaps conceited, vulnerability and sense of struggle. Kanye’s ability to move between these various markers of himself, to embody the contradictions of who he is, is what allows him to create, re-create, mediate and re-mediate content for our digital world. Aside from the rather obvious religious tones in “The Life Of Pablo” we see the very construction, negotiation and maintenance of belief that Dr. Miller highlights as a part of religious experience. We see Kanye trying to understand a world that is both cruel and beautiful. And perhaps he has always been doing so, his exploration of religion as an exploration of the godliness within himself is part and parcel of the Kanye brand. As Hua Hsu pointed out in The New Yorker, “One of the reasons Kanye West inspires such a devoted following is that despite all of the changes in his life and in his music, we can still recognize him as the same character he was when his story began. He is his own muse.”
In reading that, I realized something profound about the religiosity of Kanye West. Kanye is not just effectively articulating his passions, dreams, anxieties and contradictions in the digital third spaces cultivated and fostered through the media, Kanye is potentially creating a third space with his art, and very often using himself and his experiences as the canvas on which meaning is made. While Kanye is perhaps not self-reflexively opting to inhabit an as-if space that enables various degrees of fame, his constant grapple with the various poles of his personality and desires enable him to inhabit spaces in between his aspirations and reality, third spaces for expression. In other words, through his complicated relationship to his work, the world, his faith, his oppression and his success, Kanye himself, has become the third space.
This was crystallized at the album listening when Kanye unveiled his video game “Only One” which features his late mother ascending to Heaven on a winged horse. When Kanye first showed the trailer of his game during the event, it was met by a lackluster response. His displeasure came across in his proclamation that it was a difficult process for someone like him to make a video game and be heard by the gaming industry in San Francisco. He declared, “this is not regular,” forcing and invoking an alternative response. He then replayed the clip of the game trailer and was met with resounding applause. We as scholars can argue that Kanye had, in that moment, inhabited a third space, a space for potential and remaking. When the desired meaning was not clearly mediated, he changed the context, re-organized the information, and re-mediated it for his audience. Dr. Miller urges us to recognize that in “Hip-Hop culture, religion is figured as many things,” and that this “very multiplicity is an indicator of the fractured life-worlds of the postmodern condition, for when the image is kaleidoscopic, to try and contain and make sense of the picture within a single rectilinear frame is an exercise in distortion.” Kanye is sort of a God, not because he declares himself as such, not because he grapples very clearly and publicly with faith, but because Kanye has found a way to embody his past and present, to move into the plateaus and seize their possibility. He cultivates an as-if space wherever he goes where he can be both oppressed and liberated, both follower and savior, and he can change the meanings he produces as he sees fit.