Ye v. The People
Kanye West’s new song, Ye vs. the People, soon to be released on his forthcoming album, “Love Everyone”—which, as an aside, will be the eighth of his highly-acclaimed and eclectic oeuvre—is unlike most other songs. Of course, Kanye is himself unlike most other artists, so this divergence from the norm comes to none as a great surprise.
I can say, though, and with some confidence, that this newest song won’t be a commercial hit. It won’t be highly acclaimed so far as our popular musical tastes are concerned. It won’t land itself atop the Billboard nor scratch the iTunes best-seller list, but it will arouse attention and dominate conversation for the coming weeks. Potentially, in time, it might even come to be a new American anthem of sorts, an ode to this odd, new day. It will do these things, and it hasn’t even inscribed in its lines a chorus. What it does have, though, importantly and above all, is austerity, heart, a message, and grit.
The song is as provocative as it is substantive—a combination expected of the man by whom it was authored. It's unapologetically topical and very much with its ear to the political pavement. It’s crude, with a very unrefined splice of a Four Tops song playing as the foundation over which Kanye and the Atlanta-based hip-hop artist T.I. rap; it’s quick, lasting just over three minutes and twenty seconds with a tempo like a two-minute hurry-up offensive drill; and it’s intransigent—asking for much, receiving little, and concluding at the end both points moot.
The lyrics are rather dialogue than monologue, political than overtly musical. It is, before all else, a conversation or perhaps, better yet, an inquisition, during which T.I., representing the doctrinaire view from the political left, extracts from Kanye answers to the former’s many and well-founded questions. That’s not to say, though, that Kanye is in any way taciturn or unforthcoming when probed by the surprisingly trenchant T.I. He requires of T.I. very little prompting to let spill his opinions on the floor. Kanye opens the song by declaring, as if it were a divine revelation, that Obama was indeed Heaven-sent, but that “ever since Trump won, it proved that I could be President”.
I pause on this line not simply because it comes first, but because it captures so well the current, albeit abnormal, thinking in American public life. It exemplifies this odd and new confluence of that which is cultural and that which is political as never before we’ve seen the two collide. It’s also counter-intuitive. One can’t help but acknowledge how subtly and limpidly Kanye’s line achieves this end. Obama was supposed to be for black America its apotheosis. He was supposed to be the transcendent cultural figure to whom everyone might look with shared purpose, unanimity, and hope. This last word was, after all, his campaign promise during the presidential race of 2008. Obama was supposed to alleviate black America of its decades-long illness and liberate it of its stifled dreams. He inhered in his person all of black America’s aspirations. With his ascent, from Hawaii, to Indonesia, to California, to Harvard, to Chicago, and thence Washington D.C., he was expected to catapult black Americans to summits yet unknown. He would open to them all doors behind which stood in wait the uppermost crust of government and of the world. Now, the looming ceiling broken and all hurdles cleared, blacks could follow in his wake, assume his mantle, succeed his role, and progress because of him like never they could before.
But, as it turns out in the mind of Mr. West, it’s not President Obama, but President Trump who has actually liberalized and democratized this dream. Obama made possible the idea, but Trump made it tangible. Now, in Kanye’s estimation, be that for better or worse, anyone can and might become president. It could just be that the presidency is something to which Kanye himself aspires. And that’s not to say that the office of the president has been debased; I don’t think that’s what Kanye means. He’s simply saying here that Trump has charted a course along which, from now until the end of this noble experiment we call America, any person with the right mixture of energy, resolve, moxie, and obstinacy can just as conceivably mount that summit of political success.
Mind you, this was only the opening line. From that until its last, the song remains devoted to its theme. It stays on topic without tempting deviation. There’s very little superfluous about it. It’s tightly compact and surprisingly incisive. T.I. presses Kanye on points to which the latter responds with intelligible and thoughtful defenses. T.I. digs into Kanye, not only to reveal to him the errors of his new style of thinking, but to understand this transformation that’s taken over his erstwhile friend. In this way, T.I. plays the role of a genuinely curious though at times tyrannical interlocutor.
Yet Kanye never does bend. His most memorable response to T.I.’s questions is his startling observation and implicit criticism that not all blacks need be Democrats. Himself lately converted to this notion, Kanye’s words reach the listener like an epiphany coming through the mouth of an apostate. He equates black Americans’ unquestioning devotion to the Democratic Party to the servility of slaves living on a plantation. The analogy might be offensive and it might be a stretch, but for Kanye’s purpose, it works to a useful and impactful end.
In the case of the latter, that of slaves on a plantation, Kanye imagines his and T.I.’s ancestors in thrall to their masters. In the case of the former, that of blacks and their allegiance to the Democratic Party, Kanye highlights the point that their servility is completely voluntary. The fetters bounding their ankles are self-imposed and perpetuating at their own insistence. However, far from it being merely a less popular take on the matter, Kanye’s analysis is downright heretical. The de rigueur political position of blacks in America is that they simply must be on the left, but it’s never questioned exactly why this is or how this came to be. It’s simply baked into the cake, so to speak, and swallowed whole and then regurgitated from one generation to the next.
But it needn’t take long to recognize just how insalubrious this current understanding is. That’s the result of history being sacrificed on the altar of society’s present values coupled with a myopic view of the past. After all, they were Southern Democrats who pushed most fervidly for the continuation of slavery south of the Mason Dixon line. It was an anti-abolition Ohio Democrat in Clement Vallandigham who was infamously booted by President Lincoln out of Congress. It was the vitriolic George Wallace who was, first as a Democrat and then later as an Independent, the most ardent defender of the Jim Crow South. It was Strom Thurmond who, like Wallace—in that he was first a Democrat before becoming something else—was vehemently opposed to the racial integration of the South. For that matter, it was Woodrow Wilson, himself a son of Dixie and a paragon of progressivism in the Democratic eye, who forwarded racist ideas in his academic writings and promoted racist cabinet members in his administration. This is the Democratic Party story that’s never told. When it is, it’s brushed over, but Kanye has shined upon it a spotlight and added to it an unmistakable splash of color.
It wouldn’t be until the “Southern Strategy” of Nixon and Goldwater in the 1960s that white, mostly racist southern Democrats aligned themselves with the Republican Party. Among these people were the Dixiecrats, who wanted as members of their vestigial Democratic Party to enshrine segregation and preserve states’ rights. For a brief while (under the leadership of Thurmond, no less) they succeeded in this pursuit.
It’s obvious that both parties have hints in their DNA of an unsavory past. The Republicans, in effectuating their “Southern Strategy”, opted for expediency rather than morality. They sold out for votes, and ever since that time, they’ve received them without fail. Few investments have profited such dependable returns. The “SEC-belt” and every rural inch beneath the Mason-Dixon has since belonged to them. As this came to be, a vacuum began to grow on the left. Those who championed equality of rights and a strong and beneficent federal government filled the void. With the 1960s came not only civil rights, but the incipient arrival of the welfare state (first introduced on a massive scale, of course, by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s). For the Democratic Party, this became their version of an expedient. Keeping people on the dole became an effective way to secure their vote, and, needless to say, it too has worked ever since.
At least it has until now. While he might not be able to sustain this argument (for lack of time, interest, or knowledge on the subject), at the very least Kanye has opened up the topic to further discussion and debate. People, upon listening to and then cogitating about his and T.I.’s song, will likewise question why all blacks have to be Democrats, or if they really must. They might view through Kanye’s provocative and original lens the unexamined history of their past and look around them to question their present predicaments and their future prospects. And if they listen close enough, there might be a new song to which they and everyone can dance.