Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Kanye West: Pelagian and Capitalist?

Normally I wouldn’t ask you to seriously contemplate the deeper meaning behind Kanye West, but a friend linked to this article on facebook, and it did get me thinking. Here are a few key quotes explaining what Kanye is up to:

The concept of vanity is so rooted in the idea of a singular narcissist that it can be hard to catch that Kanye speaks almost from a populist perspective — a populist narcissism, if you will. Granted, the thematic focus on community vs. the personal has evolved from College Dropout to Yeezus, but take a second and remember the very first song on Kanye’s first album. He has a chorus of children singing, “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25 / Joke’s on you, we still alive / Throw your hands up in the sky / And say we don’t care what people say.” If you chalk up his “we don’t care what people say” attitude to simply his ego, then you have missed the point entirely. This isn’t about ego; this is about boldly asserting yourself in a world that is not meant for you. This is a vanity that is rooted in bringing the community up with you. To the ire of some who are so wrapped up in the anxiety of respectability, the message he gives the kids (in front of all these white folks who are listening to his music!) is not to be modest but to unapologetically laugh in the face of a world that does not care about them. The joke’s on you, white America. We made it, and we don’t even have the decency to be grateful. We’re laughing. We dare to laugh.

…The jokes are fun, but the difficulty and power of his vanity cannot be emphasized enough. To assert that, despite the boundaries of a racist world that strangles your very view of what is possible, you are still going to be out here stuntin’ on everyone, that you will love yourself and love yourself excessively, is powerful beyond measure. And as many black artists have said before, for black folks to love themselves is a political act. The poet Audre Lorde captures it best: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Kanye’s “vanity” is meant to be inspiring; it is not a mindless arrogance but it is pointed and intentional. One of the most compelling things he says in his Times interview is that he views his work, in some ways, as an extension of the fight for justice of the activists and artists who came before him. In their traditions but also in his own way, he is fighting for justice: “I’m going to use my platform to tell people that they’re not being fair… Justice. And when you say justice, it doesn’t have to be war. Justice could just be clearing a path for people to dream properly.”

Now, I’m about as white as one can be. Between my wife and I, we’ve got all the northern tribes covered in our family tree. So I understand that I’m not the best person to comment on this sort of perspective, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. It should be obvious that Kanye’s protest, intentional and noble-minded as it may be, is still locked in to a sort of self-driven, even if that self is an embodiment of a larger community, consumerism. Even if he is the champion of Black America, he is still saying that the mark of success is, well, “stuntin’.”

This also seems to be about self-will. I’m sure that Kanye would credit all sorts of people in helping him develop, but at the end of the day, it still results with him becoming a kind of god (or a “Yeezus,” as he puts it). It’s no coincidence that one of his previous hit songs was based on the work of Nietzsche. (Even if it is a line that one could come across without ever actually reading Nietzsche, I suspect that Kanye has). And so I find it very strange that Ms. Nigatu can compliment him as a sort of semi-virtuous political commentator and social reformer. From a Christian point of view, Kanye is living out the pelagian world and life view in full.

When I think of unchecked consumerism and rugged self-centered works righteousness, I don’t think of a social critique or subversion of the worst of American evils. I think of the embodiment of those very American evils. And so perhaps all this points to, above all, Kanye the America.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.