After he put on that bizarre, rambling, profanity laced minstrel show in the Oval Office let’s admit to ourselves and each other that Kanye West has no political power whatsoever. Yes, he has the political sophistication one would find in a black barber shop on a Saturday afternoon. But if nothing convinced us before, surely we know now that West is a wealthy and willing dupe of Trumpism, as are Ray Lewis, Jim Brown, certain black ministers, dozens of presidents of historically black colleges, and, were The Boondocks still on the air, Uncle Ruckus.
Kim Kardashian West and Taylor Swift have more political juice than Kanye. No one’s been pardoned because of him. His discombobulated rants have inspired no voter registration. Whatever frequency he’s on it’s either high or low. His thoughts crackle like late-night AM talk radio. His politics is performance, a mish-mash of Thomas Sowell and Louis Farrakhan at their crankiest. And yet West is oblivious to how revelatory he is, a schizophrenic end times carnival barker exposing black people to a most dread and nary spoken truth—that over the last few decades we have replaced black politics with black culture. It’s time we start talking about the consequences.
Politics is about lots of small voices coming together in a struggle with power to control the allocation of resources, public goods, and rights. Culture, particularly since the rise of mass media and the network effects of the digital age, is about a few big voices influencing the perceptions and choices of millions of small voices.
I contend that at some point after the early 70s black politics gradually stopped working for black people. A rundown of the debilitating forces and developments that have challenged our politics and hurt African Americans much more than whites in this period includes deindustrialization, the decimation of unions, wage stagnation, inadequate education for many, sustained attacks on affirmative action, mass incarceration, globalization, various wars on crime, AIDs, drugs and the war on drugs, and voter suppression.
Through this time black politicians and power brokers such as Ron Brown, Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan (though still liberal compared to the whole political spectrum) migrated rightward towards the center. Simultaneously, the Democratic Party became more corporate-funded, more market-oriented, more focused on suburban, educated professionals, and ultimately obsessed with meritocracy. The party also backed away from labor unions and realized it could take the black vote for granted without consequences.
And so, in the absence of deep political organization through political parties, unions, churches, social and community organizations, more and more we’ve shifted attention and allegiances from political leaders and a party that actually once represented our interests to personages, preachers, celebrities, and icons who could amplify our cultural messages to the rest of America.
What’s problematic about this path from a liberal/progressive past to a neoliberal present is that big voices always win for their brand, while small voices get little more than good feelings, comforting nostalgia, and hollow promises of progress. The big voices move on to something else. We get back on the grind of lagging behind other ethnic groups on so many social and economic indicators.
Thus, in a “politics as culture” era, despite big voices, our politics weakens, becomes a little more unattainable or irrelevant. We can’t capitalize on political opportunities because of what I call The Double Hustle:
- First, it quickly becomes clear that a major celebrity’s voice isn’t necessarily the best voice for sometimes complex and nuanced messages.
- Second, the celebrity, as a medium for the message, eventually becomes the message, thus opening himself up to counter and oppositional messages that conflate the weakness and inadequacies of the messenger with the message and thus the movement itself.
There’s certainly an audience for the few cogent ideas Kanye West tried but couldn’t nail during his White House rant—particularly black people who think the Democratic Party’s near monopoly on black votes does more harm than good. It’s not at all clear that voting for Trump or his minions is the answer, but it’s certainly clear that West made a mockery of himself and any blacks who’d seriously consider supporting the President.
Another example: As much as I appreciated the efforts of NFL players on the issues Colin Kaepernick raised when he first knelt during The National Anthem, I rarely saw collective message discipline, and wondered about their commitment to that message when put under pressure from NFL owners. And I saw them becoming the message when beer bellies and commentators characterized them as spoiled, rich babies who should be thankful to play a game for a living. I’ve seen almost no kneeling this season. The act itself seems much less important after the NFL agreed to donate nearly $100 million to social organizations over seven years and instituted new rules that will surely increase scoring.
Because it’s ultimately about power and the sleights of hand it can play, The Double Hustle is really a seduction, a siren song wooing us with the power and influence of a political icon, but lacking the savvy, sophistication, and networks to leverage it as anything other than a cultural icon. The Double Hustle influences our beliefs, but it compels us to do little else than pay attention to the influencer. In this sense the difference between the political and cultural hinges upon compelling messages, organizing people, putting pressure on those with power, making clear demands, ruthless message discipline, and negotiating so that one’s group clearly benefits. That’s a good framework for knowing a real political struggle when we see it.
So how should we know The Double Hustle when we see it? When a movement or social trend asserts itself, gains traction, roots itself in the public imagination, then wanes without actually winning such that the only response to “What did you gain?” is “Awareness,” that’s when you’re witnessing the Double Hustle in action. Especially so when a corporation or foundation with deep pockets bequeaths that movement large sums of money.
Hopefully now it’s clear that Kanye West is a small player in a sprawling, decades old play that’s seldom seen for what it truly is. The Double Hustle’s features are 1) real and genuine oppression; 2) mass, mostly justified grievances; 3) white hot media fascination; 4) obsession with celebrities who use their “platforms” to speak on behalf of the movement; 5) black politicians following instead of leading; 6) the inevitable wane and disappointment; and, lastly, 7) “non-commensurate victory conditions,” when “winning” for black people has a higher bar and a higher cost than it does for any other groups with which we claim solidarity.
Perhaps it’s understandable that we’d turn to culturally significant personalities to be the voices of our political struggles. However, doing so has brought us to a point that will haunt us for a long time—the realization that black people haven’t had any lasting, and consequential political wins since the post Civil Rights period when real affirmative action created a strong black middle class.
And for anyone who thinks Barack Obama was a political win, what you’ve been reading for the last few minutes should convince you otherwise. Obama was merely a cultural win because he never did anything to improve the material conditions of black lives specifically. Rather, he did great deal for our cultural condition by making us feel good that a black man was in the White House.
It’s tragic that Barack Obama in a profound way and Kanye West in a banal way are on opposite ends of the same spectrum.