Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Style Maven: Kanye West

In lieu of this month's Presidential debates, while it is taboo to mix racial judgments with politics, considering President Obama is the first African-American President of the United States, the issue is continually brought to light in the media. After the first round of debates where Governor Mitt Romney appeared to have conquered Obama, in response to Obama's reserve during the debate, Michael Eric Dyson , a professor of sociology at Georgetown, made a controversial observation on MSNBC, “Lest we forget this, lest we pretend this doesn’t make a difference, the specter hanging over him is: ‘I can’t come off as too vigorous because then it looks like I’m being an angry black man.’ ” Mr. Dyson postulated that because of the "Angry Black Man Phenomena" Romney was able to play to that strength. Regardless of whether this was, in fact, the intent of Romney's strategy that night, Obama showed no reserve in the final two debates, where Obama showed outright disapproval of Romney's flip-flop policy proposals, without coming off as a brute.

Samsung Galaxy Note II New York Launch Event, October 2012
I recently read an essay by Professor of Sociology at Ferris State University, Dr. David Pilgrim on “The Brute Caricature” which summarizes a brief history of the “Angry Black Man” stereotype, its origins coming from the Reconstruction Era of the United States (1867-1877). "The brute caricature portrays black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal -- deserving punishment, maybe death. This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace. Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially white women. Charles H. Smith (1893), writing in the 1890s, claimed, "A bad negro is the most horrible creature upon the earth, the most brutal and merciless"(p. 181). Clifton R. Breckinridge (1900), a contemporary of Smith's, said of the black race, "when it produces a brute, he is the worst and most insatiate brute that exists in human form" (p. 174)." This stereotype since then has traveled through time, mainly promulgated by the media. From of white supremacist novels of the early 1900s that incited fear and loathing of the African-American male, to the false criminal accusations of black men in the 1980’s and 90’s that fed off the black brute caricature, it has been determined by historians that, in fact, “The brute caricature was a red herring, a myth used to justify lynching, which in turn was used as a social control mechanism to instill fear in black communities.”

I'm Just Me
Halloween is tomorrow, and I thought it funny that Kanye West new collaborative studio album, “Cruel Summer” has come out around this time for he is portrayed in the media himself as somewhat of an “Angry Black Man” of our current generation (especially considering his father, Ray West, was a former member of the Black Panthers). Dr. Pilgrim explained above that the “Angry Black Man” is the most feared person on Earth. Based on his laudable political statements and public rants, not to mention the stunt he pulled against Taylor Swift at the 2009 Video Music Awards, West is perceived as irrational, politically incorrect, and unpredictable in the public eye. While wildly controversial, the quality of his work in entertainment continue's to quench audience's thirst for innovative, original, and progressive art, music, and fashion, especially in the urban market. It leaves us to beg the question, "Is there method to his madness?" Last month, Kanye West released the collaborative studio album, "Cruel Summer" which featured tracks from current and new members of his G.O.O.D (Getting Out Our Dreams) Music label. Below are the lyrics to one of his emotionally charged tracks, "Cold", a track which, in my fashion, addresses those who don't nay say against him and his mission in entertainment:

Samsung Galaxy Note II New York Launch Event, October 2012

                                                      Can't a young nigga get money any more?

Coachella Valley Music Arts Festival

Victoria Secret Fashion Show, December 2011

In my fashion, the song above is mad rant of Kanye West’s accomplishments in fashion and his credentials in the industry. It could very well stand as an anthem for us fashion enthusiasts for, I have to admit, when I listen to the song I feel a surge of empowerment when I shout out, “Don't talk about style cause I embarrass you; Shut the fuck up when you talk to me 'fore I embarrass you!” To defend the brash delivery of his message, I have to admit, my attitude too can be quite pointed when I feel challenged about my knowledge of fashion and style. I feel most fashion insiders would agree that they do not take well to their credibility in fashion being doubted (i.e. Coco Chanel, Critobol Balenciaga). Of the moment, Kanye West is the quintessential man we love to hate. His brashness and indiscretion is frowned upon, yet we, his audience, can not deny the truly innovative nature of his work. I have been a fan of Kanye West from his "College Drop-Out" days when he exploded on to the hip-hop scene in 2004 with his clever lyrics, and unconventional beats which infused samples from earlier Soul artists. For example, take his wildly popular song "Gold Digger" with an interpolation of Ray Charles song, “I Got a Women” from 1954, which charted number 1 on multiple Billboards. Kanye West has since then parlayed the theme of his work with a more romantic sentimentality with the album, “My Dark Twisted Fantasy”, which was a decadent portrayal of fame and identity. Having worked with veteran rapper Jay-Z by his side since 2000, with the release of their collaborative album “Watch the Thrown” in 2011, the two credit themselves for creating “couture Hip-Hop” where the sound of the album is, as West describes, more “dark and sexy” . Today, on top of his 5 multi-platinum albums, and a growing music label, like most entertainers, Kanye West's business ventures extend outside his original craft of music, more specifically into the fashion industry. Working with Nike since 2009, he has created his popular shoes, the Air Yeezys where he designs one shoe every two years. The Air Yeezy 2s were released this past June and garnered much success. Working with Louis Vuitton also in 2009, he has created a shoe line for the company as well . To hone is fashion sense, he interned with Fendi in Rome from 2008-2010 , and since then his Parisian based fashion line, DW Kanye West, gained mixed reviews during the FW2011 show season when he debuted his collection at the Paris collections where he gained support from many prominent fashion designers.

Burberry, Spring/Summer 2012

 In this year's November issue of Vogue, the magazine highlights some of the most charismatic figures of today including the ravishing cover girl, Rihanna, and actress, Kate Upton. Vogue pointed out a good facet of fashion that charismatic people seem to have inborn: the ability to create an affirming hum around yourself by your choice of adornment and array. In his song, "New God Flow", Kanye West says, "I'm living three dreams: Biggie Smalls', Dr. King's, Rodney King's." RapGenius.com interprets this verse quite well: Kanye claims to have the traits of three departed African-American greats: he has the rapping skills of Biggie Smalls, the influence and audience of MLK, and suffers from unrighteous persecution like Rodney King…all three of these dead people’s dreams live on in Kanye. That "affirming hum" Kanye West seeks to portray is his truth, and he is not afraid to live up to it.

West uses music as his vehicle to be able to influence the masses and promulgate a message similar to those made by prominent African American men of our time. Through his music West is able to platform what he feels is true about life to the masses of the world, and it incites dialogue because people have to question if what he says may actually be true. I commend and appreciate West for having the audacity to have the courage to voice his opinion in such blatant terms as he has done in the past, for as Michele Obama has recited in her “It Takes One” campaign, “As Barack has said all along, ‘It takes one voice to change a room. And one room to change a community. And one community to change the direction of our nation.’ It takes one and it starts with you,” the First Lady said.” Although his delivery may be quite belligerent and in your face, when we consider what he has to say with an open mind, we are forced to question the validity of his statements because in most cases people would agree with his viewpoints, but would not voice them  themselves. 

The theme ever present througout the album "Cruel Summer" is that the artist featured in the album are proud of the fact they have “made something from nothing” as West proclaims throughout the entire album. Kanye West label stands for those who worked to be able to enjoy all the luxuries they have now, especially being that most of them come from rough and humble beginnings, hence the meaning of the name of his music label, G.O.O.D (Getting Out Our Dreams). “Cruel Summer” addresses the ignorance of people that feel fame is a result of some other power/force (besides God) being the reason for their celebrity success. In the VH1 series Roc Docs, screenplay writer of “New Jack City”, Barry Micheal Cooper made an accurate comment that stands out to me in the episode entitled, “Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots”: "The only way to fix a lack of hope is to create an opportunity." In my fashion, Kanye West's fame and albums are a manifestation of this notion. Cooper’s comment refers to the reason rioting broke out in Los Angeles, and it was because of the unfair treatment of law enforcement on lower class and minority communities. Kanye West aims to speak for those communities, and instead of leading a violent riot, West is a leader through his music and brazen outbursts, similar to celebrity figures such as Muhammad Ali, a man whose arrogant bravado and leadership in the black community are seen as “ahead of his time” in exposing the racial discrimination of the time. When we look past the commerciality of his success and access the true meaning of his songs, in my fashion, the messages of his songs proves to be more substantial and thought-provoking than one might dare to fathom considering his outlandish and misunderstood publicity stunts. Hip-hop and Rap originated as a form of expression that allowed for the repressed black male to publicly pronounce how they felt our governments system is still very much discriminatory. Rap encouraged thought and it exposed imbalances in society that made life harder for minority groups to take advantage of the same opportunities white Americans had. It was essentially became the outlet for the "Angry Black Man".

Today, rap is a more democratized genre of music, enjoyed and understood by all walks of life. A lot of rap artist are able to make high record sales on superficial topics surrounding sex, money, and partying. Even though artists can produce a few catchy songs that are played over and over again on over the radio, they more often than not prove to be more shine than substance. One has to then ask themselves, how has someone as barbaric as Kanye West able to stay successful and relevant. In my fashion it’s because, while it is taboo to mix racial judgments with politics, Kanye West continually challenges the subject because of our nation’s history in race relations, the two subjects will always be a synchronized issue. From the emancipation of slavery, white America has clouded perceptions of the black man through the “Angry Black Man” stereotype, a stereotype which will continue to be attached to black men, “till we drown all [the] haters.” The fact that he plays on this thin line is what keeps him relevant in entertainment. In my fashion, Kanye West has found a way to stand above the superficiality of hip-hop to represents the true purpose of what rap has originally stood for in the fight for the opinions of the oppressed to be heard, and not just for the African-American voice. He has been a longtime proponent for the gay rights movement, stating that Hip-Hop has always stood for "speaking your mind and breaking down barriers, but everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people." Music has always stood as a vehicle to outwardly supplement the emotions we feel on the inside, and in my fashion, through West’s music he represents that strong radical voice reminiscent of the prominent civil leaders in politics, and rap, by standing up for and consciously living for what he believes is the truth about life.

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