In Defense Of Kanye's Vanity: The Politics Of Black Self-Love
Kanye West has become a pop-culture punch line, but those who have dismissed him as aimlessly arrogant have missed the point. He is part of a long tradition of black artists who have fashioned a deeply political articulation of what it means to love yourself.
Maybe it was the absurdly nonfunctional shutter shades or the audacious (and, let's be real, honest) Taylor Swift interruption, but at some point in pop culture, Kanye West became a punch line. When he sat down with The New York Times' Jon Caramanica for a rare, rather lengthy interview, the responses were predictable. Various media roundups* characterized his quotes as "ridiculous," "textbook-crazy," "obnoxious," and, well, you get the point.** All of this makes me wonder if anyone actually read the interview, because he talks about (and complicates) the very thing that others so boringly mock him for: his vanity. I'm not here to convince you to love Kanye's music or to love him as a figure. What I am interested in talking about, and what I think is often overlooked, is how race affects the way people perceive and respond to his vanity. Kanye is a part of a long tradition of black artists for whom self-love is a political act.
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.
This is why it's so critical to really think about how and why folks are calling him "crazy." There's a great Dave Chappelle quote from his Inside the Actors Studio interview that really gets to the heart of this. In a conversation about the difficulties of black celebrity life, Chappelle explains, "The worst thing to call somebody is 'crazy.' It's dismissive. 'I don't understand this person. So they're crazy.' That's bullshit." To continuously label what Kanye says as "crazy" is to dismiss him as not worth understanding and to flatten his deeply complex work and complex personality. Kanye told Rolling Stone in 2004, "I'm the rap version of Dave Chappelle. I'm not sayin' I'm nearly as talented as Chappelle when it comes to political and social commentary, but like him, I'm laughing to keep from crying." "Laughing to keep from crying" is a tone that captures so much of both of their work, but it's also a survival mantra. Originating with Langston Hughes, this expression encapsulates a history of black artists who have used wit and satire to capture their exasperations and make light of the world's absurdities. The humor shouldn't be overlooked here; people seem to miss that Kanye is very tongue-in-cheek, that he is constantly making jokes. As Vulture's Jody Rosen puts it, "Anyone who gets riled up about 'I Am a God,' or about the album's title, is missing the joke — or rather, taking the bait. More than ever, West is aiming to provoke." Yes, and also, sometimes he's just making fun of you.
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."
Kanye's infatuation with the sartorial world is also important to consider in the light of the black artists who came before him. As Monica Miller points out in the fascinating Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, there is a long history of black artists who use fashion, art, and a couture-level interest in looking beautiful and self-fashioning as a powerful tool of self-actualization. From as far back as the slaves who dressed in their Sunday best to the black dandies of the English Enlightenment, from the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance to the greats of the Jazz Age and to contemporaries like Andre 3000, black artists have used art and fashion to re-imagine the possibilities of what it means to be black, of what is possible and imaginable for black identities. This play with dandyism is both about an individual's self-image and about how they are regarded, it is personal and political, and it is within the community and about the dynamics outside it. Kanye is very aware of this history and this balance between the political and the beautiful has been characteristic of his discography. He tells the Times, "That's how I was raised. I am in the lineage of Gil Scott-Heron, great activist-type artists. But I'm also in the lineage of a Miles Davis — you know, that liked nice things also."
Conversations that take Kanye's vanity as a given annoyance obfuscate the fact that Kanye has helped change the game entirely for how black men are allowed to express their vulnerabilities in public. In the Times interview, he talks about how, in the public's imagination, "the idea of Kanye and vanity are like, synonymous." He goes on to explain, however: "But I've put myself in a lot of places where a vain person wouldn't put themselves in. Like what's vanity about wearing a kilt?" If you see him simply as a crazy egomaniac, you've taken away his right to be a dimensional human being. You miss the moments when he is so boldly asserting his vulnerabilities, his anxieties, his humanity — the times he is placing his bare self on the line as an artist. This bravado mixed with a deeply sincere self-reflectiveness has characterized his career from the very beginning. It began with the earnest confessions of his first single and grew to become to an entire album where he sings — despite openly acknowleging he's a horrible singer — about heartbreak. It's hard to imagine the sappy crooning of Drake or the angsty emo rap of Kid Cudi existing if it weren't for Kanye. And, to return to the sartorial for a moment, notice how in that quote, he articulates his expression of vulnerability in terms of fashion choices, in terms of a leather kilt. He's keenly aware of the way black identity, and black masculinity in particular, is wedded to an image, a static image, and he purposefully plays with that.
All of this is obviously not to say that Kanye is immune from criticism or that I, myself, have never side-eyed things he has said or done. But ultimately, I am grateful for the space that his bold and unapologetically vain work has created for black artists, for black children, for dreamers. On a more fundamental level, this conversation begs the question, how much pride is allowed for one person? At what point does being proud of yourself turn into being "too vain"? Who decides? Kanye has just dropped Yeezus, an incredibly dense and complicated album that revels in a dark spiral of introspection mixed with the political articulations and sonic embellishing that is so characteristic of his canon. His work continues to refuse an easy reading, and this album boldly proclaims that he is someone you must pay attention to. You don't have to love it, but you will respect it.
*It should be noted that BuzzFeed published a quote collection titled "The 10 Best/Craziest/Most Inspiring Quotes From Kanye's New York Times Interview."
**Vulture went on to change the title to "amazing/ridiculous" and took out this sentence questioning his sanity: "The thing about Kanye is that he's great. The other thing about him is that his grasp on reality is so loose, you're always afraid he's going to slip off into that special place reserved for chronic stoners and people who've been committed."