Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic — the man many consider the new-fangled James Baldwin — is quite angry with Kanye West. In fact, he’s so angry with Kanye West that he has now officially declared that West is no longer a black person. West, you see, disagrees with Coates on politics. What’s worse, West doesn’t know things, the kinds of things Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks are important for him to know, which shows that he is disengaged from his skin color.
For a guy who writes endlessly about “black bodies,” it sure would be nice if Ta-Nehisi Coates saw Kanye West as more than one.
Coates begins his 5,000-word essay with an ode to early Michael Jackson:
Michael Jackson was God, but not just God in scope and power, though there was certainly that, but God in his great mystery; God in how a child would hear tell of him, God in how he lived among the legend and lore; God because the Walkman was still uncommon, and I was young and could not count on the car radio, because my parents lived between NPR and WTOP. So the legends were all I had—tales of remarkable feats and fantastic deeds: Michael Jackson mediated gang wars; Michael Jackson was the zombie king; Michael Jackson tapped his foot and stones turned to light. Even his accouterment felt beyond me—the studded jacket, the sparkling glove, the leather pants—raiment of the divine, untouchable by me, a mortal child who squinted to see past Saturday, who would not even see Motown 25 until it was past 30, who would not even own a copy of Thriller until I was a grown man, who no longer believed in miracles, and knew in my heart that if the black man’s God was not dead, he surely was dying. And he had always been dying—dying to be white.
This overwrought language from Coates is merely the prelude to his attack on West, whom he considers another Jackson: another powerful black man in the music industry, worshipped by millions, who has attempted to escape his black past. Jackson, Coates says, “had once been Africa beautiful and Africa brown,” but now was “disappearing into something white, dessicating into something white.”
If this seems somewhat cruel (and somewhat racist, by the way — imagine the description working the other way), that’s because it is — Jackson denied he whitened his skin, and his autopsy confirmed that he had vitiligo. But according to Coates, Jackson’s physical changes left black children bereft, since this hero had stopped looking like them.
What does this have to do with Kanye West? Here’s Coates:
Kanye West, a god in this time, awakened, recently, from a long public slumber to embrace Donald Trump. He hailed Trump, as a “brother,” a fellow bearer of “dragon energy,” and impugned those who objected as suppressors of “unpopular questions,” “thought police” whose tactics were “based on fear.” It was Trump, West argued, not Obama, who gave him hope that a black boy from the South Side of Chicago could be president. “Remember like when I said I was gonna run for president?,” said Kanye in interview with the radio host Charlamagne Tha God. “I had people close to me, friends of mine, making jokes, making memes, talking shit, now it’s like oh, that was proven that that could have happened.”
This, Coates says, proves that Kanye, like Jackson before him, is attempting to escape his blackness. Chicago, Coates points out, isn’t the most dangerous city in America (he’s right about this — it ranks in the top 25). It is “dangerous” for Kanye to say that Chicago is the “murder capital of the world,” says Coates — that could spell federal intervention in the city (yeah, right).
But West, according to Coates, is just repeating the mythos of the white man: Trump’s election is merely the latest symptom of white history going back to “before there was an America, when the first Carib was bayoneted and the first African delivered up in chains.”
This is rather mad — Trump has bayoneted no Caribs, nor is his legacy one of delivering up Africans in chains. But according to Coates, who has a grand unifying field theory of everything that comes down to race, everything is fruit of the poisonous tree. And Kanye has apparently been watering that tree:
Nothing is new here. The tragedy is so old, but even within it there are actors—some who’ve chosen resistance, and some, like West, who, however blithely, have chosen collaboration.
Collaboration? How has West collaborated in the murder and enslavement of black people? How does voting Republican do that, exactly? According to Coates, West has spoken out without being a scholar on the issues — “no citizen claiming such a large portion of the public square as West can be granted reprieve.” Coates says that because West knows nothing about politics, he has betrayed his base: “the rule of Donald Trump is predicated on the infliction of maximum misery on West’s most ardent parishioners, the portions of America, the muck, that made the god Kanye possible.”
Really? Has it been? Black unemployment is the lowest it has been in decades. Crime continues to drop. The Trump administration is now actively pursuing criminal justice reform. Are these the hallmarks of a man attempting to “inflict maximum misery”?
Before Coates goes further, he meanders into a rather self-serving account of his own fame — all of the magical things that happened to him upon his ascent to prominence, and how he was almost sucked under by them. But then — like a man! — he stood up.
The terrible thing about that small fame was how it undressed me, stripped me of self-illusion, and showed how easily I could be swept away…But I did not drown.
Unlike Kanye. Who drowned.
There’s nothing original in this tale and there’s ample evidence, beyond West, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity. But for black artists who rise to the heights of Jackson and West, the weight is more, because they come from communities in desperate need of champions.
And West is the great betrayer, because West was the great champion of the rhythms of a people:
When Jackson sang and danced, when West samples or rhymes, they are tapping into a power formed under all the killing, all the beatings, all the rape and plunder that made America. The gift can never wholly belong to a singular artist, free of expectation and scrutiny, because the gift is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it. Michael Jackson did not invent the moonwalk. When West raps, “And I basically know now, we get racially profiled / Cuffed up and hosed down, pimped up and ho’d down,” the we is instructive.
You see, in the end, West isn’t an individual. He is a mere cog in the machine of race — an important cog, to be sure, but a cog. And he must remain in his place in the machine, lest the gears grind to a halt. And because West doesn’t think like Coates, the machine has been endangered:
What Kanye West seeks is what Michael Jackson sought—liberation from the dictates of that “we.” In his visit with West, the rapper T.I. was stunned to find that West, despite his endorsement of Trump, had never heard of the travel ban. “He don’t know the things that we know because he’s removed himself from society to a point where it don’t reach him,” T.I. said. West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.
This is actually racist nonsense. First off, how can Coates assume that all black Americans somehow oppose the travel ban? Six in ten Americans support it; there are apparently no polls that show racial breakdown. Simply because Kanye doesn’t know things doesn’t mean he must agree with Coates on them. Why is “free thinking” necessarily “white thinking”? Coates own logic is self-defeating: if free thinking means agreeing with Coates, it isn’t particularly free. But Coates quickly places West in league with slaveholders, lumps together slaveholders and advocates for Stand Your Ground policies (which were not implicated legally in Florida’s Trayvon Martin case, by the way), and lumps both together with John C. Calhoun and the Iraq War and evil white suburbia.
If there’s a racist in this equation, his name rhymes with Ta-Nehisi Coates. But Coates is too busy calling West an alt-white racist to notice it, and blaming West for every ill that Coates believes America suffers:
It is the young people among the despised classes of America who will pay a price for this—the children parted from their parents at the border, the women warring to control the reproductive organs of their own bodies, the transgender soldier fighting for his job, the students who dare not return home for fear of a “travel ban,” which West is free to have never heard of. West, in his own way, will likely pay also for his thin definition of freedom, as opposed to one that experiences history, traditions, and struggle, not as a burden, but as an anchor in a chaotic world.
Yes, West surely will make all of these people pay: illegal immigrants (he doesn’t oppose illegal immigration, as far as we know), abortion (he’s pro-choice, as far as we know), transgenders (his father-in-law is Caitlyn Jenner). But Coates magically knows that West thinks all of this because he knows that Kanye West is white now, and Kanye West thinks like white people do — the same white people who put Barack Obama in the White House twice, by the way. But Coates tries to call Kanye back to being a cog:
I wonder what he might be, if he could find himself back into connection, back to that place where he sought not a disconnected freedom of “I,” but a black freedom that called him back—back to the bone and drum, back to Chicago, back to Home.
Come back, Kanye! Stop with this intellectual freedom nonsense! Think as Coates wants you to! Otherwise, you cannot be truly free!