2021 Was The Year Of The Anti-Intellectual

The anti-intellectual that advocates for free speech and dismisses the root purpose of terms like woke and cancel culture, has become more prominent this year. And certain high-profile members of the Black bourgeoisie have become some of its biggest supporters.

The insurrection of January 6, 2021 was a shocking international affair, a jarring display of the violent nature of America’s foundational values of entitlement and white supremacy. For many who had been following the post-2016 trajectory of Trumpian conservative acolytes and their adherence to the various conspiratorial cabals littered among the vast corners of the internet — from the Proud Boys and QAnon supporters to the organizing, strategy, and recruitment taking place on now-banned apps such as Parler and in private rooms of social audio apps like Clubhouse — it was a tragic culmination of years of warning coming to fruition, long-ignored and minimized as fringe and unimpactful. As investigations have proceeded, it has continued to be revealed that there has been active awareness from political leadership, making the reality of the events of the day even more grim.

What even fewer expected, however, is the involvement of powerful Black public figures in these fiascos. Namely, Kanye West, agitator extraordinaire and once-2020 presidential candidate, who has been revealed to have sent delegates to harass Ruby Freeman — who was accused of rigging votes to deny Donald Trump's reelection — and also masked his own campaign connections to GOP operatives, which could go against FEC laws. This should come as little surprise from someone who once donned an MAGA hat. However, a sense of whiplash remains, particularly since the information was revealed on the heels of a joint benefit concert held by Kanye and Drake under the pretense of working to free Larry Hoover, co-founder of the Chicago gang Gangster Disciples (an undisclosed portion of the proceeds will be going toward community organizations around prison reform and community reintegration organizations). 

While Kanye’s actions might be the most salient, he is not nearly as much of an outlier as it may seem. The year 2021 is peppered with high-profile members of the Black bourgeoisie working to figure out the best way to craft a path forward as the bottom falls out of the cratering present, tepidly acknowledging that the establishment has failed to serve their populace to the best of their abilities. The problem remains, however, that anti-establishment positions, when left unstructured and absent from any real political framing or consistency, just devolve into anti-intellectualism and contrarianism that can be easily co-opted by conservative and far right actors. Even more dangerously, left unchallenged, their largest fan bases accept these unfounded presumptions as self-evident truths.

As one of the largest pop stars in the world, West’s long track record of success in music and fashion has led to him being heralded as a creative genius. For those who place him on a pedestal (whether fans, critics, or colleagues), however, there is a subconscious transitive property applied, deeming that his artistic prodigiousness extends to all domains that pique his interests. Marilyn Manson — a man who has been accused by over a dozen women of psychological and sexual abuse, ranging from confinement in a soundproof cell to being raped, electrocuted, and chased with an ax — has found refuge in the uninhibited acceptance that is part and parcel of West’s fan base, making a return to the public eye in the blinding spotlight of the Donda show at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz stadium in August. Nestled to the left of West in the porch of a replicate model of his childhood home (refashioned into a church), Manson looms over West as an ominous devil over his shoulder before debuting the collaboration “Jail Pt. 2,” a macabre and disjointed retort to the various misinterpretations of cancel culture set to melody, with an added verse from DaBaby making for a hat trick of artistic reprobates masquerading as iconoclasts. 

When inquired as to the motivation for inviting Manson to work on the song during his impromptu appearance on the Drink Champs podcast, West dismissed the pushback as “mob mentality.” 

 “They’ll hit you with the accusations or somebody who you was with 10 years ago… there’s women who’ve been through very serious things, pulled in alleys against they will — that’s different than a hug, but it’s classified as the same thing,” he said. “It’s power and politics. You know, power-hungry maniacs and just, control. This is Nineteen Eighty-Four mind control that we in.”

It’s a shame that West genuinely seems to believe that feminism operates in absolutes, and that no one until 2021 had written fundamental literature around white supremacist patriarchy and the ways we can work to intentionally define harm and violations of consent in a caring, anti-carceral manner (perhaps he can start with the recently departed bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love). Regardless, the irony in his statement lies in his implication that Manson is being demonized for the “outsized offenses” of torture and assault. Out of the 10 million views to date on YouTube, how many people will fact check his statement and hold him accountable? Fellow collaborator DaBaby has adopted similar tactics, misleadingly claiming that the LGBTQIA+ community absolved him of his accountability to the violent statements he made about the queer community and HIV earlier in the year — a recent report also revealed that the financial commitments he was supposed to make to the organizations that took the time to educate him haven’t received any donations at all — furthering a false narrative to his fan base that there is a shadowy cartel of white queer power brokers that negotiate fealty and penance to anyone who seeks to succeed in entertainment, and emasculate cisheterosexual Black men. Despite DaBaby’s failure to genuflect to said amorphous entities, he has resumed booking shows, returning to the Rolling Loud stage that triggered his public relations freefall earlier in the year, Hot97 Summer Jam, and announcing a tour sponsored by Rolling Loud

dave chappelle A longtime sharp thinker on race in his comedy, Dave Chappelle's recent years have been punctuated by diversions in the space of gender and sexuality. Photo Credit: Mathieu Bitton / Netflix

Similarly, Dave Chappelle has been playing a game of intellectual dishonesty between his fans and the media. A longtime sharp thinker on race in his comedy, his more recent years have been punctuated by diversions in the space of gender and sexuality that reveal harmful gaps in his understanding — which is to say, not at all — largely shaped by the universe that he interacts in. The ensuing critique, however, prompted a wave of support not just from his fans and close friends in the comedy community — including Joe Rogan — but also prominent media conservatives on FOX News, all decrying attempts to “cancel” Chappelle who, ironically enough, resented his earlier work on the Chappelle’s show and standup special. The credits for his most recent special, The Closer, include a slideshow peppered with a who’s who of “free thinkers”: Kevin Hart, Talib Kweli, Joe Rogan, and yes, Kanye West and DaBaby — all while Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” streams defiantly in the background.

When critics attempt to point out the logical inconsistencies in these matters, they are lambasted as "woke police" or part of a cancel culture brigade, incapable of accepting a world of free speech and embracing free thinkers. Knowledge-seeking is an admirable venture; it’s part of any writer’s remit and something that everyone should aspire to continually engage in throughout their lifetime. Left unchallenged and unformed, however, anti-establishment ideals can easily be contorted into profiteering by those who you were looking to disrupt in the first place. Black entertainers the world over have expressed frustration after ascending in class position, only to be continuously confronted with roadblocks to creative empowerment and autonomy. The compulsion to recoil from many long-held neoliberal beliefs of economic and political freedom are understandable. Where the fracture begins is when an interrogation of that foundation has a prerequisite of preserving not only your wealth status, but the same celebrity that props up the same vultures that shook your foundation in the first place. That rejection of mainstream ideals rarely goes further left, which would require concessions that you’ve already eschewed, instead dissolving into a vacuous tantrum that can easily be molded at will on nightly airings of Tucker Carlson or Ben Shapiro YouTube videos, slowly being duped into the premise that these bad-faith platforms are the few people willing to embrace your plight. You are no longer in solidarity with the people; you are demanding that the working class rise up in solidarity with your fight under the misguided notion that these templates are a facsimile of their own interpersonal power dynamics with white supremacy in their daily lives. 

In a time of complete disarray, it’s normal to look for exceptional answers to exceptionally troubling times. It helps many of us try to reconcile what seems incomprehensible and intangible about the ever-shifting present. But left unattended, many are susceptible to being co-opted by bad faith actors and other methods of co-optation, shaping still unformed thoughts into fully articulated arguments. As bell hooks articulated in her excellent essay "Eating the Other," “White racism, imperialism, and sexist domination prevail by courageous consumption. It is by eating the other …that one asserts power and privilege.” No matter what class position Black people reside in, we will always exist a product to be commodified in a white supremacist system, and any spiral into conservative, “free-thinking” anti-establishment is a danger that’s actually more frighteningly average than uniquely exceptional. Reframing the enemy as a nameless, powerless voice, these entertainers believe they’re doing something for the greater good and extending that to their fan bases when, in reality, they’re only adding to the problem.

Banner Photo Credit: David Livingston/Getty Images

Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa who comments on culture, identity, and politics. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, NYMag, and The Root. You can follow her comings and goings on Twitter at @_Shamgod.