What do Kanye West and Karl Marx have in common? Short answer: our homie Chief Boima. Boima, as Okayafrica readers already know, is not just a barrier-smashing DJ (if you were not there to like his Okayafrica Soundclash set in person Friday night, you don’t like yourself) but also a scholar of music and global DJ culture. Last week, in an essay entitled “Kanye West On The Commodity Fetish “published on the Dutty Artz blog, Boima identified some of key philosophical concepts of classical Marxism at work in Kanye’s thinking as relayed to Zane Lowe in his now-notorious BBC 1 interview. Specifically Boima zeroes in on Yeezy’s comments in the last segment of the interview, wherein he says decodes his stance on materialism in “New Slaves” and says things like:
“We don’t want to just have that print on the back of our jackets that cost $2000 making us feel like a king again for a day. We don’t want to just have the jewelry, making us feel good. We want to BE good….that’s creation.”
As Boima sees it:
Basically, what Kanye is seeing and trying to point out is that “products” are tied up with and contain the social context in which they are produced. From what I understand of the interview, he aims to dismantle the structural inequalities he’s come across in his career as a “creative” by taking control of the point of creation, means of production, and probably modes of distribution.
Boima goes on to imagine alternative modes of production, drawing from other Kanye quotes, the social theories of dude-that-invented-virtual-reality Jaron Lanier, the creative economy of pre-Islamic Mali and even Uzbek rap to arrive at an imagined economy of creativity where creators are fully able to own and profit from the products of their labor, hand-making beautiful objects– the “dopeness” Kanye speaks of so passionately–for everyone (if that sounds dismissive, its not, we highly recommend you read the whole thing). What both Kanye and Boima seem to be imagining sounds a lot like the utopic vision of artist Joseph Beuys, who famously said that Kunst = Kapital (roughly translated Art = Money), imagining a world where “a monetary exchange economy that degrades human dignity to a commodity for money…would change into an economy in which human ability is the sole capital.” That sounds a lot closer to Mr. West’s philosophy than classical Marxism, even if he–like Beuys–accepts some of the categories Marx introduced.
That Kanye has always been hyper-aware of commodity fetishization–even as he dives into it headfirst–is almost undeniable to someone who knows his whole catalogue from the days of “All Falls Down” to Yeezus. Even in this interview his pseudo-Marxism pops up. He describes himself as being “a young revolutionary from Chicago” when Jay Z took him under the Rocafella aegis and looks forward to building with tour-mate Kendrick Lamar because “he’s one of our future messengers”–both indications of where his head is at. That he has parlayed that hyper-awareness of the magic that certain objects create in us–the spell that commodities put us under, totally separate from their functional use-value as tools or objects–into a crazy program of self-empowerment is equally beyond question. Uniquely self-reflective, Ye’s artistic career has by turn hypnotized us and then demystified the process of hypnotism–only to hypnotize us again.
Even at his most FOH moments, his fuckery seems like such self-aware fuckery that you have to wonder whether his aim is to get our $120 by putting his name on a white cotton tee shirt, or to teach us what fools we are to fetishize the narrative–the magic–around a damn undershirt so completely that we will pay 10 times the cost of production for the sake of that name. Or possibly both (as he says he’s about “the dopeness and the money.”)
But that honestly makes me think of Ye less as a revolutionary and more as a self-invented man in the mold of Don Draper, the snake oil salesman who can sell the myths of advertising with such unparalleled skill precisely because he understands the nature of his own desire, his own enslavement to the myth (compare Yeezy’s rant about the magic of a new pair of Jordans or a porno mag with Draper’s self-destructive soliliquy about whores and Hershey bars and tell me I’m wrong). Which really makes me wonder whether Kanye’s main contribution to the revolution won’t be imploding on camera in some way that exposes the system at its ugliest. You could even read his closing words of the interview as an ominous foreshadowing, when, after waxing poetic about passion, pyramids and porno mags he says:
“That’s why I’m on that runway…until I’m at the end of it.”
What happens when he gets to the end of the runway? Will he lift off into a whole new form of post-capitalist human being, or pull an Icarus? Or maybe just turn on his heels and walk his kilt back to the dressing room? That’s what keeps us watching, no doubt. That is what’s really at the heart of his charisma; not so much that he’s some kind of secret revolutionary but that he dances right on the edge where capitalism spins off into crazy (<– yes, I said it). And for all his self-awareness, I wonder if Kanye is aware how much the spectacle of Yeezus has surpassed the beats and beautiful objects as the source of his appeal, becoming a Warhol-esque artform all its own. So does Kanye’s life illustrate Das Kapital or Society of The Spectacle? Keep reading to find out.