We All Self-Conscious, I'm Just The First To Admit It


My inspiration for this paper came from Robert Christgau, longtime editor and critic for the Village Voice and notorious reviewer-of-everything. A diehard fan of Kanye West, who he celebrates as a genuine literary talent with cultural cred despite lacking the “get-it-while-you-can fatalism that armors gangstas street, showbiz, and in between,” Christgau lands a slight jab at the artist’s recent G.O.O.D. Music crew album, the lackluster Cruel Summer. He summarizes: “Lyrically, Kanye & Assoc. do little more than add ho and gangsta sidebars to the boss’s core philosophy: “Conspicuous Consumption Equals Authentic Negritude” (Christgau).

While Christgau’s certainly onto something here, with this analysis - I argue “conspicuous consumption equals authentic negritude” shouldn’t registered as a pan, mild or otherwise. On the contrary, “conspicuous consumption” in the hands of Kanye West is exactly a brand of negritude (or, more clearly, the cultural conditions prefiguring a need for negritude) motivated by Frantz Fanon - with a little help from Césaire. And as one of fewer than probably ten living scholars conducting any work on Kanye West (not to mention negritude’s living presence in contemporary rap), I’ll have to show it without much help.

Tricia Rose kicks off the sixth chapter of recent text The Hip Hop Wars with a quote from Atlanta-area rapper TI on Kanye’s inscribed popularity: “Kanye West raps about being a college dropout, and that’s what he knows. I rap about what I know. College kids listen to his music, ghetto kids listen to me” (133). Even if we ignore the fact that college kid I am loves the occasional TI jam, TI still misses the mark. For one thing, there’s nothing niche about Kanye’s aesthetic appeal. He is one among the best-selling artists of the century, and is without question its most critically acclaimed. For another, Kanye likely doesn’t have enough time to tell TI he’s dead wrong about the college thing.

West’s world-beating debut, The College Dropout, establishes the exactly the dialectic its title suggests: an intelligent black man (his mother, before her death, was Chair of English at Chicago State University) unassimilated (or unassimilating) from a Eurocentric model of education. The album’s intro skit and first song affirm this reading:

An elderly black scholar approaches Kanye - asking him to write and perform a song for his classmates during graduation commencement ceremonies:

Kanye, can I talk to you for a minute?

Me and the other faculty members was wonderin' could you do a lil som...

Somethin' beautiful, somethin' that the kids is gon' love when they hear it

Tha's gon make them start jumpin' up and down and sharin' candy an' stuff

Think you could probably do somethin' for the kids for graduation to sing?

Kanye: Oh yeah, I’ve got the perfect song for the kids to sing…

A soulful Jimmy Castor Bunch sample plays, and “We Don’t Care” - the album’s lead track - gets underway. With it, West indicts the whole of the American educational infrastructure by contrasting it to the realities of Chicago street life:

Drug dealin’ just to get by

Stack ya’ money ‘til it get sky high

(Kids, sing! Kids, sing!)

We wasn’t s’posed 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”

This is merely the song’s hook, keep in mind. Yet with it, already West has established a difference. There is no college in this world - just drug dealing. And when he invites kids to sing, they do - a playful mimic of Motown conventions that quickly deflates into the grotesque when the youthful chorus proclaims “We wasn’t s’posed to make it past 25, Joke’s on you, we still alive.” It’s a searing indictment of post-Reagan social engineering. These children, in truth, are certainly not older than 25 - but they claim to be: a two way pun that suggests either (a) life on the streets has aged them well beyond their years and/or (b) they are older than 25, but without proper access to education, they remain in a state of young ignorance. The song goes on to deny neither interpretation when it suggests that the drug trade is the only path to education (whether that education is institutional or of the streets is left to the imagination):

You know the kids gon' act a fool

When you stop the programs for after-school

And they DCFS, some of 'em dyslexic

They favorite 50-Cent song "12 Questions"

We scream: "rocks, blow, weed, park", see, now we smart

We ain't retards, the way teachers thought

Hold up, hold fast, we make more cash

Now tell my momma I belong in that slow class

Sad enough we on welfare

They tryna put me on the school bus with the space for the wheelchair

I'm tryna get the car with the chromie wheels here

They tryna cut our lights out like we don't live here

Look what was handed us, fathers abandoned us

Again: more criticism of supply-side economic policy - with the implication that a lack of funding has pushed kids into the streets, where they’re invariably going to act like fools. Without the institutional support to encourage literacy, they’re left dyslexic - a concept rendered quite tragically when they confuse 50-Cent’s club hit “21 Questions” for ‘12 Questions,’ the fundamental text of Alcoholics Anonymous. These are serious questions of deterministic politics.

West goes on to rap that a young man’s success in the drug game will prove to his (presumably white) inner city teacher that he’s not a “a retard” fit for “the slow class” or the “school bus with the space for the wheelchair.” This analysis is straight out of Césaire and Fanon:

Don’t let the subtleties of vocabulary, the new terminology, frighten you! You know the old refrain: “The-Negroes-are-big-children.” They take it, they dress it up for you, tangle it up for you. (15)

and

I am not at all exaggerating: A white man addressing a Negro behaves exactly like an adult with a child and starts smirking, whispering, patronizing, cozening. It is not one white man I have watched, but hundreds, and I have not limited my investigation to any one class but, if I may claim an essentially objective position, I have made a point of observing such behavior in physicians, policemen, employers. (Black Skin, White Masks 19)

Kanye adds teachers to that list. Ultimately, what this analysis suggests is that education permitted Kanye in the inequitable system of knowledge exchange is one that privileges material acquisition (closely tied to survival) for black Americans over the pursuit of classic Western fields of study. Indeed, earlier in the same song he raps: “We never had nothin’ handed, took nothin’ for granted / Took nothin’ from no man, man, I’m my own man / But as a shorty I looked up to the dopeman / Only adult man I knew that wasn’t broke, man … sittin’ in the hood like community colleges / This dope money here is Lil’ Trey’s scholarship / Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition / And ain’t no loans for sittin’ your ass at home / So we forced to sell crack, rap, and get a job / You gotta do somethin’ man, your ass is grown.”

The repeated use of “man” operates a double function: on one hand, it’s a nervous tic, an indication Kanye is plaintive, anxious - in need of a purpose; on the other hand, it suggests Kanye associates the drug trade and the money that comes with it as the trappings of manhood, as the necessary condition for growth past the age of twenty-five. There is no room for institutional education in the schema.

Recall, this is a song delivered at commencement - a setting where it’s least compatible. The end of the track is cut off by the return of the elderly black scholar, whose admonishment of Kanye’s vision of inner city sociopolitics is both hilarious and revelatory:

What in the fuck was that Kanye?! I told you to do some shit for the kids! You can give me your muthafuckin' graduation ticket right now! You will not walk across that stage, you won’t slide across that stage! A muthafucka can’t pull you across that stage Kanye! Who told you see, I told you to do somethin' uplifting! I’m tryin' to get you out here with these white people and this how you're gonna do me! You know what, you's a nigger! And I don’t mean that in no nice way. Had little kids sing about the shit, the jokes on you You throw your muthafucking hands in the air, and wave good-bye to everybody Cause you gettin' the fuck out of this campus Mutha what you gone do now?

This is clearly the monologue of an individual who retains elements of black culture (the James Brown era “slide across that stage” is one such tip, as is the crotchety pidgin English) but who has assimilated - fearfully - into broader white culture and its Eurocentric educational infrastructure. He’s embarrassed that Kanye’s song was presented in front of white people, and now reflects poorly on the black member’s of the universities administration. As a consequence of his malfeasance, Kanye is denied his graduation credentials - literally pushed back into the realm of socioeconomics his song captured.

There’s no better way to read the scholar’s rant than alongside Fanon’s conflict with his mother of his own refusal to affirm in song the institution of the hegemonic nationhood around him:

I am a Negro - but of course I do not know it, simply because I am one. When I am home my mother sings me French love songs in which there is never a word about Negros. When I disobey, when I make too much noise, I am told to “stop acting like a nigger.” (Black Skin 148)

Is this not exactly what Kanye’s song and subsequent reprimand echo? And is not the reaction from the old (assimilated) guard identical? Frantz makes too much noise, refuses to sing a white song, and is told to “stop acting like a nigger.” Kanye makes the wrong kind of noise, and a lot of it - in front of white people no less - and earns identical scorn: “I’m tryin’ to get you out here with these white people and this is how you’re gonna do me! You know what, you’s a nigger! And I don’t mean that in no nice way.”

The following track offers an even more sophisticated representation of Fanon’s ethics. In “All Falls Down,” a song built atop the Lauryn Hill’s appropriately sampled “Mystery of Iniquity,” West blends Fanon’s concept of the black neurosis of self-evaluation with his claim that the body of the colonized becomes commodified to the degree of fissure from consciousness - in other words, that the body itself becomes an object of consciousness.

Man I promise, she's so self-conscious

She has no idea what she's doing in college

That major that she majored in don't make no money

But she won't drop out, her parents will look at her funny

Now, tell me that ain't insecurr

The concept of school seems so secure

Sophomore, three yurrs, ain't picked a carurr

She like, fuck it, I'll just stay down here and do hair

Cause that's enough money to buy her a few pairs of new Airs

Cause her baby-daddy don't really care

She's so precious with the peer pressure

Couldn't afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis

She had hair so long that it looked like weave

Then she cut it all off, now she look like Eve

And she be dealin' with some issues that you can't believe

Single black female addicted to retail, and well

Here again, the horrific politics of black alienation amidst the Eurocentric educational infrastructure - cast into an almost magic realism of material acquisition. The woman in question cannot reconcile her decision to attend college with the reality that her chosen major is out of sync with the black educational paradigm established in the first song: it makes no money, it is useless. Rather than follow through with her degree, she opts “stay down here” (ostensibly a throwaway comment indicating her intent to stay near campus, but likely a metaphor for the oppressive conditions of the working class). What little money she generates, she’s pressured by cultural figurations to blow on superfluous items, a pair of Nike Airs - a status symbol denoting historical street cred. Since she hasn’t the means for a luxury car, she literally names her daughter after one - Alexis, or ‘a Lexus.’ After a time, her hair gets long enough that it looks fake, material.

West here isn’t simply bemoaning rampant materialism. His critique is far more advanced: so severe is the black neurosis in American educational and financial markets - some black citizens are literally becoming material objects themselves. In some cases (namely, the protagonist’s child) they’re born (always already) indistinguishable from the material conditions of the marketplace.

Complicating the analysis, West implicates himself in the neurosis:

Man I promise, I'm so self-conscious

That's why you always see me with at least one of my watches

Rollies and Pasha's done drove me crazy

I can't even pronounce nothing, pass that ver-say-see!

Then I spent four hundred bucks on this

Just to be like, nigga you ain't up on this

And I can't even go to the grocery store

Without some Ones that's clean and a shirt with a team

It seems we living the American dream

But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem

The prettiest people do the ugliest things

For the road to riches and diamond rings

We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us

We trying to buy back our 40 acres

And for that paper, look how low we a stoop

Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe

West puts into practice here the psychoanalytical framework outlined by Fanon in Black Skin White Masks:

The Negro is comparison. There is the first truth. He is comparison: that is, he is constantly preoccupied with self-evaluation and with the ego-ideal. Whenever he comes into contact with someone else, the question of value, of merit, arises. The Antilleans have no inherent values of their own, they are always contingent on the presence of The Other. The question is always whether he is less intelligent than I, blacker than I, less respectable than I. Every position of one’s own, every effort at security, is based on relations of dependence, with the diminution of the other. It is the wreckage of what surrounds me that provides the foundation for my virility. (163-4)

West, like Fanon, is perfectly aware the source of the neurosis stems from racism latent in the cultural inequities of White America (“We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us / We trying to buy back our 40 acres”), but the symptomatic anger stemming from the neurosis is nevertheless directed at fellow black Americans: “Then I spent four hundred bucks on this / Just to be like, nigga, you ain’t up on this.” Unfortunately, and this is true in Fanon as well as West, the black in-fighting, one-upping, arms-racing amounts to nothing more than division and distraction: “Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.” In the last stanza, West finally breaks down and directs his anger at the white powers that be:

I say fuck the police, that's how I treat 'em

We buy our way out of jail, but we can't buy freedom

We'll buy a lot of clothes when we don't really need em

Things we buy to cover up what's inside

Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth

That's why shorty's hollerin' "where the ballers at?"

Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack

And a white man get paid off of all of that

But I ain't even gonna act holier than thou

Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with twenty-five thou

Before I had a house and I'd do it again

Cause I want to be on 106 and Park pushin' a Benz

I want to act ballerific like it's all terrific

I got a couple past due bills, I won't get specific

I got a problem with spendin' before I get it

We all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it

This begins as exactly the denouement both West and Fanon would intend – whereof the source of the neurosis is exposed and persecuted. The “white man” befits at every set of this process: he owns the companies, dictates national policy, would prefer to keep the black man locked into a material arms-race of his own scheming, etc. But West dissolves because he has to: “fuck it, I went to Jacob [a famous Chicago area jeweler] with twenty-five thou / Before I had a house and I’d do it again / Cause I want to be on 106 and Park pushin’ a Benz.” No matter West’s intellectual chops, no matter his genius for identifying parallel with Fanon (perhaps thanks to Fanon – Kanye is known after all to be quite the reader) the socioeconomic conditions of his material-neurotic assimilation, he remains operating behind a false-consciousness because he must. There’s no cred otherwise. He might try preaching straight up, but who would listen? It’s the same reason Public Enemy needs Flavor Flav – the ghost of mass-appeal in rap’s negritude.