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Protest through another medium


From sit-ins and protest marches, to mass demonstrations and social networking, protests have taken myriad forms over the centuries. We’ve witnessed protest in the most iconic sense of the word; whether on the streets of Tunisia during the 2010 Arab Spring, or in the Parisian suburbs in 2006 at the hands of the frustrated French youth, or even at our very own doorstep; the 2011 riots sparked by the shooting of Mark Duggan for example, pitting civilians against the police and setting London ablaze in the process.

But the spirit of protest is changing. One unlikely candidate who incarnates this new form of protest? American rapper-turned-entrepreneur-turned-self-proclaimed nihilist, Kanye Omari West.

Racism, classism, and capitalism: three extremely controversial aspects of our society which would incite protest in any a social context are in fact the very actualities in which Kanye West grounds his basis for protest.

Culture Jamming

Culture jamming, though he may not know it himself, is Kanye West’s primary medium for protest. Defined as an attempt to transform, disrupt or subvert mass media culture, with the intention of exposing apparently questionable social and political assumptions, culture jamming in the terms of the proverbial layman is any reaction against social conformity used to criticise or negate the status quo.

If music is the opium of the masses, then Kanye’s release of records such as “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” goes that one step further in revolutionising the way we currently think about society. What one ought to notice is that to subvert the skinhead subculture of 1960’s Britain –its ideals of nationalism, racism and white superiority in toe with the one oxymoronic phrase ‘Black Skinhead’, is to bring to light the deep-seated xenophobia in the UKIP-clad Britain of today. To rap “Used to only be n*****s, now everybody playing/Spending everything on Alexander Wang”, is to highlight that in the century-long changeover from the manacles of slavery to the chains of capitalism, nothing has really changed.

Why shouldn’t Brand Yeezy benefit from the same haute couture status [as] Versace?

Recently, Kanye received criticism for adopting the Confederate flag on a number of items from his Yeezus tour merchandise. This flag, formerly seen as a proud emblem of Southern heritage, but now invariably considered a shameful reminder of slavery and segregation in the Southern States attracts controversy for all the right reasons. On the other hand however, it is culture jamming exemplified: Kanye takes the defunct Confederate flag and instead makes it his flag, deliberately skewing all notions of racial prejudice that come along with it. What is more, donning the Confederate flag in this way can be viewed as an act of flag desecration, a further defiant expression of protest.

Similarly, American iconography is subverted in the now infamous music video for Bound 2. On the surface, it’s a romanticised all-American visual of Kanye and wife Kim Kardashian riding on a motorbike through various sublime settings. Showcasing the iconic American Old West, it simulates the Lone Ranger character with a modern twist. Venture deeper however, and one will find that Kanye turns this enduring icon of American culture on its head – not only depicting a Lone Ranger that is black, but in an interracial relationship.

Fashion-conscious frustration

If protest is an objection against a situation considered unjust, then this embodies Kanye’s approach to fashion. As of 2009, Kanye has made several ventures into the land of couture that have launched him into the fashion spotlight. This is not to say however, that the success of Brand Yeezy has not come without its fair share of obstacles.

Part of the problem stems from being a black man in a predominantly white field. As a black rapper seen to be ‘crossing over’ into the formidable fashion world, both he and his creativity are categorically marginalised into an “urban” category. This begs the question: Why the automatic pigeonholing into a classification that remains both subsidiary and steeped in stereotype? Why shouldn’t Brand Yeezy benefit from the same haute couture status that major labels Versace and Yves Saint Laurent have enjoyed?

Kanye’s response is simple: use one’s social standing to influence the majority. Denouncing leading fashion house Louis Vuitton after having been snubbed by executives, he publicly discouraged the masses from continuing to purchase their products, in true boycott-esque style.

The fashion industry still harbours issues of classism. Everyday people coming from ordinary backgrounds do not have the luxury of wearing high fashion brands, despite the fact that they confront us everywhere we go. Nowadays however, fashion creatives seem to want to connect with the majority. “But the cost of silk is too expensive,” Kanye argues. In other words, the fashion realm will not lower its quality levels for the good of the wider society. Accessibility, on that wide a scale, “is impossible to hand make”.

Protest or Pomp?

It is no secret that Kanye’s antics find themselves wading knee-deep in bravado, braggadocio and publicity stunt. So how far are Kanye’s methods protest, as they are pretension? How far is it about popular opinion as it is pompous rambling?

A raving megalomaniac, a self- indulgent egotist: this is the picture many have of Kanye West today, and to some extent, rightly so. It is getting harder and harder to enter ‘Kanye’ into a search engine without being accosted by multitudinous ‘rant’ interviews, paparazzi altercations and other forms of public meltdown. His behaviour in the public eye – the latest example being his stopping a concert in Australia in an attempt to get two handicapped fans to ‘stand up and dance’- is often so outrageous, so outlandish, that it makes it increasingly difficult for anyone to support him and still seem credible, or sane. Here lies a high dose of irony: doesn’t culture jamming merely reiterate the ubiquity of the very idea you are trying to suppress? Doesn’t ingratiating yourself with fashion corporations just vindicate them?

Effectively, it is in this feat that Kanye fails. Once quoted to have said that nothing matters to him but “the people and how I can affect them”, his means of protest fall short of ever even reaching them. Thus, he alienates himself with his own controversial means of expression.

Socially conscious, an advocate of individualism and a poster boy for progressive change, (Kanye West) could very well be today’s postmodernist

But does that make his views controversial?

The answer: no. Kanye’s stance on race, class and wealth in the world is no novelty, nor is it that much more far-fetched or out of line with our own. If this is the case, why do we shun controversial means of expression? The truth is, as a society, we treat controversy like we would a sleeping child: tip-toeing around it in order to avoid facing its existence. Does this therefore prove Kanye’s point about the new slaves of society? “We are all mentally enslaved. We are born free but then we are held down by society’s perception of us.” It is our prudishness and furtive need to belong that makes us post onto Facebook news feeds and Twitter timelines ‘Watch Kanye snap in this interview!’ as opposed to ‘Watch Kanye highlight the scourges of our society.’ In this way, we are merely suppressing the art of protest itself: “We just don’t want to be embarrassed…and I took the opportunity to look as stupid as possible.”

Kanye West is not your run-of- the-mill rapper. Socially conscious, an advocate of individualism and a poster boy for progressive change, he could very well be today’s postmodernist; the modern-day Christopher Columbus at whom the world will look back in years to come, bashful that they’d believed the Earth was flat. Granted, whilst not as explosive as the “Un- known Protestor” of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, or as shocking as the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in 1963 South Vietnam, music remains the most far-reaching and undisputable champion of change. Protest through another medium means that whilst Kanye’s ideas are nothing particularly new, his expression is.



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