Imma Let You Finish
by Nik Wakefield
‘Imma let you finish’ is the moment when the fates of Kanye West and Taylor Swift intertwined like Voldemort and Harry Potter; destined to perform the power relations of race and gender. An omission to the story is that Kanye was advocating for another artist, who at the time was not yet queen. Kanye’s intervention was an affront to the inherent racism of the award show as a small manifestation of a cultural system that privileges white people. Kanye’s anger manifested in an impolite gesture which would become a career defining moment. His rudeness resulted from an act of advocacy for a black woman along with its complex history of men speaking for women. Instead of that narrative the moment is not only when Kanye became He who must not be named. In the eyes of mainstream white culture, explicitly or not, Kanye also became for them King Kong, the wild black primate, innocent white beauty in hand, ascending the monuments of capital.
Kanye is often derided for not making sense. This sounds like whitewashing an act of impolite advocacy into an act of senseless aggression. Attacking institutional bias is nonsense to those who are permitted the blind neutrality of ignorance because of the privilege afforded by that same bias. Yet Kanye did make sense and just as much sense as when, during a telephone fundraiser after hurricane Katrina, Kanye announced that ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people.’ Even the bluntness of that sentence in the face of institutions of power so insidious that they become invisible appears to be nonsense.
The story of ‘Imma let you finish’ becomes more important in light of what followed. Kanye’s apologies went unnoticed while he continued to be critically praised for his music. Taylor’s music earned her a named fan base and super celebrity status. She had always been a proficient songwriter but as she shed country trappings for pop purities she maintained her apparently uncultivated dorkiness. With social media Taylor became everyone’s BFF, building bridges through her effortful un-coolness in lines like ‘It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters.’ Without letting that go Taylor has been unable to hide her completely conventional model looks for very long and she has had to accept the fact that she is difficult to distinguish from the Victoria’s Secret Angels that form integral background roles in her squad. Taylor’s lyrics have taken on a sophisticated sense of playing into and commenting on the symbolic role imposed on her by pop culture of boy crazy but can’t keep him. She knows how to use all of that for her own advantage. In any case Taylor is not the girl who Kanye could steal the mic from anymore.
The problems so apparent in Kanye are hidden better in Taylor. Her squad sisterhood was ironically built on the back of a video that pitted Taylor against another woman. Taylor’s group is composed of such normative models of beauty that it was no surprise that Nicki Minaj would attack the award show system that recognises Taylor. Nicki pointed out that the system is afraid of a black woman whose sexuality has no coyness about it. It might just be that Nicki’s body is too much for people to take, or it might be that the video ‘Anaconda’ also turned the tables on a pop music classic about big butts while at the same time showing Nicki in control of the performance of her own sexuality and enjoying it. We live in a world in which it remains difficult to accept a black woman smiling and finding pleasure in her own sexuality. But then people like Taylor or Miley enter to accuse Nicki of rudeness, the same thing Kanye was earlier accused of, which is of course not doing things the white way. Blackness itself becomes an affront to the boundaries of recognition and the potential for communication within white mainstream culture. Taylor mistook Nicki’s critique of the system for a personal attack that Taylor later appeared to recognise and apologise for, which came with a patronising olive branch invitation to be a part of Taylor’s squad. Taking in these details complicates her definition of sisterhood. Perhaps Taylor gets more out of feminism than she puts into it.
It should be clear that I do not think that Taylor deserves sole responsibility for issues that are historical and culturally pervasive. I am a feminist and student of art and performance, which means I am interested in using my theoretical tools to understand the sometimes invisible machinery of the world I live in. Other examples beyond Taylor and Kanye will help clarify further how race and gender empower some and leave others out of the scope of recognition. For example Beyoncé has by now transcended any limitations by somehow managing to be all things at once – a supremely talented musician and performer, trustworthy mother and wife as well as other worldly beautiful. Beyoncé is our Marilyn, our perfection, and that we know that she knows it only adds to our appreciation.
Yet the critique I am trying to cultivate here is about how race and gender determine our reception of figures in mainstream culture which is a manifestation of how power is afforded to some and not others. Agency and performativity play a crucial role in this. Caitlyn Jenner was almost universally praised for coming out as trans. This supposedly proved to everyone that our understanding of gender includes its separation from sex. Transgenderism is also rightly accounted for in our medical institutions.
Race remains to be seen as biologically determined. Former president of a local chapter of the NAACP, an organisation for the empowerment of African-Americans, Rachel Dolezal was ‘unmasked’ as a white person pretending to be black. Mainstream public attacked the artificiality of her performance, reinforcing the notion that race is something you are born into. The public sphere spoke clearly that unlike gender as something to become, in the example of Caitlyn Jenner, race is a physical fact. Many important commentators have disagreed with this and I, as an anti-racist, absolutely agree. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently quipped, ‘race is the child of racism.’ If we can accept gender as a cultural construct we must also accept race as one too, while also understanding their equally violent but very different histories. The recent and numerous attacks on black men at the hands of white police might just be another symptom of a system that seeks to maintain race as biological actuality. The Black Lives Matter movement is still more proof that black people have to affirm their status as live human beings which means that the Western world continues to define humanity as white.
Humanity is also more often than not defined as man and in other examples gender trumps race. The more I try to understand how race and gender are related the more confused I become. Even elected officials play within the rules of power set by history. The profound excitement of electing Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States has virtually no equivalent in the potential to elect the first female president in Hillary Clinton. Somehow gender is limp in that equation where race proved exciting. As a reflection of the continued violence toward black people by white police, mainstream culture is also continually violent towards women. Musicians Grimes and Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches have both eloquently called out the ugly misogyny of internet comments. The threats men too often lawfully write to women online are just as much symptomatic of a culture that permits rape. Universities and laws have made no positive progress in protecting women from sexual violence or bringing justice to the criminals that perpetuate it. We live in a world where a university student has to carry a mattress around her campus for months before anyone in power cares that she needs that system to carry out its self-proclaimed justice.
I was awoken late one night to the sounds of bodies hitting walls, the sound of a woman’s voice saying ‘get out of this house’ and a man’s voice saying ‘you can’t kill my baby.’ I got between them and managed to lead the man outside. His eventual tears didn’t stop him from admitting that the reason for the woman’s choice of abortion was due to the fact that she is white and he is black, and that a mixed race child will have a very hard time indeed. However sad it is, her reason does not prohibit her legal right to choose what to do with her body.
Each of these episodes show how race and gender compose some of the power relations of our lives. The last example bottoms out in the rottenest of all scenarios where a woman’s right to choose is violently called into question because her reason for doing so is racism. To complicate things further, the racism is not even perhaps her own but an acquiescence through her awareness of its societal dimension. To me at least these issues undoubtedly prove that the world I live in still has problems with race and gender. These issues mean to me that I must be outspokenly feminist and anti-racist.
To return to Kanye and Taylor, their stories continue to progress and add layers to the wider issues. More recently the two have reconciled in a sequence of events. There was the exhilarating performance of ‘All Day’ at the Brit awards where Kanye performed along with a crowd of black men dressed in black with flame throwers. The camera repeatedly went to Taylor who was either in awe of the stage or dancing. Somehow Taylor made her way to a proudly smiling Kim Kardashian. Kim deserves an important mention here for the way she plays misogyny off itself. Without music or any other art to mediate between herself and the world, Kim Kardashian is pure desire. She is what everyone wants, or at least what we think we want. Kim knows this and is yet another intelligent business woman who like Taylor benefits by encouraging everyone to think that she is unaware. But of course it is only misogyny that makes anyone think that an in control business woman who has gotten everything that she wants is stupid.
Like Kim, Taylor gains by making us think she does not know what she is doing. The world casts Kim as a brainless slut and she must be partially happy to play the role; so long as it it means that non-celebrities’ criticisms of her are accompanied by constant attention and remuneration. In a different role, Taylor is the innocent dork who also happens to look like a model. What I am suspicious of with Taylor is the way in which she composes her image to look as if she is carefree, which can only be a result of very careful performance. Taylor’s actual power cannot be overestimated. It was exemplified in her public letter to Apple that caused one of the largest companies in the world to change a policy that would cause many musicians, independents and mainstream alike, to lose out to the corporation. Taylor’s act of advocacy, her numerous charitable acts and small social media gestures to befriend everyone are both nauseatingly manipulative and genuinely good. It is friendly of mainstream culture to express its preference for niceness by applauding a dork to the top. But it is silly to consider that Taylor would be friends with anyone who will not buy her music or help her sell it. For example, her feminism opens practices of gender equality to so many who would otherwise stay far away. But Taylor also gains from feminism’s recently achieved cultural capital. Her feminism also does not stop her from thinking twice before performing her own insidious but outwardly innocent acts of racism such as the cultural appropriation and minstrelsy in the ‘Shake It Off’ music video. Taylor is intelligent, creative and deserves her success, and deserves that we not express our misogyny by taking her power for granted or missing the opportunity to think critically about what she means to and for us.
Kanye, on the other hand, appears to me as someone whose image is much less cultivated. No doubt both Kanye and Taylor think about their image and probably employ people to do so for them. Yet Kanye wears his heart on his sleeve and risks nonsense. He is inclined to escape recognition. Receiving an honorary doctorate from School of the Art Institute Chicago, one of the best art schools in the US, Kanye showed that he transcends music, saying ‘I’m a pop artist. My medium is public opinion and the world is my canvas.’ Kanye tries and sometimes fails to communicate while Taylor is perfectly recognizable. Even her apologies court flattery. Kanye’s willingness to be critical, which he knows will offend some, is for me his importance. Kanye’s exclamations, that he is the greatest living rock star or that he will run for president, subvert mainstream understandings of who has the right to say such things. Better yet, in my opinion, Kanye does make mistakes. He is aware of the problem of the violence toward women in his and other rappers’ lyrics and yet continues to make use of such tropes. This is inexcusable and forces us to appreciate the fallibility of his character. Kanye forces us to express ourselves because he is neither all wrong nor all right. We have to think.
What I am trying to do here ultimately is unpack the interrelated power plays of race and gender that are too often separated. In so doing I have made other vital exclusions which are in themselves inexcusable. For example, I have not considered how heteronormativity or able-bodiedness plays into these compositions of power. I have also made a usual error of considering race along the binary of black and white and gender along an equivalent binary of women and men. There is much more to be done. The purpose of this essay is a beginning that requires more thought, research and writing. It also requires other voices because my own race, gender, class and other identity positions limit my readings of these issues. I have only been able to think such things due to excellent teachers such as Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates and Dr. Kristen Kreider. They have both showed me how to balance the critical with the creative. My colleagues and peers will surely develop these and other crucial avenues of enquiry. My role here is to not accept the pre-packaged symbolism attached to pop-culture figures as manifestations of how things like race and gender are inherently operational within our culture. I think both Kanye and Taylor are extremely talented musicians who deserve respect. I think both take advantage of their privilege and are otherwise disadvantaged by their identities.
So my point is to encourage a positive criticality, or better yet a creative and participatory tactile engagement with a world that includes pop culture. This means communicating as well as I possibly can. It also means listening to the voices that operate just below the usually recognisable frequencies of the status quo, such as people like Azealia Banks who tries to use her celebrity to open up discourses and sometimes falters. She is important because she is difficult. That we cannot accept everything she says at face value is why we need to listen to her and people like her.
I want to be on the side of history that listens to those who point out problems and call for solutions. Not on the side of history that attacks disenfranchised voices by maintaining the status quo, saying that problems are made by those who say there is a problem.