Thursday, January 6, 2011
In Defense of Kanye West, That's Mr. "Monster" To You
by Johnathan Fields
Y'all knew they were gonna flood in, didn't you? The analyses of Kanye West's new "Monster" video, that is. Kanye's latest music video, featuring Bon Ivor, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj & Rick Ross, is stirring up quite the controversy. Some communities are arguing Kanye's video is blatantly misogynistic, claiming they even refuse to watch it again. To that I say, "How stupid!"
To refuse to engage with media representation is a highly dangerous task for any person committed to justice or liberation of a peoples. Media is an accessible "tool" that allows all of us to experience arenas of the world we aren't necessarily always allowed access into. Albeit, these representations are usually limited and inaccurate in that they never fully contextualize people, places, things, etc.
To get back to Kanye, I agree--on the surface of this video and the lyrics--this song is entirely misogynistic. For that, we need to hold him accountable as a man but also as an artist. However, I refuse to dismiss the "Monster" video as anything other than brilliant. Mr. West brought us a narrative on the exploitation of Black bodies by the same tool that's being used by these purported liberation advocates and/or "feminists"--whiteness.
Take a look at the video. You will see the only "dead" women are white women (I put dead in quotations because this is an artistic representation and no one is *actually* dead). The women of color who are represented in this video are all zombie-esque. I will get back to this point later. Now, just hear me out.
Kanye is offering us a story here, whether we listen or not is our choice. Given some bold interactions that have taken place in the public sphere between Mr. West and, ahem, Taylor Swift...I think it's important to analyze how he is using this video to continue stirring "controversy."
Given my interests in how Lady Gaga uses Blackness to perpetuate racial tropes in media and exploit Black bodies, I immediately put Kanye's "Monster" video into conversation with Gaga.
On Gaga's Fame Monster album, she has two tracks "Just Dance" and "Monster" that are crucial to my analysis of Kanye's video. On "Just Dance", Gaga was praised for her commentary on date rape amongst some groups. Gaga and Akon--a Black man--share drinks and a friendly exchange that suggests they will be having sex later on that night--drunk sex.
Her "Monster" track goes on to give "Just Dance" a shout-out when she blurts: "I wanna just dance but he took me home instead. Uh oh, there was a monster in my bed." Gaga's "monster" is a sexual predator--he takes advantage of her. In short, he rapes her. A monster is a rapist to Gaga.
Now this all seems like great commentary until you take into consideration the fact that she has Akon on the "Just Dance" track as the supposed sexual predator--not a new trope for Black men in the media (think: "Birth of a Nation"). Though Akon is not on the "Monster" track, her reference paired with the fact she has male vocals of someone who is perceivably Black leads us to assume the predator is Black (Please reference Dr. E. Patrick Johnson's "Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity" for more on the sounds of Blackness).
Essentially what Gaga's narrative gives us is a little bit of history, whereby white women fetishize Black bodies and after exploring their sexual desires cry wolf. It should come as no surprise that Black men were imprisoned for the supposed rapes of white women that were later found out to be inaccurate (think: Scottsboro Boys). I presume this "pretending it didn't happen" is due to the social taboos and pressures of not subscribing to interracial exchanges.
Bringing this right on back to Kanye, I perceive his "Monster" video to be a direct response to not only Lady Gaga--after all, they share a title name--but history as well. He responds to this idea that Black men are sexual predators. Essentially, Kanye's response is his defense for Blackness. If you want to portray him as a monster, fine. But here's his side. Not only does Kanye give a brilliant narrative on the demonization of Black men but also of late capitalism, whereby bodies become commodities. If anyone is addressing the "fame monster" it is Kanye, not Gaga.
He opens the track by having Bon Iver state: "I shoot the lights out, hide til it's bright out." Some of the most profound Black artists and poets have used the symbolism of a light/dark dichotomy to address racial politics. He closes the video by stating, "I crossed the line. I'll let God decide." Kanye knew there would be a backlash--because anytime someone comes to the defense of Blackness or Black issues, there is always a backlash.
Even when you incorporate Nicki Minaj's verse, this video is still in defense of Blackness. Nicki is interrogating herself as Barbie--a figure that long since put burdens upon women's bodies, especially Black women. How long did it take to get a Black Barbie? Just sayin'. She depicts the multiple personas women in the media have to portray. You can be the vixen or the pure, innocent virgin. But you have to choose. Back to Kanye we go when we consider the Taylor Swift incident whereby Beyonce was placed in direct opposition to Taylor Swift--vixen versus virgin (though, I give Beyonce much more respect and credit then to reduce her to a vixen).
The zombie-esque nature of the video's women of color could highlight the internal battle some women feel as they're compartmentalized. But that's precisely why Blackness is at the root of this argument. Blackness is more than skin color. Blackness is ideology. Those zombies and monsters represent a eager and willingness to fight back.
This video was so--Kanye. We all know Kanye West has his moments, trust. However, I don't think this is another one of Kanye's moments. I think this is all part of his beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy, when Black people start to tell their side of the story and gain the respect they deserve to address the injustices placed upon them.
We should not excuse the misogyny of the video or the lyrics. The usage of words like "bitch" and suggesting violence against women is unacceptable--especially when the male privilege that consumes them goes unchecked. If we should be addressing anyone, it should be Jay-Z's verse when he talks about raping a village of women and children. But again, I think this goes right back to responding to the trope of "Black men as sexual predator." We need to be willing to allow multiple narratives to co-exist and work through the problems together. He is not excused to paint white women as she-devils, but he is allowed to respond to history.
I would hope that the video's viewers would take a minute to analyze the video from another lens.
Check the video out for yourself.
Johnathan Fields is a DePaul University alum with a B.A. in African & Black Diaspora Studies and Philosophy. His areas of interest include: media representations of race, gender, and sexuality in popular culture, Black feminist theory, Diasporic literature and critical race theory. He is also the latest addition to this site's family of contributors.