A couple of weeks back, a Google search screenshot did the rounds on Tumblr. It was a study of how the media reports the public utterances of black and white stars — Lady Gaga and Macklemore “speak out,” while Kanye West “rants.” It came with the comment, “Coded language don’t really be coded,” an observation worth revisiting in the wake of the rapper’s widely reported response to a skit on Jimmy Kimmel’s show last night, a skit that ridiculed the BBC’s interview with West earlier this week.
First things first: Kimmel’s skit was awful. It was a study in the sort of contempt sections of the media hold for West, with Kimmel lifting quotes from the interview (specifically, the part where West complains about approaching Fendi with designs for leather jogging pants, which were rejected, only for the exact same design to surface years later) and ridiculing them. He derided West for “being his own hype man” and sneered at West’s claim to be the “biggest rock star on the planet”: “Whatever planet he’s on.”
As Slate’s Forrest Wickman points out in this excellent article, “instead of trying to understand, Kimmel does the opposite: He revels in his lack of comprehension, and puts Kanye’s words in the mouth of a child, in order to infantilize him. The point of the joke is clear: I don’t understand these remarks, so clearly they are the nonsense talk of a small child.” (A note if you haven’t seen the skit, which I’m not gonna link here: Kimmel really did literally get children to recite West’s interview. There are no words.)
Wickman’s observation is exactly correct, and it’s all too symptomatic of the way that the media is happy to depict West: as a cartoonish figure, a caricature to be lampooned and ridiculed. West is someone who is genuinely, hugely passionate about his art and work; Kimmel used this fact to extract parts of his interview, out of context, to perpetuate the image of a crazy egotist. There are obvious and strong racist overtones to this, a point that was broken down beautifully by New Inquiry contributing editor Ayesha A. Siddiqi on Twitter last night. (That link is really worth reading in its entirety.)
So it’s also gone this morning, with the reporting of his Twitter response to Kimmel’s skit. Yes, West was clearly angry, and yes, he tweeted in all caps. But equally, he had every reason to be upset — Kimmel’s skit was mean-spirited, racist, and generally horrible. But look how his response was reported — yep, it’s that crazy black man going on another rant:
As I’ve argued in the past, West’s larger-than-life persona does a pretty excellent job of functioning as an ongoing critique of the way the media wants to portray him — it’s as if at some point he decided to play up to the way he’s been caricatured, perhaps as a defense mechanism, perhaps as something else entirely. But as Australian critic Marcus Teague argues convincingly here (in a piece that, yes, quotes me), there’s also a genuine frustration on the part of West that his words get scrambled, misconstrued, and ridiculed:
[West] is genuinely frustrated with how the media parses his words. When he acquiesces to the rare interview, [he] often talks about lofty ideals and high-concepts, but in the rambling untrained language of someone who traditionally doesn’t. The media gets distracted by his dialect (or, to pull back, assumptions of race), taking easy shots at the medium he uses—the very same blunt, vivid (and sometimes mangled) self-expression that makes his music such an intoxicating listen—while ignoring the insights his words are carrying.
It’s instructive that West’s first tweet last night complained that “Jimmy Kimmel is out of line to try and spoof in any way the first piece of honest media in years.” He was honest with Lowe, and he made a bunch of good points about the way that, as an unabashedly self-confident and creative black man, he was ignored by an establishment that wanted no part of him. Whatever you think of the merits of leather jogging pants, this is a relevant and important topic of discussion.
Or, at least, it should be. Instead, it became another chapter in the ongoing saga of Ker-ay-zee Kanye West, habitual Twitter ranter and egotistical black man who needs to be taken down a peg. The nadir, perhaps, was Yahoo! Music’s intern finding eight (8) white people on Twitter agreeing with Kimmel and RTed them under the headline “Even Kanye West Fans Take Jimmy Kimmel’s Side in Twitter Feud.” CONCLUSIVE PROOF, Y’ALL.
Quite how we got here is an interesting question. Siddiqi suggests that “you could probably pinpoint the shift in Kanye’s public narrative to the moment he said ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’… ever since he went off script on national TV, America was like, ‘Uh oh, he’s not fun anymore, rein it in, folks.’” The Taylor Swift/VMAs incident was another key moment, resulting in a narrative in which a nasty black man interrupted a pretty white girl and all of America recoiled in horror.
But whatever the cause, we’re at a point where West is both America’s foremost musical icon — a modern-day rock star indeed, for all that Kimmel wants to lampoon that claim — and its most controversial cultural figure. And the best thing? He still won’t play the game. Kimmel was clearly taken aback by West’s rage at his skit, perhaps expecting West to laugh along like a good little lapdog.
The best thing about West’s Twitter response last night was that he refused to play this game, to acquiesce to the celebratory we’re-all-chums-really back-slapping mutual promotion arrangement that generally exists between celebrities and the media. And why should he? He is several orders of magnitude more famous — and, indeed, more important — than Kimmel will ever be.
He plays his own game, and will continue to do so, which is what drives people so crazy about him. As Siddiqi and others point out, white dudes are rarely reprimanded for being egotistical and confident; indeed, their behavior is often tolerated or celebrated outright. But when it’s someone like Kanye West? It’s all rants and meltdowns and arrogance and every other negative cliché you can think of. He has every right to be angry about this and is, in fact, 100% in the right.