If Kanye West meant to goose sales of his new album with his emotional ranting on NBC’s hurricane-relief concert, saying the president doesn’t care about blacks and lawmen have been given "permission to go down and shoot us," he clearly succeeded. West’s new release, "Late Registration," another play on his college-dropout persona, burst out of the stores and sold 850,000 copies in its first week, double the first-week sales of his previous effort.
Charges of racism and wacky conspiracy theories are not the right message for national unity after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, but it’s the right message for Kanye West. Hip-hop in recent years has thrived on its ghetto-gangsta image, and West had been slow to be accepted by his fellow rappers because he was too "bourgeois." Translation: He hadn’t bubbled up from the streets selling drugs. There’s no quicker way to avoid black complaints about your preppie clothes than to insist on racial paranoia: The Man is out to kill us.
Jaws may have dropped across America when West sold this baloney on national television, but it’s there in the grooves of the new CD as well. West charges in one song that "I know the government administered AIDS" and "they want us all behind bars." In another, he asked, "How we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer." The song’s title is "Crack Music." Reagan apparently cooked up crack to keep the black man down.
West can mouth all kinds of tripe, and people will be there to make excuses for him. On NBC, Matt Lauer said West’s outbursts were "part of the American way of life." On a later hurricane-relief effort on Black Entertainment Television, hosts Steve Harvey and Queen Latifah cheered West for speaking his mind. "You have a lot of people’s support despite the ridicule you’re receiving, man," said Harvey. Actors Matt Damon and Susan Sarandon said West was speaking the truth, and Damon even acknowledged he "let out a cheer." Time magazine wasn’t at all ashamed they had published a cover story the week before calling West "Hip-Hop’s Class Act" and "the smartest man in pop music."
If West is the smartest man in pop music, Western civilization is doomed.
Our media culture scorns the image of the Angry White Male but glorifies the Angry Black Male as a righteous figure. It encourages rappers to boast ridiculously of their greatness. After a listening session of his new CD with a reporter, West practiced the patter: "I’m the closest that hip-hop is getting to God. In some situations I’m like a ghetto Pope." Not even West believes his own trash — but no one dares tell him to shut up. He gets A-list booking on a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser.
And here’s the ultimate irony. If racial paranoia isn’t unbalanced, if a majority of Americans keep electing allegedly vicious racists to the White House and their government conspires to poison the inner cities with drugs and AIDS, then how is it that 70 percent of hip-hop’s buying audience is young white people? Is it just a case of curiosity for the cool, seeing how the gangsta lives on the other side of town? Or is this country a lot more tolerant than rappers pretend? It’s a sad reality: the rap-buying white majority is too tolerant, too addicted to the beat and the rhymes of gangsta rap to disavow the preposterous contention that blacks can succeed only through the thug life — or pretending to be one in the recording studio.
Nobody seemed to notice that it’s incredibly strange for the leading lights of hip-hop to go passing a hat for hurricane victims, when everything in their music worships at the temple of greed. One of the strangest turns of Hurricane Katrina was how it forced a rapper named The Game to donate to hurricane relief. When his CD hit No. 1 on the charts in January, he made one of those obligatory sneaker deals, but now that the $90-sneakers are ready, its moniker isn’t so hip. They called it "The Hurricane." Now he’s donating part of the proceeds to the victims in New Orleans. He’s auctioning off the $300,000 Bentley the shoemakers gave him for charity. That’s doing a lot more for New Orleans than Kanye West did. His national TV outbursts probably cost the Red Cross some donations.
As Katrina victims seek to rebuild their homes and their lives, it would be nice if the hip-hop community could do more to rebuild some sense of decency in our cultural discourse — not just the kind that would have rappers drop the cascades of obscenity out of their music, but the kind that doesn’t make millions by baselessly asserting that white people want all their black brothers dead, addicted, or in jail.