Friday, October 4, 2013

Yes, He Is A God: A Black Theology of Kanye West

Making fun of Kanye West for having a ginormous ego is a national pastime in the United States. Everyone's been at it lately, from Jimmy Kimmel to President Obama. Because I'm an inveterate contrarian and a consummate overthinker, I want to weigh in on this, spurred by insights from Ayesha A. Siddiqi's marvelous series of tweets on racism's role in responses to Kanye. I argue that not only is “I am a God” theologically defensible, it's a critical moment in Kanye's black theology – a black theology that white America really needs to heed and learn from.

I am a God” is theologically defensible

In my WASP-y context, we don't usually say this out loud, but if your Christology is as high as mine it's true. In Christ, we are made divine; so as a believer, as part of the Church which is the body of Christ, Kanye is (a) God. For the dominant groups in society, that's not really something to brag about, because it ends up conflating church and empire into idolatry – I have no time at all for John Lennon's claim to be bigger than Jesus – but for marginalized people, it is a powerful way to reclaim agency and pride in the face of systemic forces that try to strip you of both. Kanye is quite open about the fact that the inflated West ego is a construct that helps him battle depression and self-loathing, demons that for him are entangled with and exacerbated by the systemic racism he faces daily as a black man in the United States.

Posing as the face of Jesus is an audacious statement, and – contrary to the kneejerk denunciations of blasphemy – is deeply rooted in Kanye's self-identification as a Christian. The Christian's ontology is a constant oscillation between the power to do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13), and the fact that this power is sourced in and only in Jesus. This ongoing, dynamic destabilization is found in Kanye's career and public face, between the empowerment of “I Am A God” and the cry de profundis of “Jesus Walks” (my favorite Kanye song, and, IMO, some of the best theology you will ever hear in three minutes of popular culture).

Kanye's Black theology

Kanye's reclamation of the face of Jesus from a white supremacist society is a statement of a black theology in the vein of James Cone. Cone's Black Jesus is squarely on the side of the oppressed against the oppressor, redeeming both Jesus and blackness from a white supremacy that has distorted both. The black theological tradition of which Kanye is a part also includes the womanist theology of Kelly Brown Douglas, who rejects the theology of submission as more harmful than useful to black women today, and instead proudly affirms the subaltern

Kanye's is also a deeply embodied black theology, squarely embedded in the physicality of being a black man and how that challenges white supremacy: most especially when it comes to sexuality, so often a source of terror for white people (especially white women). Sexuality and (black liberationist) spirituality are entwined throughout Kanye's oeuvre, as in “Hell of a Life” – “No more drugs for me / Pussy and religion is all I need” – or the controversial “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” line from “I'm In It.” Or consider the couplet I wanna fuck you hard on the sink / After that, give you something to drink” in “Bound 2,” which carries certain Eucharistic resonances in the midst of a verse that mentions Christmas, church steps, and the wonderful line, “After all these long-ass verses / I'm tired, you tired, Jesus wept.”

Of course, there's an incredibly problematic reduction of women to sex objects in a lot of this, but white guys calling out black guys for sexism is all too often at best paternalistic and at worst straight-up racist, so I'll direct your attention to this wonderful roundtable of insights by seven women. For now, let's focus on the upside: he's affirming his right as a black man to exist in a white supremacist society, to take up physical space in the world, to be a fully realized human being who is proudly sexual (in the face of centuries of demonizing black men's sexuality), proudly rich and famous (in the face of systemic material oppression), justly proud of his talent (in the face of a white entertainment industry that seeks to belittle him while simultaneously elevating white men of far less talent who have done despicable things).

And make no mistake, Kanye is a transcendentally talented human being. I truly believe he is the premier artiste of our time, a man whose boundless creativity speaks to the spirit of the age, whose gloriously eclectic taste in samples shatters all the walls we try to erect between “original” and “derivative” work.

Kanye is a public theologian

Kanye doesn't just rap his theology, he lives it. Whether declaring on live TV that the president doesn't care about black people, or taking the mic from the person most emblematic of US whiteness in order to speak up for a similarly godlike black musician, Kanye's not afraid to speak truth to power, and what does he get for it? White America's ridicule.

Instead of mocking this impossibly talented, awesomely provocative artist, we should be analyzing why exactly we find his theology so challenging. When we find ourselves calling him arrogant, he reminds us: For a black man in a racist society, what's the difference between humility and servility? 

One of Kanye's outstanding analytical talents is his connection of the personal with the systemic. As much as modern US society tries to maintain the public-private split, Kanye unveils the untenability of that distinction and the ways in which it functions to maintain an oppressive status quo. This makes him the foremost public theologian of the early twenty-first century, and on some level it truly does make him (a) God.