The Sunday Service Moment
For anyone who is familiar with hip hop artist Kanye West, it may be challenging to describe what exactly he has been up to during the past several years.
In 2013, Kanye West started publicly experimenting with symbols of the American right wing, wearing a jacket embroidered with a Confederate flag patch at the release of his album Yeezus. A few years later, West infamously wore a “Make America Great Again” red hat, sitting for a conversation at the White House with Donald Trump, and described slavery as a “choice” for black Americans. With gestures like these, there are obvious implications that were naturally drawn. Malaika Jabali described West in The Guardian as a “black conservative” who “is spreading the gospel of white evangelicals'' in reference to his appearance on right wing evangelical preacher Joel Olsteen’s program (1). Others consider West’s antics to be indicative of a sincere religious conversion. Further interpretations, and perhaps the general consensus amongst your friends, treats West merely as incoherent, and reduces his recent acts to manifestations of an underlying mental illness.
Yet these views on the recent endeavors of Kanye West, absent of a deeper analysis, paint an incomplete picture of his persona and his craft. So try to briefly resist the temptation to either evaluate West on strictly moral grounds, whether that be deriding him for his relationship to right wing symbolism and public figures (Trump, Olsteen) or praising him for a personal, or spiritual conversion. It’s impossible to endorse West’s relationship to either Trump or Olsteen, but also to simply cease thinking about West. At this point, that would be a disservice to our understanding of the larger world of popular culture. A statement such as “slavery was a choice” in the context of early American slavery, is at best an incoherent statement, and at worst a cognizant lie. So let’s stop thinking solely under the judgment of whether West’s statements and actions are “coherent” or not. Moreover, we will first seek to understand West in the context of the history of his vocation, hip hop music, and specifically, the historical relationship between hip hop and neoliberalism.
Hip Hop as the Commons of Music
There is a tendency to consider hip hop as a sort of “street poetry” and locate its historically subversive potential in its ability to speak truth to power. We think naturally of N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police”, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, and more recently Kendrick Lamar’s [insert Kendrick Lamar song here], as clear evidence towards this claim. But even less so than its lyrical content, hip hop’s true subversiveness arguably lies in the very materiality of its construction, and its tacit dismantling of the image of artists as an “individual” liberal subject. Here, I am referring to the very way in which hip hop music was constructed (in its early days), using the method of sampling. The original construction of hip hop music stems from local dance parties thrown in the South Bronx, where DJs connected two turntables together, and oscillated between playing the seconds long drum break that was found on many funk and rock records (James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” being the most known of these records). As the story goes, these parties became immensely popular, and led to much larger public gatherings, which included Masters of Ceremonies, who would entertain crowds by rhyming on the drum breaks. Eventually with the advent and affordability of personal sampler’s, DJs could further manipulate and reconfigure sounds that were already recorded.
This ability to transform any given sound into potentially any and every arrangement, is why we can call hip hop a universal art of the people, especially the working class. With the advent of hip hop, popular music could no longer be strictly the domain of the privileged, either those with expensive formal musical training, or those who could afford the equipment and investment in time that is necessary to start a band. What also distinguished hip hop from other types of music is that due to the very method of its construction, there were no restrictions on what the domain of hip hop music could be, in turn leading to a form of music that could not be categorized as a specific genre, but rather functioned as a dismantling of the concept of genre itself. For the most part, this was mirrored in its lyrical content. Music and cultural theorist Mark Fisher would describe this stage of hip hop as, “not a street music, but non-musique abstrakt: a sight of pure sonic potential, in which inhuman constructivist sound cartoons can be produced without reference to musical protocols of any kind” (2). Hip hop then, did not belong to the commons, but was the commons itself. The very practice of sampling and reconfiguring the musical arrangements of others serves to subvert the idea of a private or “intellectual property”, and the “artist” as the “owner” of their art, questioning a way of thinking that is inseparable from the idea of what we consider to be a neoliberal subject.
Hip Hop at the End Of History
In the 1990’s, as the children of the Reagan Era (the official first neoliberal American regime) were becoming the young people inheriting the genre of hip hop, something changed. We have all maybe seen the popular internet meme (this was popular amongst the hip hop blogosphere in the early 2010’s), of a man who purportedly was in a meeting of record executives during the early 1990’s wherein these executives were told to promote “gangster rap” and a lifestyle of “criminality” in order to turn profits for specific recording companies who had invested in private prisons. Internet conspiracy theorists like to cite this as proof that there was indeed a conspiracy to derail the subversive drive of 1980’s hip hop. However, one need not resort to conspiracy theories to track the way in which conservative forces worked to undermine the subversive potential of hip hop music.
As hip hop grew to be more of a popular art form, there were naturally more and more people in the music world looking to turn a profit from it. Certain musicians whose music had been sampled by hip hop artists began to realize that there was the potential that a certain interpretation of U.S. intellectual property law would put them in a position to not only collect royalties off of hip hop songs that their music was sampled in, but be able to have full control as to whether their music was legally allowed to be sampled or not. On December 17, 1991, a landmark ruling came down from The United States District Court of the Southern District of New York, wherein Jude Kevin Duffy (appointed in 1972 by Richard Nixon), presided over the case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc in which Biz Markie was being sued by Gilbert O'Sullivan and his record label, for sampling an O’Sullivan song. Duffy, ruling against Markie, opened his ruling with a quotation from the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not steal”. He found in favor of the plaintiff and his ruling had instant ramifications.
Hip hop music, as it had existed up until that point, became essentially illegal to make.
Groups could no longer make music in the same way, as the once limitless scope of sonic resources was reduced to what a record label was willing to pay for. Producers were now producing with newfound financial constraints, and this limitation was not exclusive to the domain of instrumentation. Atlantic writer, Eric Neilson, in an interview with Public Enemy Producer Hank Shockley, recalls, “[Hank Shocklee] told me, having open access to samples often did significantly impact artists’ lyrical content: ‘A lot of the records that were being sampled were socially conscious, socially relevant records, and that has a way of shaping the lyrics that you’re going to write in conjunction with them.’ When you take sampling out of the equation, Shocklee said, much of the social consciousness disappears because, as he put it, artists’ lyrical reference point only lies within themselves.” (3)
The timing of this ruling coincided with a tangible shift in Western political thought. In 1992, months after the ruling of Grand v Warner Bros, Francis Fukuyama published his infamous text, The End of History and the Last Man. “Good news has come”, wrote Fukuyama. “Liberal principles in economics – the ‘free market’ – have spread, and have succeeded in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity, both in industrially developed countries and in countries that had been, at the close of World War II, part of the impoverished Third World” (4). Fukuyama explicitly endorsed the Clinton-era belief that “history”, and all of the political struggles that go along with it, was indeed over. The wonders of neoliberal economics had delivered us into the best of all possible outcomes. There was no longer any need to think outside the parameters set by the logic of the all powerful and all knowing market. No need to apply rigorous Marxist analysis against the concept of “intellectual property”. No need for the politically potent music of Public Enemy. It is here that we can locate the initial death of hip hop.
Like a true neoliberal subject, hip hop did not completely disappear, but adapted. Stripped of their resources, artists working within the genre were now lacking the ability to create the kaleidoscopic sonic structures that they were once able to make. For this reason, hip hop music was essentially restricted to the familiar structure of rock and roll: a drum look, bass line, and lead instrument, which often had either one or no samples due to new found financial constraints. Hip hop had been domesticated under the logic of neoliberalism. Shocklee’s claims would be proven correct here, as the lyrical content, and self image of hip hop artists began to reflect this new reality. We see here how the politically conscious and subversive nature of 1980’s hip hop, gave rise to the prominence of “gangster rap”. We will once again turn to the account of Mark Fisher, who, in tandem and reference to the popular films of the 1990’s, gives us an accurate depiction of the 1990’s hip hop world:
“Gangster rap neither merely reflects pre-existing social conditions, as many of its advocates claim, nor does it simply cause those conditions, as its critics argue - rather the circuit whereby hip hop and the late capitalist social field feed into each other is one of the means by which capitalist realism transforms itself into a kind of anti-mythical myth. The affinity between hip hop and gangster movies such as Scarface, The Godfather films, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction arises from their common claim to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for 'what it really is': a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality. [quoting Simon Reynolds] 'To "get real" is to confront a state-of-nature where dog eats dog, where you're either a winner or a loser, and where most will be losers'.” (5)
This music was now the soundtrack of Fukuyama’s “end of history”.
Post 9/11 hip hop
It is this history which makes the emergence of Kanye West ever so interesting. It would only be a matter of time before cracks in the facade would begin to show, and the necessity of a return to a more collectivist thought would arise. September 11, 2001 would perhaps be the first event to call into question if history had, in any meaningful sense, ended. On this very same day, unbeknownst to most Americans, another tangential rupture within the neoliberal consensus was taking place. September 11, 2001 was the day that the critically acclaimed Jay-Z album The Blueprint Vol 1. was released, with its lead single “Izzo (H.O.V.A)”, produced by a largely unknown hip hop artist, Kanye West. West’s sound, especially for a producer working with such a mainstream artist such as Jay-Z, came as a breath of fresh air. Bankrolled by Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, West was able to obtain a sample clearance for the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. Kanye, bucking the recent hip hop trends of composing original music (as fellow Jay-Z producers Pharrell and Timbaland were known for), had returned to the very material that gave hip hop its original “soul” during the 1980’s.
West would later parlay his affiliation with Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records, into a solo record deal, one in which he would debut his lyrical potential. If 1991’s Grand vs. Warner Brothers marked the beginning of the gangster rap era, West’s 2004 debut The College Dropout signaled its end. This was about as close to the original spirit of hip hop that an artist had come to since the initial outlaw of sampling.
Drug Dealing just to get byyy,
stack your money till it gets sky high [...]
we weren't supposed to make it past twenty five!
West's debut album opens in a highly unorthodox fashion for a hip hop album of its time- a chorus of school children singing joyfully about selling drugs. One immediately recognizes the historical link to the playful irony of 80’s hip hop iconoclasts such as De La Soul, and the Beastie Boys. As usual with West, he once again constructs the song via references to a bygone era of black America, transforming the 1979 Jimmy Castor Bunch track, “I Just Wanna Stop” into a soulful bed for him to rap over. Immediately, West is able to distance himself from his mentor Jay-Z, a figure who embodies some of the least desirable aspects of Fisher's interpretation of Gangster rap. There is no defeated stoicism here when West raps of his reality. In fact, West here comes across as a defiantly working class rapper, one who seeks to critique and indict the system he finds himself in rather than remain resigned to it. West raps,
“My momma say she wanna move South
Scratchin' lottery tickets, eyes on a new house
Around the same time, Doe ran up in dude's house, couldn't get a job
So since he couldn't get work, he figured he'd take work.”
Unlike the rappers of the 1990’s, West does not place himself in the role of the “gangster” or even attempt to justify criminal activities. He rather seeks to illuminate the (racist) social forces of neoliberal America, which drive certain people to commit crimes. There is no talk of the Hobbesian dog eat dog world here, only observation and criticism of the system at large. West’s debut is significant here for the history of hip hop, for he not only found a way to smuggle back in the forgotten practice of sampling, but as a revival of the forgotten social criticism that once went hand in hand with the music. We can then see in Kanye West, a man who has woken from the dogmatic slumber that is the liberal consensus of the end of history. But just as many philosophers who are able to recognize such social problems, West does not necessarily have any immediate answers. On “Diamonds from Sierra Leone Remix”, a standout track on West’s sophomore album, we see him developing an inner monologue which wrestles with the concept of ethical consumption under capitalism, specifically in reference to blood diamonds:
See, a part of me sayin' keep shinin'
How? When I know what a blood diamond is?
Though it's thousands of miles away
Sierra Leone connects to what we go through today
Over here, it's a drug trade, we die from drugs
Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless
Again, West continues to move into uncharted territories for hip hop music. The neoliberal “realist” rapper of the 1990’s would not have the ability consider the ethical implications of something such as the purchase of jewelry. West reveals the character of a new mind in hip hop, one which is not comfortable discussing exploitation of workers as a mere fact of life. But just as soon as he expresses his moral discomfort, West promptly realizes he has no further course of action, no program, no strategy to combat this, and ends his verse by falling back into a familiar identity:
It's in a black person soul to rock that gold
Spend your whole life tryin' to get that ice
On a Polo rugby, it looks so nice
How can something' so wrong make me feel so right?
After West’s second verse, he then hands the proverbial mic to Jay-Z, who in turn ends his verse on a song called “Diamonds of Sierra Leone”, with not a single reference to blood diamonds. Taking these two songs as a microcosm for the beginning of West’s career, we see a picture of a man who, with the aid of sonic material belonging to a bygone subversive art form, offers up a recognition as well as moral indictment of the current system, but seems to be stuck as to what to do next.
“George Bush doesn't care about black people.”
Kanye West’s appearance alongside actor Mike Myers during a 2006 telethon even for Hurricane Katrina, was perhaps the first time many people had heard of Kanye West. After Myers reads off of a teleprompter, West goes off script and unleashes a tangential criticism of the racism and classism of the mainstream media and the Bush administration. West ends simply with, “George Bush doesn't care about black people ''. There has perhaps never been a more politically significant gesture that an American hip hop artist has made than this. Along with insulting the sitting president of the United States on national television, West implicitly cuts through what he finds to be empty platitudes of “sympathy” elicited by the other liberal guests on the program. Kanye West exposes the ideology that is already contained in the United States response to a natural disaster.
This is the Kanye that I would like us to bear in mind when discussing his recent activities: Kanye as the inheritor of the subversive tradition of sample based hip hop; Kanye as the critical minded rapper, eschewing the detached fatalism of his predecessors in favor of a joyous criticism; Kanye as the great short circuit-er of the spectacle: the man who said George Bush doesn't care about Black people. It is fair to think that this image that I have painted of Kanye is a diametrical odds with his recent actions, specifically, his affinity for the current right-wing US President, Donald Trump. But even this, can and should be viewed as a symptom of a larger ideological failure. I have outlined the history of hip hop that has placed Kanye at odds with neoliberalism. But is it clear that he is completely cognizant of this? Neoliberalism thrives by making itself invisible. The “Free market” becomes not just one specific economic model which happens to be dominant, but the only possible model. It seeks to distance itself from any outside ways of thinking and modes of being. Kanye West, like many artists laboring under the neoliberal order, is increasingly presented with less and less options to obtain a truly radical subjectivity in this world. much like a blue collar worker in the rust belt at a time when they felt as if they were being excluded from this world order, Kanye may have perhaps misidentified an escape route through the reactionary politics of a figure such as Donald Trump.
Philosopher Alain Badiou, in his discussion of young men struggling to find themselves in the neoliberal capitalist world order (in his recent book, The True Life), offers an account of the three dominant forms of subjectivity which often condemn young men to “infinite adolescence”, unable to achieve a fully mature political life. These are “the perverted, the deserving, and the sacrificed”. We see variants of the former two all over the modern hip hop landscape. In Lil Peep, Xxxtentacion, Lil Uzi Vert, and Mac Miller, we see the pure hedonism of the perverted body. These subjects ingratiate themselves by “piercing the body, drugging it, [and] deadening it with ear-splitting music” (6). In “careerist” hip hop artists, such as 50 Cent, and Jay-Z, we see the status and business obsessions of the “deserved body”. These two types of bodies are able to exist under neoliberalism without posing any threat to its power.
Kanye has more in common with the sacrificed body, a body which seeks to give up its own agency to a higher cause.
Badiou sees it as the body of ISIS fighters, evangelical Christians, and reactionaries/nationalists. At the core of the drive of this body, is a bound urge to escape the current world order. Absent a structurally sound and functional leftist alternative, some descend into the darkness of the sacrificed body. This is undoubtedly, where many people see Kanye West. But is this a fair assessment?
The Trumped Up Charges against Kanye
We should indeed take it seriously when Kim Kardashian claims that Kanye “just happens to like Donald Trump’s personality, but doesn’t know about the politics" wrote Julie Miller in 2018 (7). West’s appropriation of Donald trump, the MAGA hat, and the confederate flag, were “forbidden” materials for Kanye to experiment with. Far from being the blind zealot that many would make him out to be, his engagement with this material stems not from a bigoted ignorance, but from a rejection of what he perceives as the liberal dogma that told him that African Americans can never engage with this iconography. We are certainly not seeking to endorse this experiment of West’s. We should perhaps instead view it for what it is, a mistake borne out of a certain type of distaste for the political establishment of America; or as West himself refers to it, “God’s practical joke on Liberals” (8). Like many voters of the 2016 US-presidential election, West, in seeking a creative route out of neoliberalism, may have mistakenly endorsed something worse (It is worth pointing out that West has since distanced himself from his endorsement of Trump).
In the years since, West has embarked on what again is being perceived to be a reactionary project, that of Sunday Service, a weekly performance featuring West and a gospel choir. I would argue that we should resist viewing Sunday Service to be “the great reactionary art project of our time”, as my friend Mohammed Salemy suggested it may be, and rather, view Kanye’s use of the traditions of African American Christianity, as similar to the way that he once used African American soul music to construct hip hop soundscapes. Kanye is still a producer. He is still a sampler. The choir that accompanies him on his Sunday Service tour is called “The Samples”. Kanye is doing what he has always done, which is attempting something outside of the current boundaries of music, a task true to the origins of hip hop. Just as he once distanced himself from the mafioso music of Jay-Z, he moves away from both the perverted and deserving bodies that currently occupy space in the hip hop world.
Sunday Service is a project that is inherently communal. West provides a public forum for a shared experience through music. This stands in direct contrast to the atomized culture of neoliberalism, which finds its musical apex in electronic dance festivals. Although Sunday Service contains heavy religious overtones, the god of Kanye West is not the same Christian god that Friedrich Nietzsche detests. West’s own account of god, for which he claims, “God doesn’t exist only in four walls, god is everything and everywhere”, is much more in line with Baruch Spinoza than it is with Joel Olsteen. God is not a patriarchal figure in the sky, but what is common in all of us. This is the spirit of hip hop. We should allow ourselves to imagine the full potential of a project like Sunday Service. Imagine if Kanye were to use this platform to promote socialist policies (what better way to spread the word of Christ?). Imagine Bernie Sanders being invited to give a speech with the aid of “The Samples” choir. The infrastructure is here. Millions of viewers hearing the good word of universal health care!
We hear the potential of a socialist ethos in West when he says things like, “We have to be in control… of our own minds, of our own food, our health, and our families”. He is aware of the way that capital controls our lives, and that there is nothing necessary about this. His turn to god is a turn away from the capitalist consensus, replacing the law of the market with his god of “everything and everywhere”, a strikingly materialistic concept. If Kanye West is not an overt leftist, we can perhaps lay the blame in the Left itself, for its own recent failures to articulate a coherent alternative to capitalism.
"The Sunday Service Moment" was published in print issue 11, "Faux Culture"