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On Listening to "New Slaves" with White People

Why Kanye West’s racially charged new single shouldn’t be taken lightly.
May 21, 2013, 5:55pm

I missed the Kanye projection on Rodeo Drive last Friday. The "New Slaves" showing ran about 20 minutes earlier than the scheduled 2:30 a.m., probably an attempt by Ye's team to thwart the growing police presence at the listed locations, and it threw a number of people off.

I was at the last screening in the country, standing across the street from the Chanel boutique, waiting to witness Kanye to "tear shit down," and had unknowingly missed it, along with two dozen other disappointed rap fans who got there right on time. Those who arrived early won. A sense of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) permeated the crowd of "late" stragglers on Beverly Hills' famous street of luxury shops.


Fortunately, the Internet exists, and I had already seen the debut of "New Slaves" online, watching it in borderline real-time as events unfolded in cities like New York, Toronto, and Chicago. My reaction is best summarized by my now-deleted tweet: "'New Slaves' is 27 times better if you're black." I'm a neurotic who deletes tweets when they flop, but the fact that the statement garnered no response is very telling. Everyone wants to talk about how Kanye would rather be a dick than a swallower, but it seems like the song's true message is getting lost in the general hysteria surrounding Yeezy's return to music.

Let's be clear: This record is explicitly racial. Also: You can't fully comprehend its impact unless you're black. There's a certain unspoken acknowledgement that comes with being black and listening to "New Slaves" with another black person that speaks to this.

On Friday night, I was working late, occasionally distracting myself with social media to keep up with the song's world premiere. I called over the only person left in the office, another black guy, to inform him of the reveal, and share some of the clips. His response: "This man is preaching!" You could almost feel the energy transferring between us when Kanye rapped, "My mama was raised in the era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin." Without saying a word, I knew the line had made a similar impression on us both.


Later on Friday night, I listened to "New Slaves" with a white sorority girl from Oklahoma. Her reaction: "I love it." And of course—it's a great song. But my concern is: Do you understand it? Will this change your inherent, privileged way of thinking? The next day we listened to "New Slaves" with one of her friends, another white sorority girl from Oklahoma, and I sensed frustration creeping in at the same as her muffled giggles were letting out.

"They wasn't satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself" and "you know that niggas don't read" aren't cute punchlines from a Judd Apatow movie. They might contain an air of wit and sarcasm that lends itself to humor, especially next to a Waterboy reference, but it's serious commentary on social plight, institutional bigotry (that doesn't disappear with wealth), and overall race relations in America. Listening to "New Slaves" with white people is like going to see Django Unchained. Leonardo DiCaprio might say some ridiculous shit about "niggers," but that's not an invitation for your white ass to cackle in the theater. You're expected to have a level of intelligence and tact that's mindful of the vagary.

It's not that white people can't enjoy "New Slaves," or that they're all so dense as to not be able to grasp the more serious implications of this record. There is, however, a danger that lies in how this record will be received—there's a consciousness that's lost when there's not an organic relation to the content, and its effects are much more devastating if you don't possess an acute sense of education and sensitivity to these issues.

It's an understandable notion. Given my people's history of oppression in this country, I have a unique empathy towards the horrors of the Holocaust, but I still don't have the same personal perspective as that of my Jewish friends. It's like when someone you know gets cheated on, or loses a family member. You know it's a painful experience, but unless you've been through the same, it's difficult to fully fathom, no matter how much you see them hurting.

I hate being the race card guy, but I'm not scared to be, either. As "New Slaves" makes the rounds, I just want the general population to exhibit the awareness of the song's objective that comes to me and other blacks so naturally. I know about "broke nigga racism" because I've been in the Louis Vuitton store in Monaco where motherfuckers told me not to touch anything if I wasn't going to buy it. I know that they're "trying to lock niggas up" because when I got my driver's license in high school, my mother was just as concerned about my ability to not get my ass beat should I get pulled over by cops as she was about me putting on my seatbelt.

So, if you're white, I'm not asking you to organize a reading of the "New Slaves" lyrics with the NAACP, I'm just asking that you make an effort to be mindful of the events, historical and current, that inspire the song's content. It's more than fun rap time to a lot of us. After Saturday night's SNL performance, another black writer texted me: "Kanye really did paint the elephant in the room red, black, and green." Don't act like you can't see the colors.

Ernest Baker is a writer living in Los Angeles. He's on Twitter - @ernestbaker_