Let’s Not Pretend the Petition To Stop Kanye West From Playing Toronto Doesn’t Have Meaning
This again? It's not even really about Kanye.
Back in April, I wrote about the problematic similarities between the shape, tone, and language of opposition to Kanye West's Ottawa Bluesfest gig and previous Ban Kanye surges in London and elsewhere.
This article is about the problematic similarities between the shape, tone, and language of opposition to Kanye West's Pan Am Closing Ceremonies gig and previous Ban Kanye surges in Ottawa, London and elsewhere.
It wasn't long after it was learned the rapper would close the Pan Am games, that yet another inevitable "No Kanye" petition was unleashed on the world. As of this writing, it has 22,000 signatures. Yeezus.
Politicians, and particularly goobery ones flocked to liven the mood. Toronto Mayor John Tory released a perplexing video of him dressing up as a walking stereotype to listen to Kanye in the subway (as one does), while city Councillor Norm Kelly got into the mix with an equally cringe-inducing series of Twitter puns.
But beneath the light-hearted surface, things were bubbling away.
There are unique but overlapping subsets of criticisms of Kanye West.
In the case of this Pan Am surge, the most measured petitioners profess concerns over his nationality ("Shouldn't everyone performing be Canadian?"), tax dollars ("Why are we paying to bring him here?"), and scale ("Shouldn't we be promoting lesser-known talent?"). Concerns like these were quickly and capably unpacked across the web.
Less innocuous are resistance to impressions of West's personal character, including things like self-confidence ("Will his ego even fit into Air Canada Centre?"), temperament ("Will he just keep interrupting the other performers?"), and, particularly, his wife Kim Kardashian, who herself represents a familiar surface for the projection of cultural discomforts that aren't really about her (in her case related to norms of acceptable womanhood, sexuality, and self-awareness).
Like clockwork, Professional Out-of-Touch Music Critic Alan Cross immediately wrote in a since-edited post that "I don't want my tax dollars going to this asshole who's married to a Kardashian--especially THAT one. The thought of one cent of my tax dollars going to his skank support."
The even less subtle pools of dissent are gross—really gross—but often reside unchallenged next to the more coded criticisms deemed worthy of amplification.
The rules of debates like these are actually rather simple:
Are you racist if you don't like Kanye West, or his music, or simply the decision to book him for the Pan Am Closing Ceremonies?
Do you lose all credibility on these issues if you can't acknowledge that a central component of the movement to drop West as the Closing Ceremonies headliner, like each of those formed elsewhere previously, is cultural projection and racial discomfort?
Fuck yes, absolutely.
When critics say that their opposition to booking Kanye isn't really about Kanye (in Ottawa, it was really about having a rock or blues act not a hip-hop act; in Toronto it is really about having a Canadian act not an American one), they're right. It's mostly not about Kanye.
Black public figures of all personas, across all genres and industries face constant resistance big and small, institutional and irksome.
The persistent, boisterous, very particular type of resistance Kanye West receives is not simply a reaction to him as popular black performer, but rather as a shining embodiment of specific archetypes of blackness that challenge the norms of an enduring cultural status quo: confidence, self-knowledge, assertiveness, defiance, impenitence.
In North America, this cultural status quo privileges archetypes of white emotion, white angst, and white showmanship.
Picture, for instance, if U2—a non-Canadian rock band fronted by literal ego-zombie Bono and a pretty easy target for criticism—had been announced as the Closing Ceremonies headliner. Does anyone seriously believe they would have elicited the same type of visceral reaction as we saw for Kanye?
What about another black musician with a different type of artistry and public persona (an imperfect example might be Snoop Dogg or Rihanna), would they have been petitioned this way?
Cultural panic, whether about witches, or selfies, or Kanye West, tends to be less about the target itself than what it represents.
In the case of Kanye, his effortless and unapologetic embodiment of so many of the cultural features that fuel anti-black racism and white supremacy make him an ideal target for the type of coded language and identity politics that we've seen this week, and will undoubtedly see again.
It's okay if you don't like Kanye, or his music, or that he's American. We even don't mind if you embarrass yourself trying to pretend you know who he is. Seriously, we're cool.
Just don't try to feel better by pretending that's what these petitions are actually about.
Follow Seb FoxAllen on Twitter.