Before he dissed Taylor, Kanye saved my week
In storming the stage at the Video Music Awards and ruining the moment for Taylor Swift, who was accepting her trophy for Best Female Video, Kanye West only affirmed what many people already think of rap artists: that they’re brash, inappropriate, and worst of all, disrespectful of women (nevermind that his outburst was all about defending Beyonce, another woman).
The uproar capped the end of a particularly brutal week for me – one in which I’d found solace, interestingly enough, in West’s lyrics. I listened to his song “Bring Me Down” on repeat for almost five days straight, nodding emphatically at times and crying softly at others as West spit, “They’re gonna have to take my life before they take my drive/because when I was barely living, that’s what kept me alive/Just the thought that maybe it could be better than where we’re at at this time/make it out of this grind/before I’m out of my mind.”
West’s VMA antics received probably more derision than his famous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” quip following the government’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina. And with other artists coming out of the woodwork to denounce him on blogs, Twitter and in interviews, he’s suffered the musical equivalent of a House rebuke, a la Rep. Joe Wilson.
But writing off West as a “jackass” – as President Obama supposedly did – gives the impression that he and other rappers should be disregarded as soon as they say something stupid, at a time when their music is actually growing more progressive and accepting.
West himself has been particularly active in making hip-hop music more accepting of gay people, urging others in the rap community to stop using discriminatory lyrics. According to Slate, “West’s call for tolerance remains the highest-profile rebuke of gay-bashing that hip-hop has seen.”
Indeed, even as Bill O’Reilly and others continue to paint hip-hop as a corrupting influence, it has remained the positive, encouraging soundtrack of my life. Before every big interview, I listen to the Notorious B.I.G.’s rags-to-riches song “Juicy,” feeling my confidence build as I hear the refrain, “You know very well who you are/don’t let ‘em hold you down, reach for the stars” and I celebrate every big accomplishment by blasting the Nas song “I Can,”: “Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hos/Read more, learn more, change the globe.”
No matter how high-profile West is, he is neither representative of hip-hop, nor is he one-dimensional. He can act stupidly, and still be inspiring. He can disrespect Taylor Swift and still rap unabashedly about his love for his mama. Similarly, for every hip-hop song that is littered with bitches and hos, there are dozens of others that plead with young people to achieve great things; that address poverty and racism; and that extol women as teachers and role models. Hip-hop is a complex community – and West’s outburst doesn’t speak for it.