Last Thursday, Kanye West visited Donald Trump at the White House, where the two were expected to discuss broad political issues, particularly the reformation of American’s prison-industrial complex. This conversation was to be held within the context of a potential presidential pardon for Larry Hoover, a gang leader who West believes was unjustly sentenced to life in prison. Things, however, did not develop entirely on the course of these expectations, as the meeting appears to have consisted largely of West orating on a number of other topics, such as Democratic-Party policies, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign slogan and his contract with Adidas.
A plethora of discourse soon erupted around Kanye West’s actions as the mainstream media covered the meeting. Saturday Night Live – whose relationship with the rapper was recently strained following his appearance on the show as musical guest – parodied the meeting, adding to its mythical canon of cold-open sketches. Simply put, the meeting and its subsequent coverage became so ubiquitous that it would have been difficult to avoid seeing or hearing about it.
Kanye West’s comment about a “lack of male energy,” in both his childhood home and his current extended family, stood out to me, as I thought it might convey something about the formation of black, masculine identity at this point in the hip-hop era. What does it mean, and what does the subsequent discourse reveal, when such a high-profile black man states that wearing Donald Trump’s red MAGA hat makes him “feel like Superman?” Of course, I was advised that, given Kanye West’s varying stability of mental health, it might be unwise or at least unproductive to analyze his words at the meeting as truly self-representative. The weight of this word of caution did not really strike me until I listened to Don Lemon’s, of CNN, take on the matter.
Lemon stated that he saw a “minstrel show” in Thursday’s meeting as Kanye West sat in a room “embarrassing himself” in front of a predominantly white crowd. The commentator additionally pointed out the exploitative nature of the meeting as Trump and other politicians use events like this, often with black celebrities, for purposes of publicity. Lemon’s use of the “minstrel show” term is poignant and compelling; for readers who are not aware of its meaning, minstrel shows were performed throughout America during the 19th century and consisted of sketches, songs, and other acts that performed negative black stereotypes. In many shows, white actors would wear blackface in order to portray the black Americans whom they intended to mock with racism. While Kanye West did not intentionally “perform” anything, we still witnessed the placement of a vulnerable black man in the national spotlight, before a white audience, and we just laughed.
We laughed! The whole affair feels dystopian, as if it was plucked from an episode of Black Mirror. A number of television shows and hosts, like SNL, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Trevor Noah all made fun of Kanye West and the meeting, contributing to the gleeful obsession with West’s questionable exposure. The whole incident portrays the phenomenon of hypervisibility that so many scholars have observed and considered in the hip hop era. During the 1990s, when hip hop culture grew into its familiar, mega-popularity, black rappers became hypervisible in the sense that a gigantic force of global capital formed around them. White America consumed rap music at immense rates and exhibited an utter fascination with black, urban culture — from a safe, suburban distance. This was when gangster rap dominated hip-hop’s soundscape, and much of the obsession with this music revolved around the violent, hypermasculine motifs present in the genre.
When any marginalized group is rendered hypervisible in such a way, they are forced into a virtual box in which society may relentlessly gaze. In the realm of a postmodernist tradition, the monolithic images produced in this box can directly inform and, in this case, restrict the ways in which non-celebrity members of the marginalized group form their own identities. This past week, mainstream America refocused its gaze on Kanye West, and made him hypervisible despite his own mental health problems. White America jeered, even under the guise of an anti-Trump liberalism, yet another image of an endangered black man was produced.
Of course, in 1991, when Clarence Thomas deemed mainstream treatment of his confirmation hearing a “high-tech lynching,” there was a great deal of controversy surrounding the allegations made against him. His words were rhetorically moving, and I would assert that what we witnessed last week was nothing more than a high-tech minstrel show for the 21st century.
Nick Swan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.