• Jena Prystowsky

This is America


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You know they say the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. This seems an appropriate slogan for the last week or so- except it was in reverse. First, we get Kanye West's rant about slavery being a choice and then we get Childish Gambino's "This is America," which many say sounded like something Kanye should have put out.


Kanye West showed up at TMZ last week and launched into a rant which culminated in him saying: "You hear about slavery for 400 years- for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. Like, you were there for 400 years and it's all of ya'll?" Fortunately, Van Lathan, offered a rebuttal, telling him that he didn't believe his words were well-thought out. He also reminded Kanye that his words have an effect on others, people who aren't multi-millionaires or who can hide behind fame. Kanye, to his credit, let Van Lathan speak without interruption, but I got the sense from watching their interaction that Kanye is one of those people who will sit there and nod or wait silently until the other person has finished their point and then go right back to saying what he said in the first place. Like one of those people who says "let's agree to disagree" on a subject that has a CLEAR right or wrong answer. Not "which Starburst flavor tastes best" but like "slavery was a choice."


A very basic understanding of what happened during slavery belies West's statements. When is he saying that slaves made this choice? When they were taken captive on boats and sailing across the ocean? Should everyone have just committed suicide and jumped out? Is he saying that they made a choice when they arrived in America and were forced to work? Most didn't speak the same languages and they were from different tribes so it would be difficult to formulate a plan of attack. Also, once they did- where would they run to in this unfamiliar terrain? Is he saying it was a choice for people to continue being slaves after several hundred years? Is he saying that people born in bondage with very little opportunities to succeed in life should have had the ability to shrug off the shackles of slavery and start a new life? Maybe write a rap song and then create a clothing line? Yeah, that's the ticket. That's all they had to do. Create a toe-tapping ditty and evaporate the ugliness of oppression and racism. I wonder if we can extend his reasoning to other things. Was it a choice for people to be lynched? Why didn't they just hop in their cars and ride off into the sunset? Why didn't they just stand in the town square and inform the lynch mob that they were behaving as though they were mentally enslaved and that they should do better? Why didn't they just tell everyone that they had superseded race and that labels didn't apply to them anymore? That might have worked.


People are saying that West is crazy or he's in the sunken place and offering any number of ideas for why he is acting the way he's acting or saying the things he's saying. In my opinion, he's a high-profile celebrity and that's probably the main thing wrong with him. Unfortunately, once people reach a certain level of celebrity they often tumble right off the rails. Why? They have money to do whatever they want. They have yes men and hangers on who have convinced them that they can do no wrong. They have flunkies to ensure that they don't have to exert themselves too much and their every whim is satisfied. They have the media who has convinced them that their opinions are important. And they have fans, groupies, and the like who make them feel like gods. Also, some of these people are on substances like drugs and alcohol. This is all fun stuff, but I don't think that these factors help make someone good. In fact, most times all those factors together turn people into monsters. And when they live a lifestyle where people follow their every move and their actions are constantly being broadcast, whether by choice or not, it sets them up for either a breakdown or generally diva-ish behavior. John Mulaney, in his recent Netflix special, made a point about what kind of people we would be if we could get everything we wanted whenever we wanted. Why be polite or civil? We treat celebrities like spoiled children. In my opinion, this is why we can pretty much predict bad behavior from some high-profile celebrity every year. It's an abnormal lifestyle which often produces abnormal behavior.


Kanye West isn't a historian and he's not an expert on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He's a rapper and a clothing designer and a self-proclaimed genius. I don't care who he supports politically- I get the sense that he wants to make this whole thing about people trying to put him in a box or saying that Black people can only vote this way or that, when in all honesty, most people just can't understand why he would ally himself with a group that is supported by White supremacists. Why would he support someone who said there were "good and bad people on both sides" when pseudo-Nazis were marching in Charlottesville? Still, at the end of the day, I'm sure there are 10 people around Kanye at this very moment telling him he's a revolutionary and a genius and so we can anticipate some other off-the-wall proclamation sometime soon. Honestly, the whole thing makes me sad. Not that I'm the biggest Kanye fan, but I always thought that maybe he could be the anti-status quo artist that could shake things up a bit and maybe push a commentary that could be helpful to communities of color. Alas, no.


Anyway, I watched Childish Gambino's "This is America," and it lifted my spirits some. Not that the video was a jolly one- not by any stretch. I was just pleased that someone understands what's going on in this country. The video starts with a man playing a guitar. One might think this will be about light subject matter- maybe it's a video about love or spending time with friends? But no, this video is about America, so in short order, Gambino shoots the guitar-playing man in the back of the head and a dutiful clean-up crew shows up to lovingly swaddle the gun in a cloth and to drag out the body.


The video vacillates between shots of popular dances set to a jaunty tune and senseless fear and violence. You know, sort of like life? We start out watching cat videos and practicing the new dance craze or singing along to the latest club music and later end up watching the news about how someone (or a lot of someones) were killed by (insert perpetrator here.) We have kids killed by school chums. We have unarmed motorists killed by cops. We have restaurant patrons killed by domestic terrorists. We have people gunned down on the street. We have...oh wait, here's a new dance craze set to a song about materialism. And off we go again. What matters? Life doesn't matter. It's only the pursuit of money that matters. People don't matter- it's what we can consume from them that matters. The video captures the frenetic pace of our lives, our short attention spans, our horror that quickly evaporates into carelessness and apathy.


At this time, I've only watched the video twice- I'm sure there are more layers to it than what I've covered. For now, I'm hoping that we as a society can get something out of it and maybe change things for the better.


And if we don't? Ah, no worries...we'll just keep dancing.

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