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My Problem with Kanye (Is Not with Kanye)

My Problem with Kanye (Is Not with Kanye)

I used to have this bumper sticker that read:


I believed in a higher power, a God. But, I was leery of the zealots who blindly subscribed to organized religion—the radicals who dove right into the emotional spring and bathed in someone else’s biblical interpretation. I was raised in a Korean-American Baptist church and bristled in the sermons. There was a loud man with a red face at the pulpit telling me how the Word inspired him. In this hall, there was no room for my questions and doubts. No one was to raise a hand, whether to clarify or object, and the congregation was perfectly okay with the arrangement. As I looked around the pews and scanned wan faces, silently mouthing hymns and following orders, I became even more dubious of the deal.

What I was searching for was discourse. Not an argument, which drives people apart, but an open dialogue to flesh out the answers. Debates bring opposing ideas closer to a Truth, and if I were to follow any religion, I needed to pick at it, challenge it, and vet it out. So, I started investigating all the major faiths. I invited the Mormon missionaries into my living room and interrogated them. I spent my college years sitting cross-legged in Hare Krishna temples reading the Bhagavad Gita. I enrolled in Christian Apologetics courses—the reason-based approach to understanding Christianity through science, philosophy, and logic. And, the more I tested the buoyancy of my spiritual beliefs, the sharper and clearer the picture became.

Traditional religion is weakening around the world. Although 9 in 10 Americans still believe in God, that conviction has abated over the decades. Yet, people still hunger for something greater than themselves to believe in. The un-Googleable. Without deities, we forge icons out of mortal men and women to worship. That’s why celebrity culture has transcended the tabloids to dominate news headlines. Why people treat diets, cross-training regimens, anti-vaxxing, and gun ownership as identity-based lifestyles. Our world has become so polarized around social issues, that politics is our new religion.

Depending on whom you ask, this also christens Donald Trump lord and savior. If this seems far-fetched, just last week, Republican Senator Bob Corker rebuked his own party for legislating out of fear and fervent devotion of the Great Orange.

“We are in a strange place. It’s almost, it’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?”

It’s this reckless fanaticism, this hero worship, that echoes the “opiate of the masses” type of religiosity. Brains switch off. Allegiance takes hold. Trump can do no wrong. In fact, the more wrong he does, the more his following is convinced that he is right. Even in his run-up, the now-president proclaimed, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” And this was before he became the most powerful person on the planet. What else can explain his advocates’ rationale than zealotry?

In a Friday morning interview with Fox News, the President praised Kim Jong-Un’s authoritarianism: “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” Donald Trump is ascending as a holy figure, dictating beyond reproach (in his opinion, even beyond the law). And it’s not unlike the position Kanye West inhabits in popular culture. Kanye’s a genius. I am utterly a fan. I enjoy his music, I scramble to keep up with his fashion choices (Kanye being one of the most influential people in streetwear, the ripples are more like waves), but I am most reverent of his creative freedom. I’ve always observed Kanye as a science experiment. Like, what would happen if you let a pure dream run, beyond walls and into the night? These fantasies take place in our minds, but for Kanye, he makes it happen out in the open, in front of us. He reminds me that boundaries are the starting line, not the finish. That the earth is not fenced in with black borders like on a map, somebody just decided to draw them that way.

So, I want to believe this unfettered approach to life and living underscores what Kanye West meant when he said, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years… For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” Especially after elucidating, “It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.”

But, that’s not what the media bit into. That’s not how the people received it. Paired with a brazen co-sign of his dragon energy brother Donald Trump and selfies in an autographed MAGA cap, Kanye’s statements on slavery were off-key and disquieting. Look, if you sympathize with Trump rhetoric like calling Mexicans “rapists” and immigrants “animals,” then continue on your path (to the dark side of history). For the rest of us Kanye fans, we were left with a choice: Ignore Kanye’s endorsement and divide the man’s mindset from his music or take a stand and let him know how you feel.

I’d vote for Barack Obama again. I supported his healthcare reform, international diplomacy, and economic recovery. As the first Black Prez, he symbolized a new America that embraces diversity. But, Obama also had his faults. With his hands tied by Congress and the media, he played to both sides as a consummate politician. As a result, he never seemed to substantively move the needle on anything. My biggest problem was with his immigration policy. Obama was nicknamed the “Deporter-in-Chief,” deporting 5 million undocumented immigrants, more than any President in American history. His immigration laws were so gnarly, they even earned Trump’s praise (“What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country... Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I’m going to do the same thing”).

If you follow my blog, you’ll remember that every May 1st during Barack’s administration, I marched downtown with thousands of other protestors calling for immigration reform. I decried President Obama’s broken promises. I blamed him for de-prioritizing Brown issues in fear of losing White voters. Just a few years earlier, activists waved Shepard Fairey’s “HOPE” posters high. At this annual rally, protestors brandished new Shepard stencil art of a Latino child, emblazoned with “IMMIGRATION REFORM NOW!”

I wanted the best for Barack Obama’s presidency, but as his constituent and proponent, that meant demanding the best of him. It’s not unlike how I feel about America. A true countryman presses its nation’s leaders to be better. There’s an old quote that asks, “If what your country is doing seems to you practically and morally wrong, is dissent the highest form of patriotism?” YES. My answer is unequivocal.

And if you are a real Kanye West fan, anticipating artistic excellence and the utmost of him as a human being, isn’t it your responsibility to call out his bullshit? As a product of the punk scene, my dynamic with my favorite musicians is not so much about fandom as it is friendship. This goes back to that exchange I sought from the church. A good friend doesn’t kick his feet up, pander to his friends’ egos, and pin them with Likes, especially if they stand to be corrected. There’s supporting and then there’s enabling, and a true ally keeps ‘em separated.

Religion and government systems should be a conversation and not a command. I believe music and art should also be a 2-way street between purveyor and consumer. Like rap, there’s a call and response that stirs the frenzy. Both the artist and audience need each other, to hear themselves, to push and pull and make something new. They work in concert, literally and figuratively.

Throughout American history, we’ve been afforded so few visible icons of color, that when we do get a Black man or a Brown woman who is remarkable in their craft, it’s heartbreaking when they stumble. It’s also thornier to turn our backs on them. Bill Cosby is an example. OJ Simpson is another. These are rotten humans who committed vile crimes, no mistake about it. But, as minorities, when we are dealt fewer cards in a game stacked against us, we hold onto that hand with vigor.

In that sense, it’s almost forgivable that many of Kanye’s fans have ignored his troublesome statements, tucking them neatly into the fold of a complicated and messy bedspread. It also says something that my white liberal friends have had an easier time letting go of Kanye’s hand than his brown woke followers. White heroes, compared to Black and Brown, are a dime a dozen, and Americans are accustomed to dumping them by the wayside. You can shave Britney Spears’s head and replace her with a Taylor Swift. You turn Taylor nasty and in her place, plant an Ariana. But, really, how many Kanyes do we get on the boards? Bright, Black artists whose voices resonate across class, race, and generation; who can sit at the table with White billionaires and world leaders? Take back the Roseannes and Ted Nugents, who cares?! Kanye West, we protect and defend, for better and for worse.

Yet, in sickness, it is also our duty to speak up and nurse our heroes back to health. Kanye, Trump, America, religion. None of these are above your input, your intelligence, your independent convictions and understanding of Truth. If you really love them, you will fight for them. Even if that means fighting them.

So, what bothers me about Kanye? It’s the same thing that worries me about hypebeast culture, hate groups, and Facebook moms. It’s the suspicion of watching zombies in the sanctuary, the same sinking feeling as losing your voice in an imbalanced relationship. It’s the smudging of love and obedience. Nothing is scarier than watching freeminded individuals get swallowed up by a moshpit of popular trends and hysteria. So, I wanted to remind you that you can circle against the currents of fear, trends, and clout. You can be a fan, stand your ground, and demand for change. Faithfulness is not about oblivious submission. It’s informed. And it’s an exchange where everyone is heard.

In other words, it’s a democracy.

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