Kanye West has been on a weeklong tirade since reinstating his Twitter account April 13, culminating with his remarks Tuesday that slavery was “a choice” during a TMZ interview. It was the latest headline-grabbing statement in what has been a strange time for West’s fan. Before his slavery comments, he tweeted about his admiration for “brother” President Donald Trump on Twitter April 25, suggesting the pair possess “dragon energy.” On the same day, he criticized former President Barak Obama, saying the leader didn’t do anything to help the rapper’s hometown of Chicago during the eight years he was in office.
While West seemed to claim black people chose to be enslaved, there are documented accounts of Africans and African Americans attempting to resist during the 400-year period that slavery was the law in the U.S., retold in books like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Zarle Williams and Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Newsweek spoke with five African American scholars about West’s comments to gauge their thoughts on the matter. Their remarks have been edited for brevity below.
Jeffrey Q. McCune Jr., author of On Kanye: A Philosophy of Black Geniusand associate professor of women, gender, sexuality studies and African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, in Missouri: “The enigma which has been Kanye West for the last decade has never made itself user-friendly, or a product easily understood or digested by the passerby. I am probably one of [the] few people who think that the large majority of Kanye’s rants make sense at [the] core—revealing an element of profound thought, usually relegated to society’s philosophical academic types. This ‘slavery’ moment, as it will be called, is not one such genius moment. Even in his more erratic or spastic moments, he has never made such a nonsensical misstep…. In my opinion, there was no way that Kanye West—who has illustrated as much intelligence and wit—truly thought slavery was a choice…. There was no period of slavery where the choice to be mentally free would have been viable; it was a grave site of ‘unfreedom’ and violence. It was the freeing of the slaves in law—emancipation—which offered them a sense of freedom. But, many had difficulty imagining freedom, after years of captivity and dehumanization. Kanye seems to be asking us to free our minds; to release ourselves of the captured mind. This is consistent with Kanye over the last decade. Kanye’s whole musical catalogue—the body of work where musical artists instill their most consistent messages—has negated slavery was ‘a choice.’ From ‘New Slaves’ to ‘Ultra Light Beam,’ Kanye has given us no reason to see this rhetorical slip as anything other than a really bad interview moment gone viral.”
Carole Boyce Davies, professor of Africana studies and English at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York: “Many documentations of the punishments meted out to people who dared exercise ‘choice’ not to stay enslaved are available. If We Must Die(2009) documents over 500 shipboard rebellions…. A whole genre of slave narratives and abolitionist work provides the information that Kanye needs to engage in an informed presentation of his ideas on slavery…. One can understand the frustration of Kanye West seeing no change in the Chicago of his childhood, even after having a politician from Chicago—Barack Obama—become president. Perhaps the critique of Obama has been silenced in favor of a celebratory narrative. This critique cannot come at the expense of denigrating all black people, which he does by suggesting that our people chose brutality and enslavement for 400 years without resisting. Clearly, Obama in eight years could not undo that same 400 years of degradation and its results. My advice to Kanye: Read. Maybe finish your degree, even doing online study. Donate to African American studies departments. Maybe name a fellowship after your mother.”
Michael Hill, associate professor of English at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City:“Since the civil rights era, black celebrity has existed between opulent emulation and exalted exceptionalism. With the law enforcement crisis during Obama’s presidency, black celebrities once again heard an activist calling. They could not risk irrelevance when Black Lives Matter and other grassroots protests were defining the spirit of the black community…. His half-huckster, half-eccentric epistemologist routine strikes the mainstream press as less amusing and more alarming. This truth brings us to the core of the matter: Kanye West’s most generative guise is that of the tortured, gestating talent. When he slips that mantle and eyes authoritative racial spokespersonship, then he mocks the very panoply of viewpoints that he purports to cherish. Perhaps, his glib summaries of slavery are byproducts of awkward phrasing rather than heinous convictions.”
Greg Thomas, associate professor of English and Africana studies, at Tufts University, in Boston: “He is a caricature of many things, and one who always has things to sell—for somebody. He is known primarily for throwing tantrums at the door of white elite social acceptance…. He is supposed to be somehow pro-Trump and anti-slavery, the dropout, who knows neither the meaning of freedom or slavery but sickly wants to be the focus of this kind of attention at any cost. What too many too carelessly call Hip-Hop is not to be confused with the ‘consumer society’ commodification of personality put to beats…. ‘Slavery’ lasts for centuries because it motored a world system of profit backed by the ruling race and class’s state militias. This is like asking, Why don’t Syrians stop getting bombed, or Why don’t black or ‘black site’ prisoners just leave?”
B. Anthony Bogues, professor of humanities and critical theory, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island: “Kanye is a really good artist, but [his comments are] very difficult to take because it is based on a lot of stark ignorance. It is troublesome when somebody of that stature displays that kind of stark ignorance. This is not free-thought, he’s not bringing anything new into this debate [on slavery]. What he’s doing is, quite frankly, displaying ignorance about the way slavery worked, the way in which people of African descent were enslaved and about those actual legacies, and how those legacies continue to structure the life of many African American’s today…. He’s simply talking a lot of nonsense.”