Feature by Andrew Novoa
Kanye Omari West is one of the most polarizing figures in popular culture. Critics say he represents the excess, self-absorption, and narcissism of American society; and there are the twitter rants, misogynistic lyrics, and massive ego to prove it. Incidents include the Taylor Swift debacle at the 2011 VMA’s, the 2005 concert where he claimed that AIDS was a man-made disease, and the time he went on live TV to tell the country that George Bush didn’t care about black people. His supporters, on the other hand, claim that he is a genius and point to his art--some of the most critically-acclaimed music of its generation. He has 21 Grammys, an increasingly popular fashion line, and well over 20 million album sales in an era of increased piracy and streaming. But all of this controversy overshadows one thing: Kanye is one of the most important voices in America right now.
Regardless of whether one likes Kanye or not, no one was able to look away during the release of his newest album, The Life of Pablo. The media circus surrounding this project was thoroughly preposterous, unbelievably over the top, and so quintessentially Yeezy. He claimed that Bill Cosby was innocent, boasted that this album was going to be one of the best of all time, and informed his followers that he was 53 million dollars in debt. Rather than turning people off, this spectacle whipped hip hop fans into a frenzy; a frenzy that reached its peak when fans sold out Madison Square Garden in 10 minutes to hear the man play his album via laptop through the stadium speakers.
Kanye’s immense popularity gives him a platform from which anything he says can and will be heard--even his tweets are closely analyzed and critiqued. His masterful production and provocative lyricism have not only changed music; they have put him in a position to influence American society. No one would ever accuse Kanye of underselling how important his voice is, but as a prominent black man in a predominantly white society, his voice becomes even more influential. Kanye realizes what music has done for him, tweeting, “The system is designed for colored people to fail and one of our only voices is music. One of our only ways out is music.” Kanye has made his “way out” through his prodigious musical talent, but for many people of color, escaping the confines systematic oppression is almost impossible. Thus, responsibility falls upon Kanye to use his voice to fight for the oppressed, a task he undertakes on the opening track of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam.”
“Ultralight Beam” is one of the irrefutable highlights of an absolutely top-notch album. The gospel choir, delicate brass, and impassioned pleas to the heavens make you want to drop everything you’re doing and grab a bible. Kanye, The Dream, Kelly Price, and Chance the Rapper voice anger, frustration and doubt on the song while maintaining a sense of cautious hope. Ultimately, the song functions as a cry for help, an appeal to God for the fortitude to face the challenges ahead. “Don’t have much strength to fight, so I look to the light,” sings Kelly Price. “Ultralight Beam” is a song for those that need hope, a hymn for the downtrodden, and Kanye’s attempt to give a voice to black America in a country where racism continues to affect people’s everyday lives.
There is a particularly powerful moment in the song when Chance begins his verse. He starts oh-so-tenderly: “When they come for you, I will shield your name. I will field their questions. I will feel your pain.” He then pauses to reflect. “They don’t know. They don’t, they don’t know. They don’t know,” he laments. He gives us about half a second to recover from this heartbreaking moment before launching into his verse, picking up speed and losing us in a lyrical whirlwind. But the importance of this moment in the song cannot be understated. Chance’s verse serves as an interlude between the gospel choirs and Kanye’s auto-tuned murmurs, and within this interlude he adopts the role of a shepherd, imploring his weak and weary flock to come to him for protection. His voice is gentle, welcoming, and angelic. Much of America will never know the pain that Chance is referring to, but for those who do, they know that due to systematic inequality no full protection is possible--that sometimes the only consolation is knowing that someone else will “feel your pain.”
Kanye is not the first nor the most prominent public figure to use religion to inspire hope and catalyze social reform. Throughout the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, churches and religious leaders were crucial to the fight for equality. In these extremely turbulent times, religion gave people of color a community to rally around and a location to organize political activism. For many involved in these movements, their plight was comparable to that of the Hebrews enslaved by the Egyptians in the book of Exodus. Says U.S. Representative and civil rights activist John Lewis, “Slavery was our Egypt, segregation was our Egypt, discrimination was our Egypt, and so during the height of the civil rights movement it was not unusual for people to be singing, ‘Go down Moses way on down in Egypt land and tell Pharaoh to let my people go.’” These biblical comparisons are as relevant today as they were back then, and although Kanye West may not be a modern-day Moses, his music continues a religious tradition of social activism. Through this lens, members of congregations continue to fight the battle for equality with their eyes towards the heavens even as injustice and brutality rage below.
Kanye’s relationship with religion is exceptionally complex and sometimes borders on blasphemy, but his use of spiritual music to reach his audience is extremely effective. He has a powerful message, and he is acutely aware of it. He refuses to be boxed in by the media, by the public, and at times, even by common sense. “The world needs a guy like me. The world needs somebody not to be scared and tell his truth,” claims West. Many detest him, but the manner in which he is able to integrate music and religion gives him a decisive voice in a country built on Judeo-Christian values. He may not always take the moral high ground, but as one of the most renowned artists in modern America, his impact impossible to ignore. And that’s why he’s right. We need Kanye West.