West’s popularity, as is always the case, is not merely the product of individual talent but a process which itself serves broader (colonial) goals and which assures there no one can be simultaneously rich, famous and politically radical. Pop culture is never, as some put it, “value free,” and is always a politicized space meant to influence public opinion, mostly to distract, confuse and make populations more malleable and accepting of the world as it is. To think of pop culture as mere entertainment is to misunderstand the political nature of the term. Those with whom West is pictured here know this well.
To his immediate right is, as hip-hop heads/historians will know, Lyor Cohen. You might not know his name but it is also likely you wouldn’t know the names of your favorite artists if he didn’t want you to. And now that he is running YouTube Music it is likely that your grandchildren’s favorite artists will be selected by him too. It is worth noting that, going back a long way, Cohen, is, ummm, not well liked.
When asked what his greatest career regret had been to that point legendary rapper Freddie Foxxx, aka, Bumpy Knuckles (best nickname in hip-hop history), said, “Probably not breaking Lyor Cohen’s jaw when I had the opportunity to.” Previously, in verse, Knuckles had already made in plain:
While I was watching all these niggas caught up in a def scam
I remember when I stepped to Lyor, I should’ve blown him
Cuz that cracker been a crook, ever since I first known him.
Next to him in the picture is Lucian Grainge. As head of the largest music company in the world (which we have previously pointed out is no more than 14% of its parent conglomerate) this guy has been called, “the most powerful man” in music. Talent and hard work mean little. If this guy doesn’t want you to be famous it’s not likely you will be. In fact, as Maimouna Youssef pointed out during her recent workshop at Morgan State University, these are the kinds of men who have the power to sign and shelve you just to keep you from producing if your political work product (art) does not suit their interests. In other words, this recent “shift’ in West is precisely what is required for the re/production or sustainability of fame.
Too often we are encouraged to judge the outcome and not the process or, said differently, to address only symptoms and not the cause or disease itself. Here again is more of that same. One place to re/start a study of this point is with the recently published report about What We Get Wrong About Closing the Wealth Gap which includes discussion of the role celebrity plays in confusing the real and worsening material conditions of Black life. Without Cohen and Grainge there is no West phenomena or his ability to stand in for sound commentary on the conditions of people and politics and, similarly, there is no necessary spectacle. Absent that all we’d have left is clarity.
Unfortunately, slavery was no more a choice than what is required for West or anyone else to occupy these pop cultural spaces. Each are imposed conditions which alter only in form but not in relational substance and neither condition will or has ever ended/shifted without organized and direct political conflict.