Kanye Doesn’t Provide the Keys to Unlock “New Slaves,” by B.B. Robinson, Ph.D.

robinson_smPopular music superstar Kanye West’s new release, “New Slaves,” is capturing a lot of attention. The question is whether it deserves that attention or not.

Some consider it West’s “Marvin Gaye moment” — likening how Gaye shook up the music world in 1971 with his “What’s Going On” album that highlighted social ills such as poverty and drug abuse. While Gaye became more sexual with future hits such as “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing,” it’s more fair to say that West — already known for profanity and pomposity — could be having such a moment in reverse, transitioning from hip-hop’s aggrandizement of sex, drugs, murder and bling to musical expressions of social consciousness.

West’s new song highlights a predicament experienced by many black Americans: being exploited as consumers. West suggests “New Slaves” are prisoners of a horrific industrial complex and a culture of obsessive materialism.

But pointing out a social ill is where West’s Marvin Gaye moment begins and ends.

Given a tremendous opportunity to use his fame to teach economic responsibility, what does Kanye West offer? “I’m about to wild the f— out/I’m going Bobby Boucher” (referring to the concentrated anger of Adam Sandler’s character from “The Waterboy”). He suggests sexually abusing a “Hampton spouse.” And to “tear s— down.”

Unfortunately, West provides only unsophisticated responses to a complex and sophisticated problem. America is now at the end of a nearly 50-year transition from Jim Crow institutional discrimination (especially in the South and essentially an extension of slavery) to economic inequality today where many at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy view themselves as slaves.

But what is memorable about West’s “New Slaves” is its animosity rather than any buried wisdom.

As Darren Sands points out on the Black Enterprise website, economic lessons can actually be taken from “New Slaves” if one takes the time to look deep enough. Sands notes the lyrics, “Y’all throwing contracts at me/Y’all know n—– can’t read,” while sophomoric and unbelievably self-deprecating from the son of well-educated parents, do highlight the problem that “[l]ots of folks loathe to read the fine print of our credit cards, bank statements and loan repayment strategies.”

On materialism, Sands adds: “Your tastes most certainly change when you reach a certain status, and even with his love of jewels, high fashion and Maybach’s, at least Kanye is willing to express the absurdity of it all.”

Instead of off-the-cuff hip-hop aphorisms, West should offer sound keys that blacks in particular and Americans in general can use to mitigate economic inequality now.

Why don’t hip-hop artists in general have a “Marvin Gaye moment” and turn their music away from the mundane jabber about sex, drugs, murder and bling and toward more meaningful vibrations about the importance of knowledge and learning, retaining wealth and creating more opportunities for economic independence?

It’s one thing to open a can of worms, look into it and describe the contents. It’s another thing altogether to assess the can of worms to determine how to transform the slimy pile inside into a profitable venture. After all, the worms can be used as fishing bait, to aerate the soil and grow better crops, for biological instruction and training or to uncover new innovations through research.

Kanye pretty much opened the can of worms and walked away. In the process, however, he has opened the door to more socially conscious rap music.

One can hope other hip-hop artists will find the keys to compose their own socially conscious music and provide specific directions and instructions on how to help the young and old alike move black and white America toward a more economically equitable — and less of a slave (real or economic) — society.

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B.B. Robinson, Ph.D., is a member of the national advisory council of the black leadership network Project 21. You can visit his website at www.blackeconomics.org. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

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