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Life Arts    H2'ed 1/8/11

Did Kanye Create a Monster?

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Let's get one thing out of the way here at the top: I don't listen to a lot of music or watch many music videos. I also don't follow Kanye West's career. Basically, though I sometimes listen to it, I really don't know squat about rap.

On the other hand, I do know a little something about monsters -- both the human kind that take pleasure in others' pain and the fictional kind, like vampires, that are all the rage these days.

West's latest video (it hasn't officially been released) is a little of both.

It flashes back and forth between West and fellow rapper Jay-Z and a variety of ghouls and zombies. The lighting is dark. The images are nonlinear. Like many works of art (and yes, I do think it merits such a label), different people will see in it different things.

To Johnathan Fields, the video is essentially a defense of blackness , particularly of Black men. Fields argues that West is responding to the "idea that Black men are sexual predators." To him, the "zombies and monsters represent a...willingness to fight back."

The notion of a monster as a racial metaphor is neither new nor original. I wrote about it at length in this piece on vampires. As just one relatively recent example, consider this short excerpt from Robert Neville's internal monologue in I Am Legend (the link above has a longer excerpt).

"Friends, I come before you to discuss the vampire: a minority element if there ever was one, and there was one.
But to concision: I will sketch out the basis for my thesis . . . : Vampires are prejudiced against.
The keynote of minority prejudice is this: They are loathed because they are feared. . . ."

Is that West's point? That Black men are prejudiced against because they are feared?

I wanted to see such a meaning. I looked for it, both in the lyrics and the video. I tried to see what Fields saw. I couldn't. What I found rather was one misogynistic image after another.

There are two types of women in the video: the ones who are either dead or lifeless and the ones who are monstrous.

The lifeless women are nevertheless depicted as sexual objects that West literally manipulates on the bed for his enjoyment. In a scene near the end, he places one woman's lifeless head on his lap. Political analyst Zerlina Maxwell described it as "a rape scenario set to a soundtrack." I agree.

Unfortunately, it is hardly harmless fantasy. Perhaps it's entirely coincidental that the video was produced precisely when Julian Assange is being charged with rape for reportedly having intercourse with a woman while she was asleep (and therefore unable to consent), but even if that is the case, the video's message -- that, whether awake or asleep, whether sober or drugged, whether conscious or not, women can be used for men's sexual gratification -- is more than a little troubling.

But even more than that, the video not-so-subtly suggests that complete female passivity, lifelessness, and even death are erotic. In one scene, several dead women hang from nooses. In another, West holds a decapitated woman's head.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and courses on restorative justice.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the outcomes associated with restorative responses via Conflict 180.

In addition to conflict and restorative (more...)

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