Swaghili: Learn It. Know It. Live It

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Why Kanye West's New Slaves matters

Performance art is dead. At least it felt that way until Kanye West's New Slaves--an in situ projection that played in 66 cities around the world. Kanye's single-take recitation of the song "New Slaves" stared back at its spectators, a rare, unexpected video reminder cinema's power when writ large. It marks the 80th anniversary of the drive-in movie theater, a forgotten cultural habit that West revived to promote his brilliantly aggravating (as opposed to that tired old word "transgressive") and wonderfully titled album Yeezus.

Kanye's use of cinema demolishes the concept of transgression by going BIG. Elevated by power, excess and isolation, he means to be heard and seen. New Slaves successfully maneuvers mainstream status quo media (garnering Arts and Leisure acceptance) as no Black pop recording artist has ever done: Prince, West's most comparable egotist, almost achieved this cultural prominance when Warner Bros. Records added the Prince symbol to media language (by distributing fonts to nearly every media outlet in the 1992 world) and Kanye's hero Michael Jackson continues to be crucified on the altar of mainstream media.

To those legends, New Slaves adds hip-hop's self-conscious idiosyncratic bravado, shrewdly using what Ben Kessler identifies as "defiance" to simultaneously corroborate and interrogate the mainstream's commercial methods--which includes deceptive front-page praise. Due to the triteness of celebrity journalism, art such as Kanye's gets subsumed by celebritizing rather than critical, cultural appreciation. With New Slaves, Kanye talks back at the Black monster myth by evoking the 1933 King Kong as you might see it at a drive-in (West's skin made darker by the contrast of his bright eyes and teeth in tight nighttime close-up). Kong only growled but Kanye is hyper-articulate--and profane. This rap monologue is the largest piece of graffiti ever dared in an urban locale--and it moves.

Few pieces of museum-sanctioned performance art command space in our daily environment and imaginations. New Slaves sends an alarm about new millennium acquisitiveness--the delusion of progress in a world still crippled by envy, hatred, bigotry, mendacity and facts of difference. Knowing this brings personal dissatisfaction to West's artistic accomplishment. New Slaves's unforgettable frown visualizes this heartache, though less extravagantly than the very moving Runaway short-film that West himself directed (collaborating with Hype Williams).

Kanye's message in New Slaves reminded me of legendary jazz drummer Max Roach's advice to an audience of hip-hop adepts that Money and Success are also means of controlling an artist. They circumscribe an artist's ambition and limits his daring and curtails his principles. That's what "new slaves" means. This Faustian surprise ("I know that pussy ain't free!") inspires both the pleading and the ranting on Yeezus. The entire album is Kanye's stare-down; it forces us to realize the need for faith ("I just spoke to Jesus/ He said 'What's up, Yeezus'--a lovely expression of Christian discipleship) and the healthiness of righteous displeasure ("Anger is an energy!" John Lydon memorably stated.)

Don't confuse Kanye's tease about being "New Wave" to mean this isn't rhythm and blues (or a hard version of Max Roach's jazz). Yeezus succeeds at modernizing hip-hop's energy through sheer, driven creativity. The more sonically inventive he is, the more important the lyrics become for communicating his meanings and intentions. When Kanye is on it, he raps the way blues singers do: like he's got an itch. Scratch the widely-misinterpreted "Blood on the Leaves" (an update of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit"). Kanye confesses: "All I want is what I can't buy." History weighs on his love life and his terms would be understood by Holiday and others: "It came out of her body/It came out of my body." (It's his "Billie Jean.")

There's no showstopper like "Monster" or "Runaway" on the great My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but one of the most ornery, witty and energetic passages on Yeezus asserts: "I be speakin' Swaghili!" It marvelously compresses old-fashioned Afrocentricity into the new audacity of shot-caller triumph and skepticism--an unbounded language Kanye dares us all to recognize. Despite the vast, unquestioned, normalized compliance of this materialist media era, where conformity and dishonesty are well-paid, Kanye personalizes art as performance. His unfiltered anguish flouts the all the conventions of success ("I throw them Maybach keys") and creates an example to follow. That's how you liberate today's slaves.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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