We have to talk about what is being said and what is not being said. What is being said through the use of symbols and indexes is that black trauma and violence is not a point of abjection in American culture. It is so common and woven into our visual culture that at the 2017 Biennial, Dana Schutz, without protest, was able to produce a grotesque painting, Open Casket, depicting the mangled body of Emmett Till.
What isn’t being said is that violence and trauma against the black body is an integral part of American history. The question then arises; Is black identity in the postcolonial US being tied to trauma and violence? The blatant answer is yes. It’s so ingrained through different ideological systems from police violence and television programming to teachings in psychology class, that everyone’s psyche including those of non-black peoples is skewed despite their acknowledgement or lack thereof.
Black people internalize this trauma fetishim through our own art forms and media, which was recently exemplified through Childish Gambino’s new music video. This interpolation of trauma and violence on both social, systematic, and economic levels is being internalized and the reaction is detrimental to the black psyche as a whole.
Whether it’s the singing and dancing that mimics a minstrel show, the use of black bodies as dancing or singing props, or the killing of choir members (reminders that we aren’t safe in our own places of worship, referencing both Dylan Roof and the church bombings of the 60’s civil rights movement) they all fall under the guise to discuss that “ This is America.”
I hear that Black people love this video and Donald Glover’s use of multiple symbols and ideologies that point us right back to our oppressive state in this neoliberal climate.
This video seems to be a mimicry of satire in its movements and gestures. Using symbols Gambino shows us ‘America.’ In addition, he uses symbols to it perpetuates notions of Blackness being tied to both violence and entertainment simultaneously. This playcates to both black and non-black audiences letting them know that “this is how it is”. What does it mean for us to reframe our own trauma for an audience that aids in the perpetuation of that trauma? Is it possible for us to reframe and claim our own bodies in context of trauma when we are interpolating it through the frame of the oppressive structure?
How can we love this video and shame Kanye in the same breath — understand that I’m not talking about the “Slavery was a choice Kanye” but the Kanye from a week or two before with the ‘Make America Great Again’ Hat. Are they not brothers in their sense of understanding?
Kanye uses the ‘Make America Great Again’ hat as a prop to discuss his new ‘free thinking’ identity which viscerally upsets his liberal & black audience. His ‘free thinking’ is not free at all, but rather bound by the interpolation of ideologies. Kanye is trying to break different molds of Blackness, and this is not the first time we’ve seen him do this. The confederate flag jacket he wore in hopes to spark the discussion about reclamation & continually asserting his position as someone who subverts culture.
The issue doesn’t lie within the words or the hat, but the combination of the words along with the font and classically, bright, warm red hat. These combinations: the words, font & the hat don’t just exist separately but combine as an amalgamation of signs to create one meaning that is attributed to Donald Trump, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and so on. This hat represents ideologies symbols and indexes that are harmful and detrimental. The words on the hat cannot detach and form a new meaning that does not reference its roots within racism and white supremacy.
Kanye’s delivery fails. His audience is unable to care about what it could mean to reclaim that phrase and make it applicable, but only cares about how it exists currently.
Both Kanye & Gambino — in their own individual ways — are making statements about the state of America by using imagery that reference racism and white supremacy, but Kanye falls flat in his efforts to reclaim the trauma that comes with it through the lack of a clear and evident statement. Both successfully grasp concepts of violence through visual culture, allowing the audience to become spectators.
Why don’t we have this same visceral reaction to Childish Gambino’s video? Is it because we accept that imagery? It’s not less harmful than seeing the MAGA hat. Do we allow it because we are able to see ourselves and in doing so, what does that mean? Kanye picks an object that is not associated with blackness and wears it, rather confidently. He uses this symbol of violence, like Gambino, to re-contexualize it. But we as an audience are not in favor of this concept. Did Kanye’s wearing of the hat crystalize the violence and white supremacy woven into it? Did Gambino’s shooting of the choir or juxtaposition of police present around black bodies crystalize that violence?
Many people are riddled with emotions when discussing the things Kanye has done recently and he has fallen from grace, and because of this many have shut him out as an artist by any means of the definition.
As much as people claim to dislike Kanye, we are eager to produce — even support — another Kanye to take his place. Let us be wary to give titles of edginess and ingenuity as it cannot be given to any black man who traumatizes his black audience.