Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Kanye, gods and politicians

Tuesday, October 4, 2016 - 6:22pm

I am an avid concert-goer. I love to watch the artist and how they respond to the pressures of a live show, where there is potential for any snafu to manifest in a moment of humiliation, where the veil of celebrity and perfection which we, the audience, have created, might be seen through. 

Our collective construction of this veil pertains not only to figures in the entertainment industry, but in the political arena as well. Which beckons the question: How different are the two realms — entertainment and politics — at all?

On Sept. 28, I attended Kanye West’s performance at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. I had seen Kanye twice before, and both concerts were awesome. I felt like he really vibed with the audience and put himself out there for all of us to see, through ostentatious and daring rants and stunts — at his Yeezus tour, for example, a character dressed as Jesus came onstage and christened Kanye.

But this time, I was deeply disappointed. I was sitting in pretty good seats, but for most of the show, I could not see the man whom I had come to see. Sure, I could still sing along with him, but I already do this in the shower or sitting in the Fishbowl.

What could I see? Mostly the audience beneath West’s floating stage, which had a set of lights attached to it, which were set on the general admission audience under him. These people were surely entertaining to watch, as they moshed and shoved each other in celebration of West’s music.

Was this what I was supposed to be watching? The audience? More than any other rap show I have ever attended, I felt my mind racing at the show, asking questions about Kanye as an artist and about artistry or celebrity more generally.

I came away from the show believing that West was making a statement: There is no difference between himself and his audience. That is, Kanye is only and all of what we imagine him to be. If Kanye believes this, then his songs take on entirely new meanings.

For example, his 2013 track “I Am A God,” in which Yeezus proclaims himself to be a deity. In this song, who, in fact, is a god? Who believes themselves to be a god?

Kanye’s naysayers (of whom there are plenty) believe that this would be Kanye himself — that Kanye’s obnoxious ego is so totalizing, it is all Kanye will ever be. But I believe this reading to be far too simplistic. I assert that Kanye might be calling us, the listeners, gods, in his title: that we take on the role of “I.” He instructs us: You, the mass audience, act like gods, demanding that I, Kanye, mimic the god you want to be. The admissions of fragility and self-consciousness in this song — which come across in erratic, extended interludes of West frantically screaming and breathing heavily into the microphone — represent West’s wilting under the pressure of demands.

The track finally asserts that I, Kanye, allow you, the audience, to construct me, god-like, so that you can then celebrate your power, and I can simply be your vessel. This song, then, mixes both Kanye’s private, internal struggle — to which the public otherwise has very limited access — with his much more common, expectedly ignorant public persona.

And, finally, it indicts us, the audience, for our power-hungry relationship with celebrities, as we build them up as deities and wait as they affirm our collective strength. 

And this is where I would like to turn next: away from Kanye, specifically, and toward a conversation about how our public figures — in both the political and entertainment realms, which, I posit, have merged into one indistinguishable conglomerate — become objects of our projections and desires.

In our political discourse, we note Trump’s evil rhetoric. Clinton supporters tout that her campaign is not so divisive or hateful. Tim Kaine is known as America’s stepdad. A 2006 study demonstrated that Americans who saw two photos, side by side, of political candidates running against each other, could predict the outcome of the race almost 70 percent the time.

In other words, how we perceive certain candidates to look, how they dress or how they speak or whether or not they have spray-tanning solution on their faces — these perceptions of entirely superfluous traits that determine how we vote, and, in turn, they determine the direction of our country.

Our demand on Kanye West that he fulfills the standards of the god we have imagined him to be, it seemed on Wednesday night, has forced him into a more subdued, invisible role, thereby questioning if there is any real distinction to be made between us and him. And while Kanye, being the genius that he is, is able to take this and make a bold artistic statement, we ought not regard our political establishment in this way.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.