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Kanye the Instigator

Rapper Kanye West has become one of pop culture's most intriguing political commentators. Or, depending on your perspective, one of its most intriguing reactionaries.
 
 
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During an MTV show in August, rapper Kanye West publicly called for his fellow rappers and the hip hop community to stop gay bashing. With the Aug. 30 release of his latest album, "Late Registration," West started conversations about conflict diamonds with his song "Diamonds from Sierra Leone." In September, he asserted his belief that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" during a Red Cross telethon for Hurricane Katrina survivors. And now, with his portrayal of Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone , he has instigated debates about religion and race.

In the magazine, which hit the stands Friday, West is pictured wearing a crown of thorns, a serious expression, and a few appropriate trickles of blood. The magazine titles its cover story "The Passion of Kanye West," clearly playing off the controversial film "The Passion of the Christ." However, it may unintentionally remind readers of the true passion of a musician who is clearly troubled with the state of the world.

Even if you don't agree with his opinions, the increasing resonance of West's political statements is undeniable. And his ability to get political discussions going -- from the race factor of Hurricane Katrina to human rights abuses in the diamond industry -- is unparalleled by any other hip hop artist. While he often comes off as an arrogant and unlikable celebrity, West's political commentary is refreshing because it seems to have no calculated political message and no preachy moral story. He simply talks about the issue that is on his mind. And this month, he wants to talk about Jesus.

Predictably, the Rolling Stone cover has incited angry responses from some Christian leaders, who have berated the magazine and, in one case, called West "mentally challenged." In a statement released two days before the magazine even hit the stands, Catholic League President Bill Donahue accused the magazine of being racist, saying, "If it is true that West is a morally confused black young man, it is also true that Rolling Stone is staffed by morally challenged white veterans: They are to West what white boxing agents in the 20th century were to black boxers -- rip-off artists. It is not for nothing that West poses as a Christlike figure on a magazine geared to whites."

Though this statement is somewhat mystifying, Donahue in later interviews essentially argued that West was being exploited by the magazine, a laughable idea since any celebrity pictured on the cover of Rolling Stone is clearly promoting his own career. Kanye West's defenders have largely chalked up the anger over the cover photo to the idea that a black Jesus goes against some religious leaders' white sensibilities.

Hip hop activist Rosa Clemente responded to the Catholic League's statement by asking, "Was it wrong for Jesus to be portrayed by Charlton Heston, a gun-toting member of the National Rifle Association?" Clemente argued that the outcry against West-as-Jesus was really about the fact that Jesus was depicted by a black man: "The problem for the Catholic League and many white Christians who will start coming out of the woodwork to also condemn Kanye and begin to attack hip hop is that Kanye West as a black man does not represent their revisionist history of whom Jesus was."

Aside from the content of the complaints, the fact that conservatives have launched a pre-emptive strike against the rapper belies the widening reach of West's voice.

It's been a long time coming.

West grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, the son of a professor. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to college and majored in English. Then, as his first album would relay, he dropped out to pursue his interest in music. West was a talented producer before he was a talented rapper. His 2004 hit "College Dropout" garnered 10 Grammy nominations and won three. His newest album, "Late Registration," is up for eight Grammy Awards, including album of the year.

Throughout his career, he has gained a reputation as being arrogant and outspoken. (He has the titles of some of his own songs tattooed on his arm.) Both Time and Newsweek profiled West in August, calling him an artist "full of contradictions" ( Newsweek), and a "Buppie" who is "challenging the way rap thinks about race and class" ( Time).

Catholic League's Donahue admitted in his statement that, "West is a young rapper who is hard to peg. On the one hand, he eschews gangsta rap and likes to sing lyrics like, 'They say you can rap about anything except Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, videotapes/ But if I talk about God, my record won't get played.' On the other hand, he is capable of saying plainly foolish things, e.g., the government is responsible for the spread of AIDS among blacks and gays." (At the Philadelphia Live 8 concert in July, West promoted the idea that AIDS was a "man-made disease placed in African communities.")

When the president of the Catholic League is contemplating the lyrics of a rap song, it's a pretty good indicator that the rapper in question has been fully politicized. But West is far from the "morally confused" patsy that Donahue imagines. While the self-admitted porn addict and self-congratulatory musician may not be a sympathetic figure, he is certainly no idiot.

West's public personality does not fit the caricature of the gangsta rapper defining himself by his rough demeanor (perhaps proven by gunshot wounds a la 50 Cent). Rather, he seems more like a complex man who has come up from the hip hop generation's middle class. He is not the poor, oppressed child of the streets who is angry about his lot in life. He is the child of suburbia who is angry at the state of injustice in the world. He is at once egotistic and self-conscious, a consumer and a critic of consumption. His lyrics sometimes come off as self-congratulatory rhymes with poppy appeal. Just as often, they take a socially conscious approach to political issues that most rappers would pass right by.

One of the most talked about songs from "Late Registration" recounts the guilt West felt after learning about the fate of diamond workers:

"See, a part of me's sayin', keep shinin' / How, when I know what a blood diamond is? / Though it's thousands of miles away / Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today / Over here it's the drug trade, we die from drugs. Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs. / The Diamonds. The chains, the bracelets, the charms / I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless / 'Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless, and here's the conflict / It's in the black person's soul, to rock that gold. Spend your whole life tryin' to get that ice / On a polo rugby you look so nice, how could something so wrong make me feel so right."

The song instigated a series of articles about the diamond trade, and forced diamond dealers to defend their product. Just a few days after the release of this song, West made his infamous outburst during a Katrina telethon:

"I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food.' And, you know, it's been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I've tried to turn away from the TV because it's too hard to watch. I've even been shopping before even giving a donation, so now I'm calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give, and just to imagine if I was down there, and those are my people down there. So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help -- with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, the Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way -- and they've given them permission to go down and shoot us! … George Bush doesn't care about black people!"

While this would be among the things that Donahue would call "foolish," it was the first real mention of race in a tragedy that provoked widespread discussions of national racism. While some white pundits would call his comments foolish and brash, West's outburst clearly resonated with thousands of black folks. In the fall, a poll showed that 84 percent of African-Americans believed the response to the disaster would have been faster if it had affected a white community. That poll probably would never have been taken if West had not made the statement "Bush doesn't care about black people."

West's past statements have always been unequivocally clear and bold. His portrayal of himself as Jesus is much more confounding. Perhaps it's a reference to his tune "Jesus Walks," or a simple publicity stunt. Or perhaps he really feels that he's some sort of savior. The only certain thing is that West's politicization has ensured that this new bit of social commentary has elicited another public debate about race.

Maria Luisa Tucker is an AlterNet staff writer.