Politics

Netflix’s Kanye West documentary tells us a lot about being Black in America


“We at war. We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all, we at war with ourselves.” That’s a memorable line from the opening to “Jesus Walks,” a hit song from Kanye West, who now goes by Ye.

The first installment of Netflix’s new three-part documentary, “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” which will be released in theaters Feb. 10 and on the streaming service Feb. 16, reminds us about all the ways in which Black people negotiate such conflicts and turmoil.

His work could straddle a sometimes quite tense divide in hip-hop culture — no easy feat.

Many of us are familiar with seeing how West has been at war with himself on the public stage. After all, we are talking about the same person who both stunned comedian co-presenter Mike Myers during a Hurricane Katrina telethon in 2005 by declaring that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” and made a media spectacle out of a visit to Donald Trump in the Oval Office 13 years later donning the then-president’s iconic MAGA hat.

West has long been fearless about expressing his views out loud, even when they seem conflictual and inconsistent — views that can ostensibly praise Trump in one instant and then propel him to run against Trump for president (collecting about 60,000 votes) in another. And just this month, his Twitter declaration that February be called, from now on, Black Future Month instead of Black History Month prompted none other than the scholar and activist Cornel West, no relation to the rapper, to declare that he should “get off the symbolic crack pipe.

But what this first installment of the documentary, subtitled “Vision,” gives viewers is a glimpse of Kanye West before the conflicts and public outbursts, before those controversial moments. We get to see him in 2000 when he decided to leave his hometown of Chicago in search of a record deal in New York City.

By this point, he had already begun to build a reputation for himself as an up-and-coming beatmaker and producer in the Windy City, and his goal was to parlay those coveted hip-hop beats into his own record contract. When he got to the Big Apple, people showed love for his musical stylings as a producer, but record execs were skeptical of any producer trying to headline his own album as an emcee. Landing that record deal wouldn’t be easy.

A fundamental tension in the film pivots on the two main record companies that appear most interested in potentially signing West, Roc-A-Fella and Rawkus. The two labels could not be more different. Roc-A-Fella and its impresarios, Jay-Z and Damon Dash, are closer to the gangsta rap tradition, while Rawkus boasts artists considered more thoughtful and cerebral, most famously Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Part of West’s genius, we learn, is that he could make music that was intelligible to both labels’ audiences. His work could straddle a sometimes quite tense divide in hip-hop culture — no easy feat.

The film’s depiction of such divides made me think about W.E.B Du Bois’ famous articulation of double consciousness. Over 100 years ago, in a canonical book of eclectic musings on African American life and culture, “The Souls of Black Folk,” he describes “a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness” in poignant and poetic terms. “One feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder,” he writes.

In some significant ways, we are living in a moment when the “two-ness” Dubois referenced so long ago feels like it has spilled out of individual Black souls and bodies to also animate a series of contentious debates between and among Black people in the public sphere.

We know about America’s culture wars, played out in topics as divergent as abortion, immigration and critical race theory, but there is also a specifically Black culture war brewing in the United States. It’s one in which Black conservatives of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps variety reject the popular and critical ascendancy of a cadre of Black public intellectuals who rail against the history of American racism. The latter attempts to keep this nation’s blistered feet to the fire by pointing out that structural and systemic discrimination still exists.

There is much to be said about the tensions between the two sets of “warring ideals” that pit these groups in full-throated opposition on all the hot-button issues of the day — from affirmative action to slavery reparations. The sides are drawn starkly and the stakes are high. These are the kinds of debates that today’s West is fearless about plopping himself — vocally and emphatically — right in the middle of. But the first part of the documentary isn’t about the version of West we’ve all become accustomed to. It predates his new identity as Ye, which means that we see him demonstrate a much different approach to conflict, disunity and frustration.

One of the most riveting and hypnotic sequences in the episode occurs when West and his crew show up at Def Jam Records unannounced. That crew includes Coodie, a Chicago-based stand-up comic so impressed by West’s skill and self-confidence that he gave up his comedic aspiration and headed out to New York City with a video camera to chronicle his professional exploits.

The group saunters into Def Jam’s offices to bask in the afterglow of the chart-topping single that he had recently produced for Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records. West finds tape decks in a couple of those offices and loudly starts playing the rough cut of a demo for his future hit “All Falls Down,” seemingly for anyone willing to listen, rapping along with his voice on the track. We know that he gets the last laugh and that his first album, “The College Dropout,” will be as much of a smash as he predicts, but at this point in 2001, few people in the hip-hop industry seem to be buying it.

One of the most riveting and hypnotic sequences in the episode occurs when West and his crew show up at Def Jam Records unannounced.

The staff he ambushes with his demo bop their heads politely, laugh at a line or two from the song, but mostly just ignore him. The person we know Kanye West to be now would’ve probably had a fit in the face of such indifference. He would have called them out to their faces — maybe even had an impromptu “press conference” on the street outside for unsuspecting passersby. But back in 2001, he and his crew simply traipse out of there without any fanfare and without making a scene — also, without that record deal.

If you’ve listened to West’s 2004 blockbuster first album, you already know, in broad strokes, the portion of his story told in this first episode of the Netflix documentary. Still, it’s moving to see some of what he raps about so eloquently in that debut captured in real-time, as they happened, by Coodie’s ever-present camera.

You also see the tension that develops between West and some of his old crew back in Chicago when they make a diss song about him soon after he starts to shine with his earliest Roc-A-Fella tracks. It was a burgeoning beef that he immediately and quietly decided to quash. And when he does finish that debut album, the rift doesn’t even get a passing mention. West, as we know him today, wouldn’t suffer such foolishness in silence, but back then, it was more important for him to work through his differences behind the scenes than to escalate them on wax or in the street, an atypical move for hip-hop, which often meets public disrespect with graphic response records — or even with physical violence.

The musical artist we see in “jeen-yuhs” represents a kind of embodied resolution to the disparate and seemingly irreconcilable sides of hip-hop, glossed imperfectly as conscious rap vs. street rap, or maybe party music vs. protest music. Back then, he could also be seen as a symbol of the conciliatory and collaborative approach to negotiating divides that splinter Black culture.

West’s story, as told in this fascinating first episode, suggests that hard work, patience and a bit of Du Bois’ “dogged strength” might help to smooth over and settle some of the unreconciled conflicts that continue to fracture Black communities today.

Part one also nicely sets the stage for the next two installments, which should show us how a relatively mollifying Kanye becomes the molotov cocktail-throwing Ye, someone ostensibly less concerned about reconciliation than committed to standing in the very breach that emerges after things get torn asunder — and even doing some of the tearing himself.



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