The Kanye Conversation

The Kanye Conversation: Unpacking the History and the Hysterics

Published Sat, December 17, 2022 at 1:00 PM EST

The views and opinions expressed in the following op-ed are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ROCK THE BELLS. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

We got a lot of work to do.

I empathize with Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson's character in Do the Right Thing) when he pleads with all of Stuyvesant Ave, emphatically saying,"Yo! Hold up! Time out! Time out! Y'all take a chill! Ya need to cool that shit out! And that's the double truth, Ruth!"

It's been some wild weeks in the saga of Black and Jewish relations, a conversation and interconnection that spreads across history and has been rooted in hope and anguish in the American context for the last several hundred years. A small but meaningful time, on the Jewish calendar (where it's the year 5783, meaning the roman calendar's been antisemitic, if we're keeping it a buck), and an even shorter time on the scale of human history, dating over 3 million years ago (marking the oldest human remains found in Ethiopia) to when Lucy was alive and doing her thing.

So how do we unwrap all these charges and tropes of antisemitism (and anti-Blackness) and get down to a place where we can have a generous and informed discourse and, perhaps, come to understand, the seeds of hatred and distrust are fomented by forces that seek to eliminate both Blacks and Jews and that actually there are many shared beliefs and practices held dear by each tribe? How can our communities engage in discourse and disagreement and have differences and differences of opinion and continue to be civil with and toward one another for the good of the public square and for the survival and, dare I say, thriving of both communities?

First things first, this is not a new conversation. Blacks and Jews have a longstandingly profound, and tenuous, relationship in the United States. Black folks were here centuries prior to mass Jewish arrival, and under markedly different circumstances, which makes Black folks’ relationship to America, painfully unique. My family was saved coming to this country, fleeing Czarist Russia/Ukraine when Cossacks began to round up and murder my paternal grandfather's family, and my grandmother's family sought refuge here, at the dawn of a nationalist Nazi regime. Ye's family's, and millions of Black families, trip to this country is a holocaust of its own. For Jews, we ran here hoping for a better life, in many instances America has been our refuge. Black people came in bondage against their will. Origin stories matter, something which both our cultures believe.

In truth, Ye is/has been a genius musician, composer, rapper (by committee, shout out Rhymefest, Malik Yusef, Mikkey Halsted and the whole writer's room), and designer (by committee, shout out Don C, Jerry Lorenzo, RIP Virgil), who I have a lot of love for, admire and have rooted for, from the days back in Chicago when he was "Grav's guy", handing out beat tapes, willing to tell any and every one he was a great rapper (which he was/is). I still root for him to turn this around, if that's even possible, and it might not be. I pray he will seek help and heal himself and perhaps re-enter the community for reconciliation. If we are to be a culture where we call in rather than call out, where people are not disposable, I feel like this can be applied to someone who is clearly going through an incredibly high-profile moment of turmoil and breakdown (divorce, deplatforming, mania, business frustration and loss, etc.)

I still root for Ye, if I'm being honest, despite the pain and harm he's caused in the last few weeks, because his mother and my mentor, Dr. Haki Madhubuti, were colleagues at Chicago State University.

They would all appear together at The Gwendolyn Brooks Black Writer's Conference, Ye as well, and it was very much a family affair, abound in hope and hyper-literacies, where the conversation of the day, was art and literature, and the message were our words were tools to help empower and inspire a community. And Dr. Donda West, who I knew from a far, and was privy to see, was a compassionate, measured, fair and highly complex and intelligent thinker.

Ye's legacy, in my mind, in many ways, like hip hop itself, is a continuation of the Black Arts Movement, the uplifting of the everyday experience of Black people, celebrating of the mundane, the joyous and majestic, manifest across artistic discipline and genre, as well as making a substantiated, real critique of the effects, harm and maintenance of white supremacy. The Black Arts Movement was a counter cultural narrative that emerged during the Civil Rights Movement and careened into the Black Nationalist movement and the formation of the Black Panthers, which inherits the genius of the Jazz and Blues Age and Harlem Renaissance of the 1910's and 20s. 

The Black Arts movement produced some of the most important writers and artists in the history of America letters; Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez, Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Keorapetse Kgositsile (Earl Sweatshirt's dad), to name a few, and such fertile and deeply collaborative spaces for people to gather and commune in cities across the country, like the OBAC workshop in Chicago and the Afri-Cobra crew of visual artists. It paved the way for the oralities of Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets and Watts Prophets who are clear godfathers to our favorite emcees.

One of the most influential, outspoken, and prolific artists in the movement, and one of its intellectual architects, is Amiri Baraka, whose spirit and words still ring and resonate. For some people, Jews in particular, Baraka's work (and the Black nationalist movement, generally) is difficult to digest because of such stinging antisemitic lines like the ones in his foundational poem, "Black Art" when he writes:

We want poems/like fists beating n****** out of Jocks/or dagger poems in the slimy bellies/of the owner-jews..."

I mean sure that is difficult to read, (in full transparency I love and teach that poem and Baraka was incredibly kind and encouraging of me, as a younger poet, when we were back stage during a recording of some season of HBO's Def Poetry Jam and as I was walking past by what I swear was his throne (appropriately so), and after having returned from the stage, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward him, close enough to yell into my ear, "That was good shit", and I felt anointed) but to paraphrase Dave Chappelle's monologue from SNL (more on that later), Baraka was nowhere near the Holocaust and that line, vile as it may be, speaks to a larger issue that plagues the Black and Jewish relationship in America, and that perhaps, as Jews, we will be unable to right and rectify, until we can sift through the ugliness, in order to attempt to understand the important emotional truths it relays.

Ye's packaging of his "truths", and i use that word pretty lightly, in the last several weeks leaves a lot to be desired. And to be clear, before he went on these recent anti-Semitic tirades, he was years deep in anti-Blackness rhetoric calling slavery a choice and lately, repeatedly, misrepresenting the murder of George Floyd. And one of the frustrations i hear from the Black community is the same energy around Ye's anti-Blackness does not match the fervor around his antisemitism. What we have known about Ye, the genius, is that Ye, the man, is also a petulant, only child and billionaire bully who rocked a "white lives matter" shirt who expresses his admiration for Hitler. I am not a doctor but like Chappell said, Ye is "possibly not well".

The last couple of weeks he's been on a manic media circuit, akin to the one he went on in the maga hat, popping up as clickbait to control the algorithm. From Tucker Carlson to Drink Champs to Piers Morgan to Chris Cuomo to Lex Fridman to most recently (as of the writing of this article) Alex Jones's show (in truth i could only stomach 90mins), where Ye had what seems to be a melt down and proclaimed that he liked Hitler and that "the Holocaust is not what happened". 

Ye is venting and working things out publicly, "updating" in real time as he puts it. He is also showing off (an odd phrase for a display of antisemitism, but i feel like his narcissism is this pronounced), what he is currently learning. Ye is a sponge. Always has been. The clothing styles of close friends, his big homie Marley he tributes on "Drive Slow", the admiration and coveting of Jay Z's life/style, the desire to remain fresh which creates a vampiric relationship to a younger creative class like Chief Keef and Chance the Rapper, Ye has always "shown off" his inspirations in real time.

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Now is not that much different other than his aesthetic and (pseudo) intellectual circle is crowded with white Christian nationalists like Nick Fuentes, Milo Yiannopolus (who Ye reportedly just fired), and Laura Loomer. The sad irony of this moment is that someone who came to prominence because of their ability to sample beloved and rescued bits of sonic memory and turn those familiar and faint recollections into updated gems of musical gold (and platinum) has become incredibly wack with what he is using as fodder for his sonic, hateful bed on which to mine samples. 

Ye is merely trotting out the greatest hits of a Nazi and white nationalist, antisemitic playbook that has been around, at least, for over 2000 years. He is pulling (knowingly or unknowingly) from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (that imagines there is a Jewish cabal running the world), some of Henry Ford's International Jews (which basically bites the protocols), and the biggie myths of blood libel (that Jews covet Christian baby blood) and deicide (that we killed Christ). All of which continue to be batted about every Sunday in Christian churches throughout this country and world. 

I'm not saying every Christian is an antisemite, obviously, because putting all people into one category marks the makings of someone who is not well. i am saying that similar to how anti-Blackness desperately needs to be addressed within white communities from which the maintenance of these thoughts, myths and practices arises, so to Christians should consider an honest assessment in their role of the perpetuation of misinformation and hate. 

One of the "truths" Ye continues to reiterate is that the United States is a Christian nation. He certainly could use a lesson in Interfaith cooperation and dialog and the history of this country. To paraphrase the homie and public intellectual Dr. Eboo Patel, the (Judeo)-Christian paradigm used at the dawn of the last century to conceive of this country was useful then, was progressive even. But the demographics of this country have and are changing, and we are becoming a truly Interfaith America, meaning our country is increasingly diverse in terms of our population and the myriad of ways in which we worship and believe. Ye is saying that there is a monolith of monotheism in the belief that Jesus is that dude. But the truth is, this country, as flawed as it is, is the most religious diverse country in the history of the world and works everyday through a miracle of interfaith moments of cooperation where people are kind to one another, where doctors, custodians, teachers, firefighters, nurses, social workers, and music producers do their jobs regardless of who they are serving. 

Hip-hop is devoutly Interfaith. i learned about Islam and Hinduism through the music. The notion of representing sent me spiraling back to read about the mystical traditions in Judaism. i davened because i head nodded. i wrapped myself in tallit and freestyled to the most high. i listened to Korean Christians kick rhymes in the cipher next to Black Muslims. KRS told us to read from all of the world’s traditions while keeping attuned to the knowledge of ourselves. 

There is an understandable hysteria when it comes to the pronouncements and normalization of antisemitism. Jews fear our stay in this country too, is temporary, and the winds could shift, as they have every other time in the history of civilization, and our eviction could mean our execution, where each start with the whispers we've organized a cabal responsible for a hidden world government or that we run the media or the illuminati that killed Pac (or hides him in Cuba) and removes the berries from the Captain Crunch. 

It is difficult to keep up with all of the charges Ye and others (including the film Kyrie Irving retweeted which certainly has some wildly problematic Yacoubian theories disguised as faux research) level against the Jews. "Hate literature posing as scholarship" is what Robert Christgau wrote in The Village Voice in 1992 when describing The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a pseudo-scholarly text written by the Nation of Islam that Minister Farrakhan pulls from with great frequency, that echoes in what is being uttered now. 

A quick note on the film Irving retweeted and that train of thought, Ye picked up on, that helped send hundreds of Hebrew Israelites to march on the Barclay Center chanting about how they were saved from the pitfalls of American culture by focusing on a historic reexamination of who they are and where they come from. A (re)vision of history, that is not necessarily untrue, but not all together factual. The film is impossible to get through and it too is pulling from the old antisemitic playbook and denies the Holocaust while emphasizing roles Jews have in history that are also debunked by scholars and historians and serve only to foment misinformation and hate. However, there is a desire here, on the part of Irving especially it seems, to make an earnest attempt to garner a deeper understanding of who he is and where he comes from. Certainly an honorable and understandable desire given the erasure of Black history due to forced migration and the eurocentricity of our textbooks. 

There is an element to what Irving has said, to what Ye has said, that Black people are Jews, which sends me back to my days as a bar-mitzvah, while trying to memorize my haftorah and one side of the yellow Sony boom box whispering at the foot of my bed was the cantor singing my Torah portion i was intended to memorize and recite to my congregation. And on the other side was the tape i played with much greater frequency, Boogie Down Productions' Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop, on which KRS-ONE, on the song "Why is that?", makes a compelling argument that Black folks are indeed Jews, when he rhymes, "Moses had to be of the Black race/ because he spent forty years in Pharaoh's place/ he passes as the Pharaoh's grandson / so he had to look just like him." 

My mind as a 13-year was erupted and my rabbi was not thrilled when i brought that verse into temple and recited it for him verbatim. But it is truth that the race of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs must have been non-white, given the region of the world. It is also said that Noah's sons migrated to North and East Africa after the ark and that Moses himself married an Ethiopian woman, Zipporah, who demanded her husband return to Egypt and liberate his people. We are all the children of Zipporah, which makes this relationship between Blacks and Jews so painful and so necessary.

Just as there many examples of Jewish record executives exploiting Black cultural producers, there is a laundry list of antisemitic tropes in the history of Hip-Hop. From Ice Cube’s endorsing of The Secret Relationship to Professor Griff saying that "Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness in the world" in a 1989 interview for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to Jay-Z's rhyming, what might have been intended as a backhanded compliment (and wildly untrue statement), on "The Story of OJ":

You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit/You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This is how they did it.”

Baldwin has been my rabbi on many a Yom Kippur and i consider myself a Baldwinian, meaning i think his investigation into the racial psychology of the American experience is paramount to our ability to move forward as a culture. His understanding of whiteness and the diagnosis of white supremacy as a sickness that infects all people has influenced my thought and work as a writer and cultural organizer and the ways i engage and heal myself, and hopefully, others. 

Baldwin is still relevant over a half-century later, because, in part, we do not approach complex histories or relationships with the amount of grace, empathy and care he extended to people of all kinds. i am return to this essay because the shit bangs as hard today as the day it dropped and because it offers much for us to reflect upon that might be useful in helping us moving forward. He writes, "Very few Americans, and very few Jews, have the courage to recognize that the America of which they dream, and boast is not the America in which the Negro lives. It is a country which the Negro has never seen."

And this is a truth that we, as (white passing) Jews in America, must wrestle with. And of course, keep in mind the Jewish community is not monolithic, there are Jews of all hues, here and around the world, to the chagrin of many. But as a people who are not afraid to dialog. Let's keep in mind that Ye descended into a tirade and downward spiral for a million reasons, one of which was his dealings with businesspeople who happen to be Jewish. And this does not forgive all his hurtful bullshit and not all Jews are in power, obviously. This is an SOS to the levelheaded, I hope. 

But in digging through the nonsense of what he has said, and please keep in mind that, from a far, i am worried about him as a person, because he seems unwell, but some of what he is saying, some of what Kyrie is saying, some of what Chappelle referenced and alluded too, is worth us looking at. Right? I mean, I am not afraid to open up and read between the lines. i want to listen deeply and hear people for real, and some of what I am hearing, is a deep well of pain, no? A well that has traction and resonance within the Black community because of a common history of exploitation at the hands of the country itself, and capitalism for sure, and in this instance and sometimes, though not a majority of times and certainly not as a rule or characteristic of a race or religion of people, but sometimes those hands who exploit, happen to be white-passing Jews.

In the last few weeks, i cannot not think there is a reckoning that needs to happen between Blacks and Jews. A need for a new chapter in our conversation. We cannot be surprised or clutch our pearls every time someone says something ignorant. I swear it was the head of the ADL that said we seek to create a council, not cancel culture. Ye and others are playing with harmful tropes, no doubt, but we as a culture, as a Jewish community, are also engage in unbecoming conduct (and what community doesn't) and further anti-Black tropes.  We have called out and deplatformed Black men before, for charges of antisemitism. I think most notably of Jesse Jackson's presidential run in 1984 when he called New York "hymie-town", something obliviously wrong to say if you are running for president, albeit tame considering our current political climate. Jackson was leading in the poles at that point I think and was essentially pushed out the race, leading to another four years of Reagan, though maybe he was certain to win anyway.

And I have to say it is scary and odd and infuriating, that our assimilation in this country has made us forget or sacrifice some of the most beautiful parts of ourselves and our culture, most notably our desire to debate and talk about everything; from what constitutes a deli to Zionism. And what also is difficult for us, as a Jewish community, to consider and talk about is that in our assimilation into America and whiteness (a privilege Black people do not have access, for obvious and insidious reasons) our politics and alliances have been made with strange bedfellows, with people who despise us.

Was it in the 80s, and perhaps earlier, a post-civil rights era, a post-Black liberation era, a post-Black rebellion era when the Jewish community seemed to move a bit further right/white. It is worth noting it was the rise of nationalisms in both Black and Jewish communities, post '67, that moved us further apart, literally, in physical proximity, and figuratively, in terms of our politics as well. It was each groups focus on a kind of separatist nationalism, something that mirrors and mimics the white evangelism of Christian and European colonialism, that helped to solidify the fracturing of a tenuous, but at times very productive relationship during the Civil Rights movement, which is part of the reason why i do not think people of the Diaspora are intended to be nationalists, because our work is in roaming, wandering to make the whole world safe and just for all.

What i am saying is that i've been called antisemitic out of a fear of discourse. And i love my people, this outrageous tribe of genius, this hilarious crew of kibbitz-ers. Chapel says on SNL, "It shouldn't be this scary to talk about anything". And who wouldn't agree? And i can't say what that means for anyone, though i would like to, of course, address where the seeds of antisemitism emerge from, for in doing so, we may indeed find ourselves in a new kind of solidarity, that might prove essential in saving the American democratic experiment.

But to get there, i do know we are going to have to put somethings on the table. Difficult shit. Things we might not want to be talking about. Part of what i am hearing and understanding, now and historically in this country, is that the Black and Jewish relationship is inequitable because of white-passing Jews ability to assimilate into whiteness and white Christian culture and reap the benefits. Therefore, we have to be prepared to examine the recent history and maintenance of Jewish anti-Blackness and have an honest conversation about the case for reparations and perhaps call upon and learn from the example of what happened in Germany after The Holocaust when the government engaged in a kind of reparations program, and in my opinion, Jews should advocate for reparations in order to build Black institutions, in ways similar to how we built civic and private spaces that helped teach and preserve our language, culture and religion, and create thriving businesses that are the backbone of any healthy community. I think a Black and Jewish alliance could go a long way in the fight and advocacy for a deep economic investment into institutions within Black communities around this country.

In addition, I think the Jewish community has to have an honest conversation about the State of Israel and not shut down the dialog with accusations of anti-Semitism every time someone mentions Palestine. If we are unwillingly to even talk about Israel, it's further moving into far right extremism and its treatment of many Palestinians as second class citizens, then it seems disingenuous and that we are not ready for a real and truthful conversation. These are complex and complicated issues but what communities are better equipped for this complexity than both of ours? A thousand years of debate in the Talmud. An unending conversation in the midrash. Enter any Black barbershop and ask who's the GOAT or ask any hip hop head for their top 5. We love discourse and this a conversation for the hip hop generation in Black and Jewish communities must have because it is our time to lead and because it is from hip hop spaces where the current turmoil emerges. We are poised and able to have discuss in the cipher, where we also must include women, because right now it's a bunch of dudes wildin' the fuck out.

Black and Jewish communities are hyper-literate brilliant people who love and value education like Dr. Donda West. Ye is her son who has disavowed reading and it shows. Conspiracy theories are the etymology of idiocy. Ye is erecting walls and barriers between people in clearly hurtful and charmless ways. Hip Hop is many things, and one of the things i was taught to me to be, is radically inclusive, a democratic meritocracy where any one can get down in the creative cultural space of the cipher. As KRS-One (also one of my rabbis) rhymes on "Ah-Yeah", "Have you forgotten why we buildin' in a cypher? /Yo, hear me, kid, government is building in a pyramid." Hip hop is a paradigmatic challenge to the hierarchies, culturally and economically, of late capitalism. It contests the pyramid to liberate all peoples from those hierarchies, that pit us against one another. Instead it offers an egalitarian, level space where we may build.

So at the end of the day, Ye has become a wack practitioner of the cultural practice he has given so much to and learned so much from. His problematic and tired samples and the insistence on the homogenous, on the one way, rather that oneness, his belief in singularity, in the judgement and lack of grey, in a world and culture so vibrant and bright, so clearly built upon erasing every imaginable boundary, and empowering people to be themselves, to represent, without apology, in community, with others like and unlike you. Ye has become a wack practioner of the culture, which doesn't mean he's disposable, it just means he's kicked off the mic until his shit gets fresher.

And in the meantime, I look to all of us of to step up and advocate for what is fresh and just, and keep the conversation going, in the cipher, our sanctuary and temple, to be real and vulnerable with one another and use our radical imagination to forge a new path ahead.

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