When Jay-Z and Kanye West released Watch the Throne last year, they did so, at least in part, to glorify things. Thing-glorification is a pursuit with a rich and not wholly invalid history in mainstream rap music. And from its opulent golden cover to its braggadocio about cars, clothes, jewelry, and women, Watch the Throne makes sense in the way that Paula Deen using whole tubs of butter makes sense—Jay-Z and Kanye West are rich men who like to revel in rich things.
Simple, and good for them. But then came Watch the Throne's latest video.
Released at the end of May, the music video for "No Church in the Wild," the driving, bass-heavy first track on Watch the Throne, was filmed in the streets of Prague. It was about 23 years ago that revolutionary students, holding flowers in their hands, took to those same streets and collapsed communism in Czechoslovakia. Directed by Romain Gavras, whose bread and butter is rapid-fire images of dystopian madness, "No Church in the Wild" also deals with revolution, although a far less gentle one.
Throughout its five minutes, the video features a quick succession of brutal riot police, keffiyehs over faces (a sure sign of hip uprisings), tear gas canisters, Molotov cocktails, and blood. In one scene, armored police on armored horses chase people down an alley and beat them with batons. In another, a snarling attack dog snaps at a handcuffed black boy, whose eyes go wide with fright. The Civil Rights allusions extend when, every now and again, the viewer is given a glimpse of police using fire hoses to spray down members of the unruly crowd, a la 1960s Birmingham.
Like with many of Gavras' videos, there is no direct point to "No Church in the Wild," but the message seems to be one that's been a favorite of musicians for decades now: The kids aren't all right, and The State is oppressive.
When Gavras touched on similar themes with M.I.A. for her "Born Free" video, it sort of made sense. Though the ethnically Sri Lankan artist belied some of her radically proletariat leanings when she became enamored of an ultra-wealthy beverage brand scion and agreed to an order of truffle fries, her art has always had at least one foot somewhere in the mud of political upheaval. Her songs, like her videos, are frequently about terrorism, violence, war, Orientalism, and imperialism. She speaks openly about her leftist politics in interviews, and on numerous occasions she's also expressed empathy with the repressed Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Those expressions have at times found M.I.A. branded a "terrorist sympathizer," an accusation to which she doesn't pay much mind. In a way, Gavras' stylings were made for M.I.A., and vice versa. His relationship with Jay-Z and West, however, is less obvious, although it's certainly telling about where American culture is headed.
It's one of the strangest celebrity phenomena of the past couple years: Jay-Z and Kanye West styled, by themselves and others, as voices of revolution. Today it's Gavras' video. Last October it was West showing up to Occupy Wall Street and standing around awkwardly while Russell Simmons spoke for him to the press. And before all of that, there was the plentiful and fawning discussion of Watch the Throne as being a weapon of insurgency upon its release.
"[I]f I submit that this thing—Watch the Throne—is a Black Nationalist Masterpiece for the New Millenium," asked Ava DuVernay in the Huffington Post. "Too much?" She went on to call the album "militant." Writing in UK paper The Observer, Kitty Empire said Watch the Throne was all about "black power." And on occasional-Kanye-mouthpiece Russell Simmons' website, Global Grind, Brittany Lewis went further than anyone in her reverence, theorizing that Jay-Z and West are part of what groundbreaking black sociologist W.E.B. Dubois dubbed the "Talented Tenth," an elite class of African-American charged with "guiding the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst." "The sentiments of black power and black pride ooze through many of the tracks on Watch the Throne," Lewis wrote.
If you're wondering what Jay and West have done, exactly, to deserve the title of neo-black power icons, the answer appears to be both straightforward and confusing: They've gotten rich. Today's black power, today's black revolution, seems to be indistinguishable from, say, Donald Trump's power, the power that comes from being able to possess a lot of stuff. You needn't take my or Global Grind's word for it; just listen to Watch the Throne for a whole host of revelations about what its creators deem worthy of celebrating. The album's second single, "Otis," finds Jay-Z proclaiming, "New watch alert!" in reference to Hublot, a Swiss watchmaker whose wares go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Later on the same song, West boasts about his "other, other Benz." On Watch the Throne's biggest hit, "Niggas in Paris," which Jay-Z and West have been performing several times a night on their current European Watch the Throne tour, Jay says he's totally forgotten the worth of $50,000.
Even "No Church in the Wild," an otherwise normal treatise on religion and philosophy, is sprinkled with the Jigga Man mentioning his riches, specifically his Rolls Royce Corniche with "cocaine seats, all white like I got the whole thing bleached." It makes sense, then, that when Watch the Throne debuted last year, GQ magazine's website introduced the album not with a review, but with a buyer's guide. So glutted were the record's 12 tracks with product placement that GQ's editors decided to skip the middleman, the music, and let people get right to the cars and platinum watches.
Soon after the release of Watch the Throne, and a few times since the "No Church in the Wild" video came out, I've wondered how Göran Olsson feels about Americans appointing Jay-Z and Kanye West to be our new black revolutionaries. Olsson is the Swedish filmmaker who, in September of last year—one month after Watch the Throne's release—put out The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. The film, a documentary made up largely of archival interviews Olsson found in the basement at the Swedish National Broadcasting Company, depicts at the height of their fame ultra-renowned black leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and others. The activists were less skeptical of foreign journalists than American ones, and so Olsson's film feels particularly intimate. In one interview, Carmichael queries his own mother about racism as she fidgets nervously on her couch. In another, Angela Davis ruminates on the racist violence of her childhood while sitting in the Marin County Jail on charges of murder and kidnapping.
To anyone paying attention, the fall of 2011 offered a fascinating juxtaposition: Olsson's film, a time capsule of black power's old guard, entering right on the heels of—and in the shadow of—Watch the Throne, a work that was to many a harbinger of black power's new day. Also fascinating was the tale of the numbers: Watch the Throne sold 436,000 copies in its first week out. The Black Power Mixtape, on the other hand, showed on only two screens the weekend it was released, and it earned about $17,000.
If America, in its negligent obsession with all things new, has forgotten about the relevance of the icons in The Black Power Mixtape, Jay-Z and West have certainly not. Watch the Throne is peppered throughout with excited nods to black unity and shout-outs to black heroes from history. "I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died," raps Jay on "Murder to Excellence," referencing the 21-year-old Black Panther who was killed in his bed in a COINTELPRO assassination operation. Earlier on the same track, West outright says that he's ready to "redefine black power."
Interestingly, as enthusiastic as they are to herald certain aspects of radicalist black power, West and Jay-Z seem to be just as enthusiastic about ignoring whole other elements of the movement that don't align with their lifestyles. For instance, Fred Hampton, who Jay-Z likes to intimate he was born to replace, ended up on the FBI's radar in the first place because he used to advocate for the destruction of capitalism. "You don't fight fire with fire," he once said in a not uncommon inveigh against America's preferred economic system. "You fight fire with water.... We're not gonna fight capitalism with Black capitalism. We're gonna fight capitalism with socialism. Socialism is the people. If you're afraid of socialism, you're afraid of yourself."
Hampton cleaved to his socialistic principles tightly, marshaling a free breakfast program for poor children in Chicago and a free medical center that provided basic health services to the needy. Until the day he died, Hampton considered himself a man who had turned away from a "bourgeois" upbringing to become a warrior for the "proletariat." How a man like Hampton can enjoy pride of place on an album that also pimps $200,000 watches is confusing, and, indeed, Fred Hampton's son, Fred Hampton, Jr., is not a fan of Watch the Throne. At a screening for The Black Power Mixtape in December, Hampton, Jr., referred to Jay-Z as "Slave-Z" and called his father's inclusion on "Murder to Excellence" "distasteful."
Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton was also hugely influenced by socialism, as was his co-founder Bobby Seale, who still attends and promotes socialist events throughout the United States. Angela Davis is a socialist who says that her commitment to believing capitalism will crumble is what's given her the strength to fight for justice for nearly half a century now. Black Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver was also a far-left socialist for a time, but he then became a Republican after visiting several communist and socialist nations while in exile. He also converted to Mormonism.
Even the black leaders who many people nowadays would consider to be mostly benign said time and again that capitalism's ills were some of the central problems facing people of color in America. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated for a "radical redistribution of economic power," while Malcolm X once said, "If being a communist or being a capitalist or being a socialist is a crime, first you have to study which of those systems is the most criminal. And then you'll be slow to say which one should be in jail."
You or I might be embarrassed to name-drop murdered black socialists in one breath before bragging about having dozens of cars in the next. But Jay and West seem eminently comfortable in the thorny middle ground separating righteousness and decadence. Some have said that this perceived cognitive dissonance is the entire artistic pursuit at the core of Watch the Throne: Two rich black men struggling to make sense of their wildly conflicting interests. But it's probably important to remember that if I cared more about luxury automobiles than I did poor people, I'd act as if I was having a hard time with that choice, too.
Bearing all of this in mind, pardon me if I remain skeptical of those who would have us believe that Jay-Z and West make revolutionary art. Do they make music that is fun to dance to and contains occasional references to politics? Absolutely. But if they are revolutionaries, then let us marvel at what a difference 50 years makes: Hampton and Newton wielded guns in the name of class war, while today's black militants are millionaires with music-video budgets who film fake revolutions in places where real revolutions once took place.
None of this is to say that the transitioning—and some might say "declining"—definitions of black power and black revolution are Jay-Z, West, or any other rapper's doing. Every society in history gets to choose what is powerful and revolutionary to it, whether that be monarchs, clergy, armed socialists, or rich people. Many people in our generation, despite what Occupy Wall Street may have made you think, have chosen rich people. Jay-Z and West were simply there to take the money and rise, and then convince everyone that songs about buying Maybachs, watches, and lavish vacations are revolutionary acts. In his book Decoded, Jay-Z tells of a time he once responded "glibly" to a reporter who asked how he could wear so many diamonds while also sporting a t-shirt of the Argentine Marxist Che Guevara. "I consider myself a revolutionary because I'm a self-made millionaire in a racist society," Jay answered.
Considered from that angle—that Jay-Z sees himself as an activist simply because he's been able to exploit the game as well as any rich white person—the riot scene in the "No Church in the Wild" video starts to make a bit of sense. The Molotov cocktails and kicks to the bellies of cops are metaphors for Jay and West's real revolutionary acts: buying private jets, having expensive lunches, and getting invited to important events. Hampton was killed in a tiny Chicago apartment for his rebellion; the Watch the Throne rebellion is fucking models in tony Chicago hotels.
Anyone who points this stuff out is bound to be called a "hater" by some, as if there's no reason to criticize anything unless you're envious of said thing. But I don't hate Kanye West or Jay-Z, nor do I begrudge them their lust for the things money can buy (as far as revolutionary acts go, that's one that won't get you hunted and shot to death by the FBI). I'm just a bit sad that our black power is now the same as Trump's power or the Kochs' power or any other nameless millionaire sitting in some exclusive restaurant in Monaco, eating a fish on the verge of extinction.
Kanye West's short-lived charity spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on nothing before it collapsed, and there is no Jay-Z-sponsored free breakfast program in South Chicago (though Jay does lead an organization that gives small grants to college students). Instead, there are young black men around America who last week stood in line for days to buy a pair of West's new $245 Nike sneakers, perhaps convinced that spending that kind of money on shoes is in some way a subversive act. Shopping as revolution. It's an uprising even J. Edgar Hoover could love.
Image by Jim Cooke.