From Ferguson to debates of Islamophobia, to the continued mass detentions of migrants on Manus Island, to Azealia Banks to Kanye West, throughout much of the last year, we have all, at one time or another had to bear witness to the dangers of marginalisation.
As in years past, entire communities had to once again stand back and watch as matters of their lives were put up for mass public consumption and debate. More often than not, this meant listening to people who looked nothing like you and had little understanding of the complexities of your life debating the merits of causes important to you.
Of course, to anyone who identifies with a minority group, this phenomenon is anything but new.
What did set this year apart however, was that for the first time in a long time, these debates began to once again centre around cultural issues — namely film and music.
We saw an emotional Azealia Banks break down as she discussed the “cultural smudging” that has so long been a part of popular culture.
In truth, there was nothing new about Banks’ statements, everything from food to fashion to music and film have always been ripe for appropriation.
“I feel like, in this country, whenever it comes to our things, like black issues or black politics or black music or whatever, there’s always this undercurrent of kinda like a ‘F— you,’” she said. “There’s always a ‘F— y’all n—as. Y’all don’t really own shit. Y’all don’t have shit.’
As MC Lyte said: “Elvis made a bundle while we remained poor.”
Then, less than a month after Banks’ Hot 97 interview, the Academy Award nominations were announced. Not one black, Asian, or Latino actor was nominated in the four main acting categories.
Nor was Ava DuVernay nominated for Best Director. In leaving DuVernay out of the running, the Oscars squandered the opportunity to make history by nominating a black female director for the first time in the ceremony’s 87-year existence.
DuVernay had spent much of the months preceding the nominations announcement as either a contender or winner of similar prizes at ceremonies often seen as a precursor to the Academy Awards.
Instead, this year’s ceremony made headlines for being the “whitest” Oscars in 17 years.
Suddenly, Banks’ tearful words: “At the very fucking least you owe me my identity and to not exploit that shit”, seemed to echo once again.
Recognition, not just representation, matters.
Then, just as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy seemed to dissipate, came the Grammys.
Like the Oscars, this year’s Grammy nominees were also called out for a lack of diversity. Of the 20 artists up for the four main prizes, all but two, Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams were white.
When Beck took the prize for Album of the Year, for which both Beyoncé and Williams were also nominated, the #Beyhive went into overdrive as “#WhoIsBeck” began to trend on Twitter.
But of course, the most prominent voice of support for Beyoncé belonged to Kanye West. West, who was famously derided for interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 Video Music Awards when she beat Beyoncé in the Best Female Video category, once rushed to Beyoncé’s aid.
Though he did allow Beck to deliver his speech, West made his protest known simply by standing on the stage only moments after Prince, who was presenting the award, said: “Like books and black lives, albums still matter – tonight and always.”
In a post-show interview with the E! network, West seemed to echo Banks’ statement about recognition.
x”If the Grammys want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us … When you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.”
In the days since, West has largely been spared the backlash he faced in 2009 — including being called a “jackass” by Barack Obama only months after West campaigned to help him become the forty-forth president of the United States — but his show of protest has not been without its detractors.
As in the past, critics of West have focused more on his public persona and less on the artistry and convictions that seem to push him as a musician whose releases manage to consistently redefine the boundaries of Hip Hop.
Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, called the 37-year-old “small and petty and spoilt.”
However, what Kanye’s detractors seem to miss in all his self-perpetuated spectacle is that acceptance has always been important to West.
He admitted as much in a 2013 interview with Radio 1’s Zane Lowe.
In that now infamous sit down, West said: “For me in my life of creativity its been challenging, but I was able to ascend to massive level and heights … I’m going to take music and try to make it three dimensional.”
West wants to be known as a pioneer much in the same way as his most recent collaborator and Grammy night duet partner, Paul McCartney is.
At his own admittance, West pushes boundaries and he wants recognition for it.
That willingness to push boundaries is as at least as much driven by the desire to included in the pantheon of Pop music greats as it is by artistry. While everyone from Elvis to Madonna and Iggy Azaelia gained prominence by appropriating the cultures, styles and icons of marginalized groups, West wants to be the antithesis — a black man who earns fame and fortune by making the music he wants with little regard for genre tropes.
It is through that lens that we need to look at the Album of the Year debate.
There is of course little doubt that Beck, who wrote and produced the entirety of Morning Phase himself and plays more than a dozen instruments possesses artistry in spades.
But “Album of the Year” is an ill-defined title. For years, critics have struggled with the meaning of such superlatives.
Is the award truly for the greatest artistic accomplishment or is it, as the title infers, for the body of work that had the greatest cultural impact that year?
Undoubtedly, Beck’s critically-acclaimed album is an artistic triumph, but it was the surprise release of Beyoncé’s eponymous “visual album”, complete with a pre-made music video for each track, that forced even the biggest, most established acts to rethink the entire concept of an album cycle.
An album that had no promo — traditional or otherwise — and dropped with only a single tweet managed to top the iTunes charts instantly before overtaking the Billboard charts upon its physical release, two weeks after its unprecedented digital-only release.
With her self-titled LP, Beyoncé managed to turn the entire music industry — including the traditional ideas around the release of an album by a “diva” — on its head and win massive critical praise at the same time.
Like with so many others around the world, West likely found himself asking what more Beyoncé would have to do to prove she was a risk taker that could dominate the popular musical zeitgeist while also pleasing critics.
Further, had Beyoncé won Album of the Year, she would have done what even Janet Jackson — who was nominated in 1987 for Control — and Madonna — who was nominated for Ray of Light in 1998 — couldn’t.
Contrast that with the Beck of today, the man behind a perfectly crafted album that New York magazine described as “a decent lullaby for [Beyoncé’s daughter] Blue Ivy.”
The Beck of 1997, the man behind Odelay, an album called “a defining statement of an entire generation in the throes of finding its own voice” by Slant Magazine, has been replaced by a mellowed out critical darling.
No longer the “best example of ‘alternativeness’”, Beck’s music is now firmly part of the establishment. In 2015, Beck has become more akin to the woman he lost Album of the Year to in 1997 – Celine Dion — than Beyoncé. Like Dion at the time, Beck had become the safe, assured bet against Beyoncé, a respected talent whose fifth album sought to upend industry expectations for an artist who was just beginning to solidify their voice.
Though Beyoncé’s album required a cadre of 30 producers and songwriters, compared to Beck’s one, West understands the significance of such accolades. Especially for a black female artist.
We have to remember, from the start of his career West has always wanted to be the black man who could dominate in what are traditionally seen as the arenas of white men, many of whom have been accused of appropriating the cultures of others to elevate themselves.
Most recently, West took on the fashion industry where he pushed to get not only himself, but also his reality star wife Kim Kardashian into its notoriously exclusive inner circles.
He knew it was a coup that a black man and an Armenian woman were on the highly-debated covers of VOGUE, Paper and Love magazines, attending the MET ball (from which Kardashian was reportedly banned prior to her relationship with West) and were the faces of a Balmain campaign.
Whether it be Beyoncé’s album, his wife walking up the stairs to the Museum of Metropolitan Art’s Costume Institute, or him standing on stage with Paul McCartney, these things matter to West.
He knows they are cultural signifiers that hold weight and break barriers.
In 2004’s All Falls Down, West put that sentiment on display when he said “We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us”, but if his last decade in the spotlight has proven anything, it’s that Kanye will shine despite hate.
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Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-born, California-raised journalist. He has traveled to 10 Afghan provinces and reported on migrants in Greece and Turkey. He has also appeared on radio and TV in Washington, Doha, London and Cape Town. Find him on Twitter @alibomaye
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