Love or Hate Him, Kanye’s Headlining Gig at Glastonbury illustrated Hip-Hop’s Uneasy Festival Alliance

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by Shane Thomas 

So, Kanye West declared himself, “the greatest living rock star on the planet.” Well of course he did. If you were surprised by such an utterance, you haven’t been paying attention. But why did so many deem him unsuitable – maybe even unworthy – to headline Glastonbury?

Sorry to disappoint the guy above, but this isn’t a review of Kanye’s set[1]. Apart from anything else, it probably served to ossify pre-existing opinions of him. But the unease around Kanye getting such a coveted position gave form to an amorphous aspect of racism that left a substantive amount of white people entangling themselves in disputatious knots, claiming their grievance had nothing to do with race.

Yet when the case for the prosecution is founded on perceived arrogance, public persona, or musical genre, one’s melanin becomes a factor that would be ludicrous to ignore[2]. The deeper issue is as much with hip-hop as it is with Kanye.

Lest we forget the skeptics surrounding Jay Z’s headline 2008 set at Glastonbury. Noel Gallagher asserted, “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.” Despite being showed up for making such a foolish statement, it would be wrong to rewrite history and say he was a man alone with that outlook.

While hosting plenty of black music, Glastonbury – along with other prominent festivals – is a space largely populated by white people with a degree of means, axiomatic when you look at the cost to attend such an event. And the perception of hip-hop culture makes for an incongruous mix with white, middle-class England.

Sorry to be that person who references an old piece to underscore a point, but when writing about the disassociation of rock music from black people, I said, “We know the stereotypes. Rock is a white thing: Skinny jeans; white guys (probably with long hair); crowds that jump up and down; beer & cigarettes. Hip-hop and R’n’B? That’s a black thing: all baggy clothes; bling; marijuana; rhythmic dancing; hypermasculinity and homophobia.”

In addition, hip-hop is seen as dangerously aggressive. While a racist archetype, think of the one of the most popular hip-hop songs of the past few years; Empire State of Mind. Non hip-hop fans probably can’t recite any of Jay Z’s lyrics (and may not even want to), but they can all sing the “New Yoooorrrk” part of the chorus. The “nice” bit[3].

When you say you like black music, do you actually mean the mellifluous variety – such as Beyonce or Stevie Wonder – rather than the lyrical content of rappers? Let’s remember that hip-hop was originally intended to pushback against society’s established order. An order represented by a majority of the festival audience. The same order who saw fit to holler, “All Day N*gga!” last Saturday[4].

Despite Kanye’s arrogance in his public statements, he’s also provided blistering critiques of structural inequity in songs like Diamonds from Sierra Leone and Crack Music. And when has being cocksure harmed any (competent) white rock band?

There’s a long history in entertainment and sport of animus aimed towards black performers for lacking humility. Is the underlying reason for this that in a white-dominated world, black boastfulness is distasteful because viewed through the prism of whiteness, how could any part of blackness be worth boasting about?

The positioning of one’s priorities speaks volumes. An immodest rapper was more irksome than the Confederate flag (or until this year, appropriating Native Americans)? Kanye headlining Glastonbury was equally groundbreaking and familiar. It was yet another example of a black face in a white space.

It’s important to remember that Britain is in a different place than North America as far as hip-hop goes. While regularly impugned, the culture is a significant plank in life on the other side of the pond. Over here, it has limited exposure. Ultimately, Jay Z and Kanye got the Saturday headline slot because their fame demanded it. We’re yet to have a UK hip-hop superstar, making it easier for British consensus to remain suspicious towards the genre.

Like all aspects of our country, the presence of PoC faces are fine, as long as we aren’t centred or dominant, and take care to show deferential gratitude. Think of it as the ethnic icing on a white cake. In a rum way, Glastonbury is something of a microcosm for Britain (or is that England?). In theory, it’s meant to be a place where all are equitably welcome, but in praxis is an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

And I suspect there’s a dormant fear from those who dislike hip-hop (and R’n’B) taking up space once solely reserved for the white rock band. Glastonbury is the lodestar of the festival season, and adds legitimacy to any artist who performs there. In the past seven years, we’ve seen them shine their light on Jay Z, Beyonce, and now Kanye. The other major festivals are running low on excuses to not follow this example.

Maybe Kanye would be better if he was less brash. But Glastonbury would definitely be better if it could truly live up to its remit, a festival where all people are fully welcome. Kanye’s not the one who needs to change, it’s Glastonbury (which it appears to be doing, even if the pace of change is somewhat ponderous).

If Kanye’s presence last Saturday assists in expediting this change, then he’s performed a service much greater than play a few songs.

[1] – I’m not sorry. Media Diversified is a broader church than you might think. You can wire me the £10 via PayPal.

[2] – Equally ludicrous is that one can easily make justified criticisms of Kanye: his co-signing of rapper, Tyga starting a relationship with Kylie Jenner, who is only 17; the constant misogynoir in his songs, with the same treatment shown towards his ex-girlfriend, Amber Rose; or his assertion that classism has replaced racism, rather than noticing that they’re oppressive spheres which intersect.

[3] – It’s common for commercial radio to truncate, or cut out entirely, rappers contributions to R’n’B and pop songs.

[4] – And not for the first time, it seems.

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TWOWEEKSNOTICE “Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing. Pop culture to sport, and back again

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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14 replies

    • I also loved his earlier stuff a lot more than his more recent material. Bar 3 singles, I haven’t even heard ‘Yeezus’ yet.

      However, it’s interesting that you say you’ve lost respect for him because of his arrogance and narcissism. Does being arrogant and narcissistic mean that one is undeserving of respect? Hope I haven’t misread your comment, but it appears to replicate a lot of the baseless criticisms Kanye gets for not being humble enough.

      I don’t know the guy, so it makes no odds to me how he is. My only problem with him is when he does something oppressive, which he’s done plenty of in the past.

      Like

      • Well, I also prefer his earlier works as well. I stopped listening to Kanye before Yeezus ever came out. I lost interest in his music due to the deteriorating quality of it.

        I never said that Kanye wasn’t deserving of respect. Personally, I have lost my respect and support for him due to his outburst against Taylor Swift back in 2009 and what he did to Beck earlier this year just adds to his outbursts against those in the music industry. I know everyone has the right to express their own opinion but to interrupt a young lady’s speech and insult her like that? Wrong. And he did something similar to Beck too.

        However I will not deny that he is a talented artist but I just don’t like a lot of his behavior that I have seen him exhibit publically. And the behavior that I have seen from him is what caused me to lose support for him.

        Like

        • I had the feeling I may have misunderstood your initial comment. It’s a semantic point, but a significant one as far as “support” and “respect” goes. I totally understand the actions you mentioned causing one to not support him anymore (ftr, I didn’t like him interrupting Swift or Beck either).

          The reason I raise the point is because when some call him out for arrogance or narcissism, it’s often a dog whistle for other stuff (case in point, what happened to Serena during her match yesterday), but I got the impression that you didn’t like some of the things he’s done, rather than think he deserves some of the unfair treatment he gets, or think him devoid of talent.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It is fine. Sometimes the way that I word things in a sentence or paragraph gets people thrown off. I don’t like some of the things that he has done at all. However I don’t think that he is talentless at all nor not deserving of respect either. I have simply lost my support for him due to his actions in public though I don’t know him personally.

            Like

    • Black people need to stop being apologists for people like Kanye West. He is a man that used to have a strong black identity, intelligent songs and have pride. Now he is a raving, no self respect Uncle Tom who married a trashy porn star.
      There were other black acts who performed like Mary J, Pharrell, Lionel, FKA Twigs, you could have focused on them.

      Like

      • I no longer support Kanye or listen to his music so I am not an ”apologist” for him. I don’t know where you got the impression that I was.

        And I no longer listen to Hip Hop. I listen to other genres of musuc

        Like

      • Reading comprehend is essential here. If you read my replies to Shane, I said that I have lost my respect and support for Kanye due to his disrespectful outbursts against Taylor Swift in 2009 and Beck earlier this year. I didn’t like that. I no longer support him and the topic of this post was Kanye.

        Get a clue?

        Like

      • First, unless you know the guy personally, I don’t know how anyone can claim Kanye has no personal pride or self-respect. I don’t know him, so I can’t know, either way.

        Second, using “porn star” as an insult is an extremely whorephobic thing to say. I don’t think Kardashian is one, but let’s say she was. So what? It’s as legitimate a profession as any. Like Kanye, if you want to call out Kim Kardashian, there’s plenty of warranted ways to do that. Calling her a ” trashy porn star” is not one of them.

        Finally, I’m aware other black acts were at Glastonbury. I said that in the piece. But my focus was on a black headliner, because Glastonbury (and other festivals) seem to be uneasy with black headliners, especially ones that perform hip-hop. I didn’t focus on the artists you mention because Glasto’s fine with black people on their card, as long as they’re not the main event.

        P.S. Focus on Pharrell? Really? Mr “New Black”? http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2014/04/pharrell-seemingly-forgets-racism-still-exists-hes-new-black/

        If you think Kanye’s an Uncle Tom, then heaven knows how you view Pharrell.

        Like

  1. Really, really powerful and insightful analysis and I say this despite my ambivalent feelings about Kanye who I now see as the Black Icarus in danger of flying too close to the White Sun.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The nature of his relationship with whiteness is one of the most intriguing things about him, imo. I can think of few PoC who are so acutely aware of how white America views them than Kanye. But is that because he wants to be accepted by them? You may be right with your analogy.

      Liked by 1 person

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