Vanity – n. excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements; character or quality of being vain; conceit
Recently, the question of Black male vanity (or confidence depending on who you ask) has evoked discussion thanks in no small part to the release of Kanye West’s album in which he identifies himself as Yeezus and visually confirms his intention to personify himself as Jesus, the Christian deity, messiah, savior of all mankind.
That’s a pretty bold assertion of one’s importance, but not an uncommon practice in the self-aggrandizing style of hip hop music. In fact, several years before his friend and fellow rapper Jay Z identified himself as Jay-hovah—a play on Jehovah, god and savior, and began referring to himself as “Hov” for short.
This self-aggrandizing is a familiar response to the systematic stripping of Black manhood, a familiar vestige of slavery and oppression. The arrogant and/or hyper-masculine posturing response to this stripping is pervasive not just in hip hop music, or even reggae toasting from which hip hop was born, but in black communities. Watch pastors, pimps, leaders in those communities and you will note the same material excess and self importance that young people learn to emulate.
When I see Kanye self-deifying I see an attitude and behavior that left unchecked is as problematic as it has ever been for the masses of young people who do not understand the origins or implications of such vanity.
Yes, make no mistake: Kanye’s antics don’t present as confidence to me; rather they suggest vanity—the excessive pride that (and I’m adding this to the definition) is the result of overcompensating for one’s perceived shortcomings or inadequacies.
I read the first lines of, “In Defense of Kanye’s Vanity: The Politics of Black Self-Love,” that self love is a political act in black communities, and thought, “Hell yeah! I need that printed on a tee shirt.” When Heben Nigatu argues that “Kanye is a part of a long tradition of black artists for whom self-love is a political act,” I agree.
Self-love is a political [political adj. of or having power over matters of governing] act—especially for black Americans who have been part of a society that by design tells them there is nothing about themselves to love and in kind, hates them.
Kanye’s “self-love” however is not “populist” as Nigatu continues in her argument—it is self-serving. (Like the pimps, pastors, and leaders that do what they do in–well, to–the communities to achieve social and/or financial status). His “self-love” is also sad. The behavior seems to be more of a reflection of self-hate and looks more like overcompensating trying to make up for feelings of inadequacy.
Nigatu continues with this example from his first album, which—full disclaimer—I own and listened to maybe once or twice in its entirety. And further disclaimer: I have not listened to him since, including this most recent album and mostly am only aware of him via pop culture blogs. She writes,
“The concept of vanity is so rooted in the idea of a singular narcissist that it can be hard to catch that Kanye speaks almost from a populist perspective — a populist narcissism, if you will. Granted, the thematic focus on community vs. the personal has evolved from College Dropout to Yeezus, but take a second and remember the very first song on Kanye’s first album. He has a chorus of children singing, “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25 / Joke’s on you, we still alive / Throw your hands up in the sky / And say we don’t care what people say.” If you chalk up his “we don’t care what people say” attitude to simply his ego, then you have missed the point entirely. This isn’t about ego; this is about boldly asserting yourself in a world that is not meant for you. This is a vanity that is rooted in bringing the community up with you.”
Frankly, I don’t see how Kanye’s work is community-building. Perhaps—and I’ll admit it is likely given that I don’t pay a lot of attention to the man other than what pop culture media feeds me about him—I’ve missed his charity work in my ignoring him thanks to his “crazy” antics. And yes, when I say “crazy,” I am guilty of what Dave Chapelle rightfully points out is a dismissal. Using the word “crazy,” to ignore Kanye also ignores the very real pain and torment of low self esteem that I recognize enough to call it sad. I need to stop that. But I digress.
Supposedly, “the message he gives the kids (in front of all these white folks who are listening to his music!) is not to be modest but to unapologetically laugh in the face of a world that does not care about them. The joke’s on you, white America. We made it, and we don’t even have the decency to be grateful. We’re laughing. We dare to laugh.”
If that is indeed Kanye’s goal, I find it conciliatory in a way that is at least as destructive as being “apologetic.” If these youth speaking are in fact speaking to “white America” or “a world that does not care about them” why would we expect, then, that this same uncaring population would give a hoot about the “joke?” And why would we be trying to prove anything to this uncaring population anyway?
So, not only do I read it as conciliatory in that way, it is also why I see Kanye’s vanity and its requisite behaviors what I call “sad.” Kanye is quoted as having said, ‘I’m laughing to keep from crying.’ Nigatu points out that “‘Laughing to keep from crying’ is a tone that captures so much of…[his]… work, but it’s also a survival mantra.” I agree that it is a survival technique and am sad that Kanye is so unhappy about the very real issue of low expectation and low achievement in black communities that he must dismiss/belittle the issues as essentially a “joke.”
I am sad that he seems to feel so bad about himself, his abilities that he has resorted to a hubris that shouldn’t be necessary given his obvious ability and intelligence. It is tragic that the most apparently/sanctioned gifted among us have to prove themselves and in the end, become a joke, someone to be dismissed as “crazy” at worst.
Nigatu says West’s decision to laugh to keep from crying “originates with Langston Hughes, this expression encapsulates a history of black artists who have used wit and satire to capture their exasperations and make light of the world’s absurdities. The humor shouldn’t be overlooked here; people seem to miss that Kanye is very tongue-in-cheek, that he is constantly making jokes.” I don’t make the same assessment.
In Hughes’ manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which I believe is the Hughes allusion the author is making, Hughes says, “The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs,” suggesting not that we laugh to keep from crying but that we do both and we do both boldly, reflecting the complexity of who and what we are. He writes, “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs.”
Race is certainly a part of our confidence and our expression of it (or failure or inability to express it). I agree with Nigatu’s assertion that we can’t separate Kanye’s vanity and the popular media’s response to it from issues of race. She’s right—this is the politics of Black self love—its power is apparent. He represents the worst of that.
Kanye is vain. Not confident. Vain. That is not populist. It is self-serving.
And as he attempts through his latest project to convince us of his intellect and ability to see through an institution he knowingly entered and from which he continues to profit, that seems more apparent to me. And I’ll keep saying that more apparent to me is the insidiousness of self-hate–and its various representations—like vanity.
Nigatu says she’s “grateful for the space that his bold and unapologetically vain work has created for black artists, for black children, for dreamers.” That is not a space I can’t give Kanye credit for because I believe it’s a space that has existed; whether it’s been consistently claimed or not. The space he seems to occupy—another I cannot blame him for creating—is one in which black men, in particular, have been so beaten down that they overcompensate for the inadequacies they have been socialized to perceive and carry as their own. It is at its core a sad space but also the dangerous one that leads to violence—street, domestic, sexual, and self violence. These are indeed the politics of self love—or better yet, the compensation for its absence.