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Like other black conservatives, the rapper and designer downplays racism while promoting bootstrap virtue-signaling

Kanye Wests middle name, Omari, means God is highest. So it is fitting that the producer-rapper-designer has found himself spreading the gospel. While touring the country promoting his new album Jesus is King, West has professed commitment to his faith in what appears to be both a promotional and redemption tour. This weekend West will appear at the megachurch of the prosperity pastor Joel Osteen, who was caught in controversy for reportedly waiting days to open his church doors to Hurricane Harvey victims.

Over the decades of Kanye Wests career, the multi-hyphenate artist has been many things. It was perhaps inevitable that this would create some contradictions. Recently, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, West lectured a Gucci-wearing black lottery winner about the importance of eschewing luxury consumer goods even though West purchased his eldest daughter a $62,000 tiara when she was barely a year old.

While signifying black cultural and religious traditions his album is peppered with samples of black church staples like James Clevelands God Is West advances the gospel of white evangelicals. Although he has challenged conventions in nearly every aspect of his artistic life, Kanye West has been born again as a conservative.

Its easy to descend into overwrought analysis about Kanye Wests tortured genius. But perhaps the simplest way to understand Kanyes otherwise incoherent ideology is to remember that hes a rich man acting as a rich man does. His endeavors, including his path to salvation, are thus colored by his station in life. Jesus is King is a testimony, and a believably earnest one, about having gone through emotional depths and leaning on a higher spirit to come out on the other side. Having emerged relatively intact, West embraced the teachings of free market liberalism, not black liberation theology. While he may not fully preach the prosperity gospel, his brand of Christianity centering on personal salvation and individual triumphs, rather than communal uplift suggests hes at least a prosperity parishioner.

Like other black conservatives, West downplays systemic racism while promoting bootstrap virtue-signaling. His dad was a Black Panther and mom a participant in civil rights sit-ins, as he is prone to tell interviewers. But, he alleges, they looked past racism. Like Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas referencing their black, southern roots, West wants to maintain some legitimacy in a community that he also wants to divorce. Hes a product of good old-fashioned hard work, he believes, and afforded the liberty to wear a Maga hat without scrutiny. This is not the liberation espoused by Moses or Harriet or Fred Hampton, but the personal freedom of white Nimbys and states-righters.

Viewed that way, it begins to make sense how Kanye could so flippantly claim slavery was a choice. This rhetoric is typical to the conservative framing of healthcare, housing, education and any other social service they assert should be unfettered by big government. This language is seductive, and it at least partly explains how 14% of black men who went to the polls in 2016 voted for Donald Trump. If the American right wing were not so tinged with white supremacy, it would likely attract even more. The demands of black men in a patriarchal society that both expects their leadership and extracts their resources can make any charlatan preaching about prosperity seem like a prophet.

The reality of black economic subjugation also means that black communities have created their own versions of the self-help paradigm, and it possibly shaped Kanyes worldview. Tenets of self-determination doing for self, and not relying on handouts from The Man are prevalent everywhere from the Nation of Islam to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to the New Afrikan Peoples Organization. But unlike the Reagan-era trickle-down bastardization of self-determination, doing for self was also paired with doing for each other.

It is through this self-help and communal-help prong of the black power movement that black liberation theology emerged in the midwest, including in Kanye Wests own hometown of Chicago. It grounded the teachings of Chicagos Jeremiah Wright, Detroits Albert Cleage, and Northwestern-trained James Cone. But these theologians were not millionaires arguing with Forbes about adding the adequate number of zeros in their net worth. Despite the trove of black church traditions West could pull from, he went in the opposite direction, associating with the Trumps and Osteens of the world. Aligning with power over people is merely Kanye doing what a rich man does.

While making remarks reminiscent of Bill Cosbys infamous pound cake speech, West descended into stream of consciousness ramblings with a Fast Company interviewer last month; he lambasted black people for wanting Popeyes chicken sandwiches and voting for the Democratic party. True to Kanyes trademark contradictions, he dedicated an entire track on Jesus is King to Chick-fil-A, the fried chicken sandwich maker owned by homophobic, evangelical Christians.

While Jesus may save Kanye West, black capitalism wont save the rest of us, no matter how many gospel samples accompany the self-serving proselytizing.

  • Malaika Jabali is a public policy attorney, writer and activist whose writing has appeared in Essence, Jacobin, the Intercept, Glamour and elsewhere

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