It has not been a good week for the “Kanye West is a genius” theory. It may well be the case that the rap artist is being judged more harshly than a similarly ill-informed white musician would be, and there’s no doubting his creative talents, but in a single sentence of breathtaking ignorance he has surely placed himself permanently out the running for the position of genius.
“When you hear about slavery for 400 years… for 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” he told the entertainment news website TMZ. “You was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all? It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.”
The enslaved – who in fact launched about 250 slave revolts and rebellions from the 17th to the 19th centuries in North America alone – made the choice, West believes, to remain slaves. If Kanye West is what now passes for a genius then the problem of grade inflation is getting out of hand.
If, rather than a Los Angeles superstar, West was an LA cabbie, driving the freeways spouting ill-informed theories about slavery, or ranting on about what a great guy Donald Trump is, we’d just ignore him. We’d sigh, slouch back into our seat and pretend to be reading emails on our phone or looking out of the window. We’d tune out the white noise of asinine, internet-assembled factoids. The same “just ignore it, don’t take the bait” strategy is what allows millions of family gatherings to end in hugs and handshakes rather than acrimony and shouting.
Yet we struggle to edit out this sort of babble when it emanates from the mouths of the rich and famous. Instead, we check our phones for their newest and dumbest statements, and inexorably the latest brain farts of West, Morrissey, Trump etc rise up our news feeds.
The advertisers and their algorithms have, of course, spotted our weakness. There is no better clickbait story than a juicy report of a big-name celebrity saying the unsayable. Such stories are up there with the very worst the sidebars of shame have to offer – the bikini pics and “you won’t believe what they look like now” stories. They work as clickbait because of us, and our inability to not take the bait.
At his worst, West is like a three-year-old trying out swear words, convinced he’s an innovator; saying what has never been said to a shocked and culturally backwards world. Like a pampered toddler, he keeps going because he has so often been reassured that his every utterance is of profound insight and earthshaking importance. West’s trite observations that American society is characterised by a certain enthusiasm for consumption and consumerism are celebrated as if they were the radical theories of a Left Bank philosopher. Supporters of the West is a genius theory act as if no one before him had ever noticed that Americans like buying stuff.
Like the parents of the three-year-old who comes home from nursery and says “bum”, we know we shouldn’t get angry with West. He is, after all, just repeating what he’s heard. It’s for that reason that his latest words perhaps deserve a little more attention, because by wandering open-mouthed into a real issue and a dark history, West has inadvertently shone a light on ways of thinking (or arguably of not thinking) that are a feature of our times.
After his TMZ interview, West complained that he was being attacked for offering up new ideas. But the theory that black people accepted slavery and didn’t want the responsibility of freedom is an idea as old as slavery itself. But it’s an old idea that is currently having a new lease of life on “alt-right” chatrooms. This tired and discredited trope is one of the fleas that West has picked up from lying with the dogs of the American right in the age of Trump.
But West’s views reflect another trope that has long been a feature of US culture, the belief among the elite – into which West has spectacularly risen – that their wealth and status is due solely to their own efforts and personal qualities. The very American conviction that anyone – through self-belief and self-motivation – can free themselves from poverty and disadvantage is as much a feature of US culture as consumerism.
It is a philosophy set out in the millions of self-help books that clog US bookshelves, and its corollary is that the failure of millions to escape from poverty is the consequence of their personal failings, their lack of drive, industry and determination. These are the ideas that lead good and decent people to blame the poor for their poverty, oppose healthcare reform and demand the withdrawal of welfare.
Quarantined from the real world behind the high walls of celebrity, blinded to the lives of his fellow African-Americans by the fog of self-attribution fallacy and presumably so short of time that actually reading a book on slavery has never quite risen to the top of his to-do list, West has projected this philosophy back into a history of which he evidently knows little. Genius.
• David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster