Kanye West, Jay-Z, Oprah, and Reality Show Vixens: Do We Need Black Role Models?

BlogHer Original Post

This past week, I came across an article on Gawker, written by Cord Jefferson, on the presumably "new wave" of Black role models: Jay-Z and Kanye West. Their latest video, for the track "No Church in the Wild," depicts an uprising of an ethnically diverse set of men against riot police (and an elephant?) on the streets of Prague. We do not know why they are rioting -- which doesn’t really matter. But Jefferson observes both the video (in which neither artist appears) and West’s appearance at last summer’s Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York City, and notes: “It's one of the strangest celebrity phenomena of the past couple years: Jay-Z and Kanye West styled, by themselves and others, as voices of revolution.”

Their collaborative album, Watch the Throne (on which “No Church in the Wild” is the first track), is unmistakably political, but also obsessed with material goods. As Jefferson notes, West has always made his political views public, most notably from his appearance at a televised Hurricane Katrina Relief fundraiser in 2005 where he declared that then-American President George W. Bush "didn’t care about Black people." But we have also witnessed West hanging out in Paris with the elite and even starting his own women’s clothing line.

In a 2005 Slate article on West, Hua Hsu wrote:

“In 1957, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier published the seminal Black Bourgeoisie, a harsh but enduring profile of this emerging community. His conclusion? The black middle class inhabited a world of "make-believe," where "glitter and gaiety" obscured the ennui of their lives. In their pursuit of material comfort, they had cut their ties with the more authentic working-class experience of most African-Americans. West doesn't exactly fit the profile of a black bourgeoisie -- his mother is an English professor; his dad a former Black Panther -- but he, unlike some of the rappers he's made beats for, appeals to the values of that world.”

Both West and Jay-Z have frequently critiqued the capitalism that separates the rich from the poor and the Black from the white in their lyrics; but both have boasted of the material riches from the sales of their albums. Are these two men the Black role models for the 18-45 (or even younger) crowd? I remember when Rap music (pre-Hip-Hop) didn’t involve materialism, but I would argue that the thought that consumerism (or, as Hua says, the “glitter and gaiety”) serves as a mask to the emotional, social, and economic disparity that exists in some Black communities. However, if we can entertain the masses, all will be all right -- and like West and Jay-Z, a small portion of our number can become just as powerful as those we feel look down at us.

On one hand, why shouldn’t they be role models? Jay-Z, who came from the Marcy projects in New York City, has risen above his circumstances and is now a millionaire -- in part, by glamorizing the violence and misogyny he witness on the streets of Harlem. In addition, the June/July cover of VIBE magazine featured 4 women reality TV stars from The Real Housewives of Atlanta; Basketball Wives; Love & Hip-Hop, and Braxton Family Values with the tongue-in-cheek caption, “Meet Your New Role Models.”

But should we value success in material terms? Should impressionable young people admire West and Jay-Z as social revolutionaries... even though they still reap (and boast about) the benefits of capitalism? Should Black folks look up to women who throw wine bottles and try and tear each other's weaves out in front of millions of viewers, or wax poetic about the days when a seat in Winfrey’s audience (on the right day) might win us a new car?

The best role model we should aim to be like is simply a more confident version of our present selves.

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