Kanye West has never been afraid of politics. This is, after all, the man who said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," during a live telethon after Hurricane Katrina.
Still, his recent appearance on Saturday Night Live saw him take his political game to the next level. A quick recap: Kanye, framed tightly on a dark stage, performed intense versions of two new songs, "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead," while images of snapping dogs and the Ku Klux Klan flashed behind him (watch the video below, NSFW language).
So what was Kanye West singing about? (Besides, oddly enough, an out-of-nowhere reference to Bobby Boucher, Adam Sandler's character in The Waterboy).
He commits a decent amount of time on "New Slaves" to talking about the U.S.'s burgeoning private prison system. The lines: "Meanwhile the DEA / Teamed up with the CCA / They tryn'a lock niggas up / They tryn'a make new slaves / See that's that private owned prison / Get your piece today."
Filmmaker Michael Moore helpfully pointed out what the acronym CCA represented on Twitter:
Wow. Kanye! Did that just air on TV? Amazing. "We da new slave." #SNL (CCA = Correction Corporation of America - the private prison system)— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) May 19, 2013
Condensed and reduced to flow in rhyming verse, West's lyrics smack of the conspiratorial. But he is correct: The War on Drugs, abetted by and fueling the private prison industry, currently serves to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of black men in the United States, who provide dirt-cheap labor. Various industries — from call centers to weapons manufacturers to retail companies — rely on prison labor. Private prisons pay inmate workers as little as 25 cents an hour; prisoners who refuse to work are regularly held in isolation. These are the de facto "new slaves" of the prison industrial complex. [Salon]
Tris McCall at The New Jersey Star-Ledger argues that the private prison system creates incentives to expand incarceration:
Those who would like to benefit from extremely cheap labor do have every incentive to push for laws that would incarcerate as many people as possible. Correlation isn't causation, but since 1980 and the launch of the drug war, the American prison population has exploded. Kanye West is a perceptive person. He's noticed. [Star-Ledger]
Over at Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg writes that "while the insight is unique, Kanye's lyrical solution to it is… not so much." West could have called for political action against the CCA or DEA, argues Rosenberg. Instead, the song ends with a fantasy of sexual revenge involving, well, let's call them extremely NSFW acts with a rich person's wife in the Hamptons.
"Even if you think it's important to prioritize the analysis of racism in 'New Slaves' over the song's dip into misogyny, it's hard to deny how useless it is to turn away from the real structural targets of West's critique to a dream of shaming powerful men by sexually dominating their wives, or how much that fantasy plays into the demonization of black male sexuality," writes Rosenberg.
No doubt fans will delve deeper into West's new political persona when his album, named, yes, Yeezus, comes out on June 18.
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