Sunday, January 29, 2006

Kanye as Christ: Blasphemy or Blackness?


Last week the majority of America was taken aback by the questionable image of Kanye West on the cover of Rolling Stone. Question: is Rolling Stone's depiction of West as Christ simply blasphemous, or is the underlying issue the fact that Jesus is portrayed as a black man.?

An excerpt from Rosa Clemente's "What Does Jesus Look Like?" provides some context to consider this question:"So today when, a spokesperson for the Catholic League condemned Kanye West for portraying Jesus Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone, and preceded to call him and the magazine 'moronic' I ask him, was it wrong for Jesus to be portrayed by Charlton Heston, a gun-touting member of the National Rifle Association, or what about the hoopla surrounding the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ, I do not recall similar outrage from the Catholic League when the actor, Jim Caviezel was on every cover of every major magazine and what about the many 1000s of white men portray Jesus Christ in the last 100 years of cinema and television."

Is Clemente correct in her assertion that race is the underlying issue of the public outcry or is this simply blasphemous disregard?

In posing this question to friends an alternative scenario was offered to combat Clemente’s assertion. My thoughtful friends asked me to consider whether the public response would have been similar had Eminem, a popular white rapper, been depicted as Christ -- an excellent counterpoint to Clemente’s assertion indeed. In short, there’s no question that the public outcry would have been similar had Marshall Mathers been depicted as Christ. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this counterpoint is the fact that it moves the lens of focus placed upon the discussion of black and white depictions of Christ to the genre of Hip-Hop. The question to then be considered is whether or not Hip-Hop is an appropriate genre to address religious matters at all.

The obvious song to analyze in considering this question brings Kanye directly back into focus with “The College Dropout’s” hit single “Jesus Walks”. Once the music awards season came around the crossover appeal of this urban/gospel/hip-hop piece was most apparent in the discussion around the appropriate genre it fell into. “Can Kanye be considered a gospel artist because he communicated the base of his Christian faith?” Or perhaps more plainly, “Can anyone whose album sports that familiar ‘PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT LYRICS’ sticker be considered a Christian artist?”

Interestingly enough, we struggle in our attempt to wrap our hands around the correct genre "Jesus Walks" falls into in the same way we struggle to decide just how appropriate it is that West be depicted as the Messiah.

8 comments:

Brother Tallness said...

The cover was ingenious if you ask me. White conservatives don't want the "leftist media" messing with their jesus. And they sure do hate Kanye West. controversy sells.

The only bad thing I see about this is the increase of Kanye's own god complex.

Brother Spotless said...

What seems humorous to me is that conservatives are doing exactly what Kanye wants them to: create a story where it's not necessary. While Kanye may have more confidence than Ilunga ;) , he also seems to possess Modanna-like intelligence (Ilunga, I must say, possesses this as well). I mean that to say they both realize that controversy sells, so they do stuff they know conservatives will cry about, which leads to more press about them. The most important aspect of this is that at the times of their exploits (present day Kanye, and Madonna when she sang "Like a Virgin" in a wedding dress and again with the realease of her "SEX" book), they were at the top of their respective industry.

Black/white issues seem to always run in cycles, and pop up in different arenas. I saw that the question was raised about whether there would be as much controversy had a white artist with equal amounts of angst against American social structure (say, Mr. Mathers) had worn the crown of thorns on the cover of Rolling Stone. This reminds me of the "Desparate Housewives" skit at the begining of a Monday Night Football game two years ago. The skit featured Terrell Owens and Nicolette Sheredin. Nicolette dropped her towel when she saw him, he (a black man) appeared aroused at the naked woman in front of him (a white woman), yada yada yada...you get the point. Consevatives were up in arms, claiming it was too mature for a young audience. I thought the issue was more about the idea of a black man and a white woman having sex, and questioned whether it would be as big of a deal had Jeremy Shockey been in the skit instead of Terrell Owens.

The point I want to make (after typing way too much) is that while I suspect the controversy is REALLY about a BLACK JESUS, all we will hear is that conservatives are upset about Jesus' appearance in Rolling Stone for reasons other than religious. It seems to me that the image of a black man is the controversial aspect in these issues. Thoughts?

Brother Smartness said...

Brother Lightness you pose some interesting questions. I’ll attempt to tackle them in the order that they appeared.

Question #1: “Is Rolling Stone's depiction of West as Christ simply blasphemous, or is the underlying issue the fact that Jesus is portrayed as a black man.”

First and foremost, I don’t think the depiction of Kanye as Christ was Rolling Stone’s. I think Kanye played a bigger roll in this than your question seems to imply. That said, the image is indeed blasphemous. Kanye is the epitome of narcissism. Like most forms of confidence it was entertaining and influential at first, but is now played out. If you want to impress me, trade in those Louis Vutton shoes for some Target chancletas. Stop being a prisoner of the flesh. http://www.news24.com/News24/Entertainment/Abroad/0,6119,2-1225-1243_1868942,00.html Curb that urge to splurge by investing in something that can reciprocate. Presenting yourself in the image of Christ is a new spin on the teachings of the Bible. I think it speaks volumes on the confidence in Hip-Hop and the illusion of omnipotence that it gives to rap artists.

Question #2: “Is Clemente correct in her assertion that race is the underlying issue of the public outcry or is this simply blasphemous disregard?”

I believe it has a little to do with race and much more to with religion. I would therefore have to disagree with Clemenete. We are approaching an era of agnosticism where people are becoming too intelligent and calculating to understand the complexities of faith/religion. The result is that religious figures (such as Jesus) aren’t as revered as they once were. So our generation has little or no respect for these figures, which eventually translates to “blasphemous disregard.” Kanye has done nothing in his career to merit his self-depiction as Jesus Christ. Most religious heads take offense to this (as they should). Brother Tallness typed it best when he wrote, “controversy sells.”

Question #3: “The question to then be considered is whether or not Hip-Hop is an appropriate genre to address religious matters at all.”

The answer to this question is contingent on the conditions through which you choose to understand Hip-Hop and religion. I’ll spare everyone the in-depth analysis and provide you with just one way to look at this. If we understand Hip-Hop as a cultural form of expression that is deeply rooted in the African American vernacular and the African American storytelling tradition, it is by nature a form of expression that attempts to cope with emasculation through an assertion of virility. (This understanding holds true for women as well in a most interesting way that I hope to share with you all at a later date). So if we juxtapose Hip-Hop and religion we experience a dilemma of sorts. Religion has to do with a spiritual leader and the capitulation of self to belief and worship. If Hip-hop culture is about self, it makes for a difficult venue to address religious matters. Some of you might be asking yourselves, “what about Jesus walks?” Jesus walks is about Kanye West. “If I talk about God my record won’t get played” It's not about God's record getting played, this is about the Louis Vutton Don's mission to prove to the world that he is powerful enough to dictate what is hot or not in the streets. The song has 87 bpm’s (beats per minute) which means a DJ could mix it in right before Lean Back by Fat Joe and right after Grillz by Nelly. It gives the avid party goer the opportunity to indulge in overpriced drinks at the bar before they resume their dry humping and snapping of fingers. oh i think they like me, oh i think they like me...

Brother Lightness said...

Haha. Brother Smartness, you offer an apt conclusion and analogy.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there's a difference between Jesus portrayed as White and Black -- that Jesus, while he may not have been White, certainly was not Black.

It is Undisputed that Jesus was Jewish. The only Jews who are Black were the ones who lived in Ethiopia for about 2500 years.

While it's not blasphemy to portray Jesus as Black, it's just as wildly historically inaccurate as portraying Catherine the Great or Henry VIII as Black. I have no problem with portraying Jesus as Black, just a problem with saying that Jesus was Black.

BeeJiggity said...

Interesting to me that conservatives and Christians were the butt of the joke when Kanye is portrayed as Jesus on one of the most widely circulated publications in the US. What was their reaction? A complaint here and there.

Now when someone draws a picture of Mohammed, entire town squares go up in smoke; embassies are burned; more than a dozen killed.

How do conservatives or Chrisitans react when Jesus is disrespected on an everyday basis? Nothing. Wonder where the disrespect is? Go ahead and google "Blasphmy Jesus" or "Piss Christ," or maybe you want to go visit ChristianityIsEvil.com. I'm serious.

The reaction of the fools who are being egged on by their governments is simply dumb, and yet christians are still called the savages.

Now how does that relate to Kanye? Easy. KW commits blasphamy by comparing himself and his trials and struggles to Christ. That is reason enough, then to create a picture to go along with it? What a grock of goo!

But it is good marketing.

BeeJiggity said...

Interesting to me that conservatives and Christians were the butt of the joke when Kanye is portrayed as Jesus on one of the most widely circulated publications in the US. What was their reaction? A complaint here and there.

Now when someone draws a picture of Mohammed, entire town squares go up in smoke; embassies are burned; more than a dozen killed.

How do conservatives or Chrisitans react when Jesus is disrespected on an everyday basis? Nothing. Wonder where the disrespect is? Go ahead and google "Blasphmy Jesus" or "Piss Christ," or maybe you want to go visit ChristianityIsEvil.com. I'm serious.

The reaction of the fools who are being egged on by their governments is simply dumb, and yet christians are still called the savages.

Now how does that relate to Kanye? Easy. KW commits blasphamy by comparing himself and his trials and struggles to Christ. That is reason enough, then to create a picture to go along with it? What a grock of goo!

But it is good marketing.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just me, but I don't see how relating one's trials and struggles to the suffering of Christ is, per se, blasphemy. Now, whether or not Kayne West's struggles are similar to Christ's is certainly up for debate - but as far as my understanding of Christianity goes, Christ's suffering is supposed to be universal, and we are supposed to compare our own struggles here on earth to His. Of course, the final fact of the matter is that our earthly struggles can never compare with His either - so it is a bit of a paradox.