Lessons from Kanye West: Atheistic inspiration can come from the religious

Lessons from Kanye West: Atheistic inspiration can come from the religious September 16, 2014

By LittleO2 (Kanye West) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By LittleO2 (Kanye West) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
At NPS, we believe that critical contributors are missing from the conversation and culture around atheism. We recognize that popular scientists aren’t the only ones who have relevant things to say about what it means to live life without religion, and significant voices might be found where we least expect them. One of the aims of this blog is to identify cultural and artistic work, as well as lived experiences, which can provide inspiration, aspiration, and comfort to nonreligious folk in ways that are not immediately obvious or typically, if ever, brought up in standard nontheistic dialogue.

The first such person I want to talk about is Kanye West.

Kanye West, despite being a Christian, outlines a powerful message of self-determination that is not only relevant to atheists, but needed. His music represents a new form of intellectual engagement with social and political issues. Further, as Dr. Monica Miller, Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University, has noted, Kanye’s rhetoric often takes on a critical and even Humanistic outlook. [1. you should really buy her book] Kanye’s frank evaluation of his own worth and abilities constitutes an example of self-love we can benefit from.

The most important reason why I want to urge atheists to listen to a Kanye West album isn’t for cultural enrichment or to uncover philosophical similarities between his worldview and our own. Instead, Kanye’s public Christianity reveals a depth of emotional experience quite distinct from ours as atheists, and this humanity is worth recognizing, celebrating, and dancing with.

Kanye’s work has been able to reach his lofty position atop modern music by infusing his work with social commentary, easily digestible arguments, and plain speaking. He uses satirical lyrics and a children’s choir to call attention to the cycle of poverty and violence black youths are forced into. He uses a narrative flow to explicate the possibility of restorative justice in ending the cycle of domestic violence, specifically. Kanye urges us to “Never justify your behavior with the wrongs of others,”[1. From his coffee table book of quotes titled Thank You and You’re Welcome (because what else could a book by Kanye West possibly be called?)] advice insensitive atheists really ought to take to heart.

Kanye has a commitment to capital-T-Truth: “I’d rather lose because someone else was right than win when I’m wrong.”[2. Ibid] Ten years ago, Kanye brutally eviscerated the elitism, nepotism, and financial uselessness that can follow a college degree on The College Dropout using a combination of emotional sensitivity on “All Falls Down” (“That major that she majored in don’t make no money/ But she won’t drop out, her parents’ll look at her funny”) and comedic brilliance across three monologues (School Spirit 1, 2, and Lil Jimmy):

So you finish college… After several interviews, oh my God, you’ll come in at an entry-level position. And when you do that, if you kiss enough ass, you’ll move up to the next level which is being the secretary’s secretary! And boy is that great. You can take messages for the secretary who never went to college. She’s actually the boss’s niece, so now you’re part of the family!

Jumping back to the present decade, we’re inundated with think-pieces that worry about the investment of college paying off, prevalence of nepotism, and elitism in higher education. Clearly, Kanye’s commentary on education was on point. Kanye’s social commentary accurately targets deep issues using common speech without pretense, without relying on any jargon, and without writing lengthy academic treatises (like the one you’re reading now). As Kanye says, “I’m Socrates but my skin more chocolaty.” This line might be too accurate: it’s very likely that we don’t see Kanye as an intellectual because we look down on African-American Vernacular English and don’t take black culture seriously.

This refusal for some academics (and again, atheist thought is typically presented as an academic pursuit) to value non-dominant ways of speaking and identifying was best exemplified when Christopher Hitchens’ called actor and rapper Mos Def “Mr. Definitely” in a stunning display of British imperialism and condescension. It seems a shame not to take an intellectualism seriously just because it isn’t revealed through a lecture or Salon article.[3. Cracked recently ran a brief video segment on Kanye’s intellectualism and it’s very funny and fair: http://www.cracked.com/video_19038_why-kanye-west-most-important-philosopher-our-time.html]

Of course, Kanye is a critical and commercial success, and that’s putting it lightly. Yet, an unwillingness to value his work has followed him and he has not shied away from identifying this aversion (this consciousness comes through on “Last Call,” which relates the story of how close his influential first album came to being summarily dismissed by recording agencies). He has also spoken unabashedly about his outsider status in the fashion industry despite his meaningful contributions to it.

This is why Kanye is such a polarizing figure: he knows what he is capable of and he doesn’t care if he upsets you by saying so. Honest fragments relating his own worth, ability, and confidence have appeared in more or less every Kanye West song since, notably on “I Wonder” (“I’m a star, how could I not shine?), “Amazing” (“It’s amazing, I’m the reason/ Everybody fired up this evening”), “Champion” (“For me, giving up’s way harder than trying”), and on my personal favorite song of all time, “Power”:

I’m living in the 21st century, doin’ something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero needs his theme music

By his own words, Kanye has intended his theatrical, egotistical persona to be a tool for his fans to build themselves up: “If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself.” To love yourself as deeply and honestly as Kanye does is a radical act. Through Kanye’s music, we are encouraged to pump ourselves up, identify our winning traits, and acknowledge all that we have accomplished and are capable of. Given that every person I know is hypercritical of themselves and plagued by self-doubt, this is an exercise we sorely need.

Kanye’s self-love is not uncritical, and he does not reward himself for the advancements of others or deny them their due. In a recent GQ interview, Kanye stressed that the reason his wedding photo was the most liked picture on Instagram wasn’t because it was his, but because it was Kim Kardashian’s. He’s stated that the only reason he has been able to rise so high as a celebrity is because of the “barriers” shattered by Michael Jackson.[4. Thanks to fellow NPS writer and my role model Walker Bristol for pointing me to this interview.]

Kanye raps on “Never Let Me Down” about the legacy his family has imparted on him: “I get down for my grandfather who took my momma/ Made her sit that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat/ At the tender age of 6 she was arrested for the sit in/ With that in my blood I was born to be different.” His “Big Brother” relates a gratitude and admiration for Jay-Z, to whom he attributes a great deal of his personal success. Through the certainty and love of himself and his fearless, vocal love for his friends and family, Kanye’s life serves as a valuable model Humanists can learn from as they seek to live fully and love unwaveringly.

Kanye’s lyrics and writing have more obvious relevancies to nonreligious life. Dr. Monica Miller has identified a tendency in hip-hop for artists to use Christian vocabulary to both critique religious institutions and lift up the mortal rappers to deity status as “Outlaw Humanism” (“outlaw” because these characteristics deviate from how Humanism is typically represented in its white academic context). Outlaw Humanism acts as a new creative mode of criticizing religious practices.

Miller notes how the Grammy-winning “No Church in the Wild” makes a forceful criticism of the failures of institutional religion (notably, it implicates institutional religion in perpetuating the racist brutality of a militarized police force) while utilizing theological concepts (sin and scripture) to refer to new ways of being (“We formed a new religion/ No sins as long as there’s permission”). Even more blatantly, Jay-Z compares Kanye’s craft to Jesus’ carpentry, and Kanye identifies himself as a god on his (appropriately titled) “I am a God.” Beyond the examples Dr. Miller provides, an appreciation for the mortality of life, something those of us who don’t believe in an afterlife must contend with, also appears on “See You in My Nightmares” (“I got my life/ and it’s my only one”) and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” (“This is my life, homie, you decide yours”).

While these motifs of self-direction translate pretty easily into Humanism (dismantling an oppressive force while revering human life and understanding its fragility is an edgier Humanist manifesto), it’s important that we don’t paint over Kanye’s blatant Christianity. Kanye is arguably the most visible Christian in Western pop-culture, and references his devotion routinely in his music (“I am a God/ Even though I’m a man of God,” “We love Jesus,” “I pray you will,” all of “Jesus Walks”).

Kanye frequently talks about God or Jesus as if they’re physical people (“I am a God” features “God” as a contributor to the track and an actor dressed as Jesus joined him onstage throughout the Yeezus tour) and he included the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” on The College Dropout which speaks frankly about the existence of a Christian heaven. Given Kanye’s barefaced Christian identity, it might be more accurate to see Kanye’s use of Outlaw Humanism not as a means of dismantling religion, but as a tool for reform.[5. Biting criticism of religion isn’t reserved for atheists, my favorite example being James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time which contains prose directed against Christianity infinitely more scathing than any New Atheist tract (and he was no atheist).]

That Outlaw Humanism is so easily identified in Kanye’s very Christian corpus of music shows how fertile the ground for inter-religious dialogue is between modern Christianity and secular identities. We need to seek out people like Kanye who not only create stimulating art, but speak on a deep level to existential truths we feel. The differences in theological belief, while important, do not render these truths uninterpretable.

An important caveat: Of course, not everything Kanye says or does is above reproach and I don’t wish to advance a naïve hero worship. I think you’ll find that most people who advance the idea that hip hop is an inherently sexist medium are actually advancing a thinly veiled racist critique grounded in a historical fear of black men’s sexuality.[6. Further, any sweeping critique of hip hop which doesn’t acknowledge the prevalence of sexism in good old rock ‘n roll is a hypocritical farce. The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” which was released alongside “Bitch,” is a song about a slave-master sexually assaulting a slave, and is ranked as the fifth greatest guitar song of all time according Rolling Stone magazine. Clearly, rap is not unique in its ability to offend.] That said, Kanye specifically behaves in ways which are at times sexist and even racist. Importantly, I don’t believe one can be meaningfully racist against whites (though this is something Kanye is so frequently accused of being), especially when anti-white racism is typically presented as “this black person doesn’t like some white person” while racism in the traditional sense has historically been “this white society has kept an entire non-white population in a state of extreme poverty, mass incarceration, and near genocide.”[7. The realities of white supremacy, nor any other fact of society, are not things I’m interested in debating on a dang blog. ✌]

Kanye does use racist language and imagery with respect to racial minorities, such as when he raps that he needs “sweet and sour sauce” to perform oral sex on an Asian woman on “I’m In It,” or in his use of Native American corpses on his tour t-shirts. His recent obsession with categorizing wealthy celebrities as akin to black Americans in the 1960s is similarly nauseating. Of course, Kanye is in the headlines this week for giving disabled folks a hard time at a concert (though good friend of the site Sarah Moglia has a great article about how much of the public reaction to this incident is kind of bullshit).

If we’re going to take Kanye seriously as an artist, we need to talk about these meaningful mistakes he is prone to making. This doesn’t mean we have an excuse to disregard his art, it just means that we remain vigilant and critical when we consume. This is how mature adults culturally participate. More on this idea of consuming “problematic” media here.

Again, I don’t think the world would be revolutionized if atheists started listening to Kanye en masse. I do think it’s unfortunate that as contrarians we often feel that pop-culture has nothing to offer us, or that as atheists Christians have nothing to offer us. The urge we feel to isolate ourselves from the mainstream isn’t always productive; while it can ensure that we engage with more marginal and hidden art, it can also, in our elitism, keep us from paying attention to important voices.

Mostly, I think Kanye’s humanity is worth acknowledging. His unwillingness to be dogmatic and imposing with his beliefs (“You do you and I’m just gon’ do mine”) makes this easy to do. Kanye outlines the rich emotional experience Christianity creates within him in “Jesus Walks:”

I ain’t here to argue about his facial features
Or here to convert atheists into believers
I’m just tryna say the way school need teachers
The way Kathy Lee needed Regis
That’s the way I need Jesus

That’s the way I need Yeezus.

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