“All you Punks and all you Teds, National Front and Natty dreads, Mods, Rockers, Hippies and Skinheads/keep on fighting till your dead” –The Specials: “Do The Dog”
I have to admit. I have been struggling with my feelings about Kanye West’s May 19th performance on Saturday Night Live. As a black rock fan, I completely embrace any real hip hop artist kicking down boundaries. However, in these corporate-controlled times, any attempt to bridge musical gaps can come off more like a board meeting announcing a merger than an actual moment of game change. I didn’t wanna fall for the rich rapper crying about his ‘pain’ while appropriating the punk rock culture that helped protect me through my teenage years from the jock/gangsta reality of ‘hi-school’.
Hey man, what are you really saying calling your song ‘Black Skinhead‘? Are you seeking connections with the black skins who were (and still are) part of the original Skinhead movement (before the racist National Front mutated the movement in ’80s England) or are you aware of how Mod and Rude boy culture’s DNA helped create the modern Skin fashion? Or are you just another infiltrator from the corporate Matrix dropping in for an original-idea raid?
Ben Affleck introduces West with hushed reverence and a look on his face that told the audience ‘You m***** f****** have no idea what’s coming your way in 5 seconds’. Opening with the goosestep boot stomp beat of Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People“, accompanied by a Gary Glitterish 70’s soccer arena guitar riff on a dimly lit stage with images flashing on the backdrop (including a sign saying ‘not for sale’ and a very menacing pack of wolves chomping at the bit to the beat).
Emerging from the shadows of live musicians, Kanye attacks the mic, launching into “Black Skinhead”, first with howl, then with rapid fire precision lyrics that melt everything around him like a fire breathing dragon. Referencing everything from reactions to his interracial relationship with Kim Kardashian to his feelings about the game, tearing racially charged headlines from the news, then exclaiming: “Stop all that coonin’/ these n***** ain’t doin’ s***”.
A line, to me, that sounds like a straight-up critique of the state of mainstream hip hop. Later in the show, West lights the scene on fire again with “New Slave,” the first single from his forthcoming album “Yeezus“. It’s a righteous fire and brimstone indignation of American corporate greed and the pursuit to be free as a human and an artist.
“They throwing their hate at me/Want me to stay at ease/F*** you and your corporations/Y’all n***** can’t control me”.
Bringing his set to a climactic stop, Kanye West stares down the crowd. A combination of anger and catharsis floods his face for a second before leaving him standing…emotionless.
When I viewed the performance for a second time, I understood. West is in show business. He ain’t no Jerry Dammers from The Specials, sneering at the trappings of ‘rock stahdom’. Nah … Kanye likes to get paid. However, he nails the essence of ‘rock star’ as provocateur. He takes his hip hop tools and creates new millennium Rock ‘n’ Roll songs, informed by everything from Marilyn’s heavy metal fascism to Ministry’s industrial anarchy. What’s more is, he saw the bridge from there (whether consciously or otherwise) to Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad sonic-political blitzkrieg and Tricky’s punked-out trip hop musings. The rumblings on Planet Brooklyn’s surface, (where afro and white punks experiment with future sounds) isn’t lost on someone like Kanye either. In “Black Skinhead“, the rapper exclaims: “I’ve been a menace the longest/But I ain’t finished/ I am devoted/And you know it/and you know it.”
Still not sure how much Kanye gets Skinhead culture.
But only yesterday he made it cool to just be yourself in hip hop again. Now, he’s looking to the future. This is his declaration of being down with the new street fighters.
I gotcha back on this one, sir.