Kanye West’s Twist on Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”

Recently before class started, Professor Schacht played a song called “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol. The song was originally written as a poem, published in 1937, but because of its strikingly grim yet powerful lyrics, artists such as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone have taken the poem to the performance stage.

Professor Schacht played Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” and by hearing just the first eight bars of the piece, I was reminded of the song “Blood On the Leaves” by the renowned modern day progressive artist, Kanye West. “Blood On the Leaves” actually uses the first eight bars of “Strange Fruit” as a sample for the song and to establish a theme that is prevalent in Kanye’s most recent album, Yeezus, which includes “Blood On the Leaves”. It was appropriate for Kanye to use “Strange Fruit” as a sample for “Blood On the Leaves” because of the correlating messages that both songs provide. However, it is interesting to see the difference in time period and context that each song specifically addresses.

Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” is concerned with the era of slavery, specifically the lynching of slaves. The song utilizes vivid language such as, “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” to expose the gruesome nature of lynching as well as the oppressive history of slavery.

Kanye West was obviously influenced by this theme of oppression in “Strange Fruit” causing him to create “Blood On the Leaves” and “New Slaves”, another song on Yeezus, that offer a twist on this idea of oppression. Rather than attacking the original era of slavery, Kanye attacks today’s highly consumerist society and claims that this is the generation of the “New Slaves.” By “New Slaves”, Kanye means that today’s generation are blinded, or “enslaved” by corporate branding and the media. He portrays this idea of the “new slave” and modern day racism in his song “New Slaves” which ultimately illustrates how this generation is being financially and mentally “lynched” by big corporations and even government agencies. Take the following paraphrased lyrics as an example:

  • “Doing [fashion] you would have thought I had help, but [corporations] wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself”
    • (Although Kanye started as a musical artist, since his debut, he has branched out into more fields of visual art, especially fashion. However, big fashion labels and designers disliked Kanye’s attempt to venture out into the fashion world because they perceived Kanye as purely a musical artist. Therefore, when Kanye states that he must “pick the cotton himself” he means that if he wants to do fashion, he must financially do it all on his own.)
  • “You see it’s broke [man] racism, that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store. And it’s rich [man] racism, that’s that ‘Come in please buy more.’”
    • (This bar shows the disparity between how store owners treat those who have money and those who do not. Society continues to separate people not based on just race and gender, but also class as well.)
  • “Meanwhile the DEA teamed up with the CCA, they trying to lock [people] up, they trying to make new slaves. See that’s a privately owned prison, get your piece today. They’re probably all in the Hamptons bragging about what they made.”
    • (Kanye is attempting to reveal the true intentions of government agencies such as the DEA and the CCA and how he feels that “the system” is perpetuating racism and corruption.)

As you can see, Kanye talks about an increasingly oppressive and unequal society where rich corporations are all about remaining rich while promoting the idea of “the American Dream,” which Kanye believes to be a façade. Especially in the song “New Slaves”, Kanye takes jabs at corporations and the media for how they oppress and control the minds of easily molded young individuals in society that become mesmerized with materialism as an expression of socioeconomic status. Kanye denounces the financial and mental “enslavement” that is taking place in today’s consumerist society and is adamant about change.

A Closer Look at the Case for Reparations

A case for reparations for slavery always involves the idea of white privilege. Those that have urged society to give African Americans reparations for slavery and past disadvantages have also told us that whites have benefitted from an immense amount of amassed wealth.  Proponents argue that the present effects of past disadvantages should be solved by a rule of social justice that involves returning wealth stolen from years of free labor.  Furthermore, many of the ways in which supporters call for a giving back of wealth are vague and consist of demanding large amounts of money from the government, and ultimately the American people.  The politicians and common folk that believe in reparations for slavery seem to be in favor of a solution that basically aims at correcting history, although given, we do not live in a world (or country) of absolute equal opportunities in the present. After pondering this point of view, I have several observations that lead me to question its implications, and comment on the attitudes of those who are informing us of our moral duty to fix the wrongs of our forefathers.

One of my first observations about the argument for reparations is that an attempt at fixing the past would not stop at American slavery.  There is a long list of conquest of land and resources that spans all of history. In our particular country, some might argue that the Native Americans were the first to have the privilege of claiming the land in present day United States and to the south of us. Tribes were located in different areas and fought over hunting rights to specific territories themselves, some winning over others. A model of conquest ethics has been embraced time and time again throughout history.  Some countries like India have been invaded by multiple groups, like the British and Afghans, Persians and the Mongols.  This argument isn’t far removed from the context of reparations for slavery.  Take for instance Father Divine, who has argued that all nations and all peoples who have been involved must pay the African slaves and their descendants for all uncompensated labor. In other words, he is calling to fix an injustice of the past, by putting the burden on the descendants of the guilty. Not only is this complicated, but it also opens Pandora’s Box to compensating every possible oppressed people group in the past…which is just about every tribe and tongue imaginable in some form or another.

However, many supporters of reparations do choose to only focus on American history, specifically on the disadvantages of the African American community as a result of slavery, Jim Crow Laws or housing discrimination.  Although again, things do get complicated quickly when the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission asks “the West” for $ 777 trillion within five years, like in 1999.  It seems that some major taxation would have to take place in order to come up with this amount of money in such a short period of time.  Furthermore, I still wonder what supporters claiming to be beneficiaries of white privilege are going to do about it; after all, the burden falls on them.  Many proposals have called on the government to make direct payments. The problem of complicated genealogies may be a problem here, even for those who are proven descendants of slaves. What about those that are half white and half black? Should they be half punished and half compensated?  Howshua Amariel, a Chicago social activist, demanded that the federal government take radical measures in compensating African Americans: “For those blacks who wish to remain in America, they should receive reparations in the form of free education, free medical, free legal and free financial aid for 50 years with no taxes levied,” and “For those desiring to leave America, every black person would receive a million dollars or more, backed by gold, in reparation.”

It seems that many are waiting for society or the government to enforce their ideology, but may not be doing anything about it themselves.  Please don’t misunderstand me, I respect you completely if you hold this point of view and live in such a way as to demonstrate that you are committed to it. However there are many students who attend a top notch University, let’s say Stanford, Harvard or MIT, taking complete advantage of an opportunity that many others do not have, while still demanding the American government to do something about the discrepancy between white privilege and black disadvantage.  My challenge to these students would be to enforce their own moral code – not wait for society or the “system” to do so. They may want to give up their position in the university to a minority that did not have that opportunity.  My point is, in order to persuade others of your point of view, live it out! You or I may or may not agree with the philosophy of Diogenes of ancient Greece, but I’m sure we can both appreciate his authenticity in living out what he was urging society to do.

I would raise the argument that there is an alternative for correcting history, instead of finding out the people who are in possession of stolen goods and returning them the descendants of African American slaves.  An alternative would be to establish equal rights under the law, to truly be color blind, to treat people according to the content of their character, and not according to their skin color or their ancestors. But also to have compassion on people of all different skin colors.  After all, the white “race” is not the only people group to be racist; all people groups have the potential, and have been racist in the past. There are African American descendants of slaves who are racist and white descendants of good, just people that are racist. Furthermore, making right the wrongs of the past through demanding money is not just, but facilitates more injustice.  Acknowledging and repenting of the past, even of our fathers’ sins, and committing to create equal right under the law is one very viable solution to past discrimination and oppression of our fellow countrymen.

But, my friend, act according to your own conscience….and be completely committed to it.

The Dumbest Thing To Ever Be Important

Earlier this semester, Dr. Schacht, Ken, and I had a side discussion about whether we would consider J.R.R. Tolkien a contributor to the humanities for his epic tales. We spoke about how his significant impact on literary fiction made him a relevant topic in humanities.

Wikipedia defines literary fiction as “a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate social commentary, political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.”

Tolkien’s epic tales absolutely fall under this definition, but now in a new way.

The New York Times published an article yesterday (December 4th, 2015), titled Is Gollum Good or Evil? Jail Term in Turkey Hinges on Answer

Apparently, a Turkish physician, Dr. Bilgin Ciftci, lost his job with the Public Health Institution of Turkey for jokingly comparing the appearance of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to that of Gollum, the slimy, bug-eyed character in Tolkien’s Middle Earth – a crime punishable with jail time in Turkey. gollum

Because the Judge has admittedly and unfortunately not read Tolkien’s works, or seen The Lord of The Rings in its entirety, a panel of “experts” was assigned to assess the question “Is Gollum good or evil?” before the next phase of Ciftci’s trial begins in February. Turkey’s team of experts will include “two academics, two behavioral scientists [psychologists], and a film-and-telivision aficionado,” according to NYMag’s discussion of Turkey’s predicament.

In a statement to The Wrap, Peter Jackson, director of Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, along with two screen writers (Fran Walsh & Phillippa Boyens) who worked with Jackson on the films, pointed out:

“If the images below are in fact the ones forming the basis of this Turkish lawsuit, we can state categorically: None of them feature the character known as Gollum. All of them are images of the character called Smeagol.”

Hilariously, they’re right.

Simply put for those who don’t know, Smeagol is Gollum’s less devious, arguably innocent alternate personality (it’s actually a little more complicated than that) – though this does not mean Gollum is definitively evil.

So with regards to what defines the literary fiction and the humanities, this ridiculous situation Dr. Bilgin Ciftci found himself in is another indication of Tolkien’s works being contributions to the humanities. It is an assessment of the human (or former hobbit) condition within Tolkien’s epic tales, and provides deliberate social commentary.

Diderot Doesn’t Tell Us Who Is Right

Because maybe both parties are correct (according to what society rewards).

In Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, we are introduced and forced to think about two opposing views on lifestyles. The combatants, ME and HIM, argue morality vs. social parasitism. Our group (2) discussed how most of us would side with ME because of an obscure, not entirely universal biopsychosocial pressure to act morally. Perhaps, it’s a pressure we adapted to function better as a society. However, this led to a conversation about social parasitism. We unanimously agreed that the moral route was the preferred lifestyle, but also questioned why we felt we couldn’t side with HIM. Realistically, following HIM would be personally advantageous, and he is not the the only person to act in this manner. We discussed the self-centeredness of human nature and whether everyone, if possessing HIM’s intellect and manipulative abilities, would act in the same fashion; to work less and live parasitically.

Doesn’t everyone just want what they want, when they want it, without having to work for it? This is what makes the debate so troublesome. Understanding what HIM is doing, why am I not doing the same? His methods make perfect sense for self-advancement, yet we have this pressure to live morally.

Thinking about it, it might seem as though the social evolutionary advancement to keep societies together has been one-upped by another evolutionary advancement: ignoring moral pressures.
Therefore, why don’t we all ignore our pressures and live off the rest?

Large businesses regularly express this type of moral disregard. Though not to the same extreme, businesses camouflage their parasitic-like approach to increasing profits behind successful marketing. You need their product, so they’ll simply look for the cheapest mode of production, entirely at your expense. For example, chemical manufacturers’ lack a legal requirement to reveal their product’s chemical composition to the public. This proves to be increasingly problematic when dealing with pesticide and flame retardant manufacturers, constantly battling to increase profits while maintaining effectiveness. Pertaining to flame retardant manufacturers, previously phased-out harmful flame retardant chemicals (e.g., organophosphate compounds) are currently being reintroduced to home and industrial settings. This is an issue because it is absolutely imperative that we treat our homes with these chemicals for fire-safety, regularly exposing ourselves and our children on a day to day basis. Instead of investigating safe alternatives to teratogenic compounds, manufacturers parasitically profit off our necessity, keeping their chemical compositions a secret to prevent being forced to spend more on research and development of new, safe compounds.

Whether you side with moral ideals or parasitic advancement, is either party inherently correct? Morality is thought to be correct because society rewards our moral behavior with sustained unity. Can we also say social parasitism is correct because society rewards parasitism with personal advancement? If what is inherently correct is what society rewards, who won the argument in Rameau’s Nephew? If society does not exclusively reward what is inherently correct, what is correct?