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Kanye West’s October 11 visit to the White House displayed unforced conviviality mixed with mutual sincerity—a welcome change from the routine, stiff decorum of most summit gatherings. At this meeting, West defied the overwhelmingly white mainstream media’s disapproval of the Republican president, an unfortunate journalistic lack which has impeded cooperation among traditionally Democratic black Americans.

For West, the meeting was a symbolic return to what purveyors of black gospel music called the Old Landmark—a pillar of redeemed resistance to a society that dictates the correct mode of liberation, just as it once dictated a form of servitude. The 1949 gospel favorite “Let Us All Go Back to the Old Landmark” was written by W. Herbert Brewster, a Baptist pastor in Memphis who also composed some of the first million-selling gospel hits (“Move On Up a Little Higher” for Mahalia Jackson, “Surely, God is Able” for The Clara Ward Singers). These milestones represented an era of independent African-American religious subculture thriving without outside (white) influence. Kanye rejected the mainstream, secular “resistance.” 

This is not Kanye's first declaration of independence. “Jesus Walks,” the breakthrough hit from his debut album The College Dropout, was the first hip-hop song to restore a link between rap and gospel. From its opening lines, West announced a moral recognition of social turmoil: “We’re at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all, we’re at war with ourselves.” The track’s martial beat and mass choir backing announced a sense of communal morality, a stress on self-discipline, that many hip-hop artists have forsaken. West’s post-9/11 Sunday School teachings informed his newly imagined rap with childlike innocence and faith.

Even when West repeats conventional secular hip-hop conceits, he reminds fans of his self-accusatory morality—as in “Otis,” where he raps, “I made ‘Jesus Walks’ so I’m never goin’ to hell.” This is self-mocking—not crazy—a form of self-criticism that is the first step toward repentance.

West approached President Trump with a reminder to care for the weak, the ill, the imprisoned. There's no doubt that he’s inspired by the example of individuals who simultaneously sought social progress and personal redemption. Such a man could never be fully satisfied with Barack Obama’s secular-progressive regime. That is why the denunciations of West are so striking. They show how brittle the nostalgic orthodoxy of black leadership has now become. We no longer live in the late 1960s, when many black homes featured living room tapestries that venerated a trinity of Jesus, JFK, and MLK. A truly independent and religious black America will take on new forms.

You don’t have to be a fan of hip-hop to feel that he is being treated unfairly, that the disdain other rap performers have for him—from Snoop Doggy Dogg, John Legend, and T.I. is unjustified. These performers promote licentiousness, materialism, and fecklessness without any of West’s ambivalence, any of his sense that black Americans might want something different from secular progressives.

During hip-hop’s 1980s–1990s peak, young black artists prided themselves on being more outspoken than traditional black music performers (usually without a sufficient appreciation of the risks their elders had taken). Now conformity has set in and West, the bravest of all modern hip-hop artists, is being castigated by people who claim to revere civil rights icons but lack their independence and boldness.  If Black artists really wish to honor that legacy, they should follow Kanye’s example and remember the Old Landmark.

Armond White is film critic for National Review and Out Magazine and author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. 

Photo by rodrigoferrari via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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