Black Celebrity and The Price of Fame: Case Studies

BOOM, baby! I’m back from a travel hiatus and ready to bring you all the pop news that’s fit to type. Let a new era of this blog begin, where not every post somehow comes back to Breaking Bad. We can do this, TOGETHER!

Today, we should definitely talk about Kanye West’s recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. In case you missed it, Kanye and Jimmy had some well-publicized drama surrounding a recent sketch Jimmy aired, featuring a child actor as a bitchy, egotistical Kanye. King K took offense to the bit, which he perceived as a rich slice of subtle, insidious racism. Kanye thought Jimmy was infantilizing a powerful black artist; Jimmy thought he was making a funny by forcing a kid to say “Fuck.”

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Bias disclaimer: I loved Kanye and hated Jimmy before all of this went down, simply because Kanye uses his celebrity for good and Jimmy uses it for pure evil. Kanye doesn’t need to be liked, but he does demand respect – that’s why he took the mic away from Taylor Swift in 2009 to remind the world that white females so often usurp the spotlight from their black counterparts (Beyonce) in pop music. People villified him then without really examining his intent and seeing the painful, glaring truth behind his act. Jimmy would never dream of such a thing: he’s a talk show host, and he makes a career out of invading various media spaces where he feels like he has to represent the voice of the nerdy male masses. Case in point: his awkward guest appearance on the post-Breaking Bad finale show. GO AWAY. YOU DON’T EVEN GO TO THIS SCHOOL. Oh, fuck, I talked about Breaking Bad again. I’m sorry.

Anyway. Kanye disrupts the Matrix that Jimmy so, so loves. That’s never been more clear than in this interview. If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch; Kanye is absolutely brilliant, unapologetic, and so eloquent that he transcends the insipid laughing audience around him.

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Part 2:

Kanye shares the Lady Gaga Artist Complex, which decrees that “if you build it, they will come.” You have the talent, the team, the power, the pain, and the drive. You are A Genius. Believe it, promote it, and the fans will come. The fame will come.

As a society, we crave an icon. It’s a sad fact that because Kanye West is a black man, he’s going to categorically face more opposition to his reign. In these interviews, he says a lot about self-esteem and what celebrities are allowed to feel and express in their position – how they are allowed to become human and not representation only at certain times, and how they are allowed only small windows to make certain mistakes only. And he speaks to this phenomenon of fame specifically as a black celebrity. It’s folly to think that Jimmy’s parody would have meant the same thing had he been satirizing Madonna or Eminem. There is baggage here, and it’s truly stunning to watch Kanye unpack it with such honesty. I commend him for stepping up like this and continuing to speak his piece. Ironically, I think that his loquacious rants about genius and godliness actually humanize him more, and give more of a face to the cruel psychological torture mechanism that fame can be. “Zoo animals,” indeed.

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Juxtaposed with this, I also wanted to bring up Donald Glover’s recent series of Instagrams, which are so touching and raw. He posted these over the weekend, sparking a ton of pop commentary that was mostly misguided. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, these look like a cry for attention. But here, too, is a much-needed look at what fame can do to an artist, particularly a black artist: how it affects his output and his very personhood.

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I think one of my Achilles’ heels is when famouses are real like this. A gesture like this reassures that not only are their problems very relatable, but they’re also amplified by the panopticon that is fame. The celebrity machine has such an interesting and sad cost, to all of us; our empathy for Donald’s pain is dulled by our religious fervor, our jealousy, our internalized racism. And his self-awareness has become blurry – from these notes, you can see a young man who’s scared he doesn’t even know himself anymore. Is he a man, or just a thing? A face? I find these words very poignant, and paired with what’s going on with Kanye, it brings the plight of the black celebrity to the forefront of my mind these days.

I’m not extremely familiar with Donald’s work on Community or as Childish Gambino, so I’d love some outside thoughts on this. And also on Kanye. What did you make of these notes? What’s your relationship with your favorite famouses like? Do you think race needs to be a bigger or a smaller part of this conversation?

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