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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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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Björk and You and Me: A Love Story

“All is Full of Love”
Björk
1999

You’ll be given love / You’ll be taken care of
You’ll be given love / You have to trust it
Maybe not from the sources / You have poured yours
Maybe not from the directions / You are staring at

Her music gives me a lot of comfort. On good days, it’s beautiful; on bad days, it’s a beacon. Her voice really does stuff to me. Never restrained, never altered, never quite where you expect it to be. The way she approaches this song always chokes me up. Throat tight, melody soft and low, till she starts to believe that “all is full of love” and then her whole chest cavity opens up to that shocking roar. Amazing. More people need to get Björk in their lives. It really helps the journey.

This video is on permanent display at the MoMA, and I’m glad, because it’s true art. So visually stunning and emotive. Directed by robot lover Chris Cunningham and helmed by a sensitive android who finds love in herself (literally). It really supports the idea behind the song, that we all just “ain’t receiving” and our “phone is off the hook,” despite the fact that the human connections we seek lay waiting at every turn. “Love isn’t just about two persons. It’s everywhere around you,” said Björk when asked about writing the single. She is a big believer in the bursting potential of people and the unconventional ways in which we can nourish ourselves and each other. “The first unhappy song I wrote…was very hard for me. Usually I write all the time, but that was like nothing happened for months. Then the song came out. I was ashamed writing a song that was not giving hope.”

I return often to her when I seek authenticity. Sometimes I get tired of the vast distance between me and the artists I love, and Björk kind of makes you feel like there’s no machine warping the art and delivering it to you as a product. She often just performs like she’s in a bedroom or a shower or a canyon where it’s just fun to hear the echo of your screams.

If you liked the above, also definitely watch this overwhelming live performance from a few years ago. She launches the note at 2:30, and the stadium goes all a-shudder with those involuntary chills. If I saw her live, I’d cry. For sure. The feelings are deep and many. And I’m really fucking thankful that there’s someone out there with no fear to express them all.

14 David Bowie Quotes You Should Probably Read Today

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1
There was a distinct feeling that nothing was true anymore, and that the future was not as clear-cut as it had seemed. Nor, for that matter, was the past. Therefore, everything was up for grabs. If we needed any truths we could construct them ourselves. The main platform would be, other than shoes, “We are the future, now.”

2
Speak in extremes, it’ll save you time.

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3
I think people have a real need for some spiritual life and I think there’s great spiritual starving going on. There’s a hole that’s been vacated by an authoritative religious body – the Judaeo-Christian ethic doesn’t seem to embrace all the things that people actually need to have dealt with in that way – and it’s sort of been left to popular culture to soak up the leftover bits like violence and sex.

4
I’m an instant star. Just add water and stir.

5
It amazes me sometimes that even intelligent people will analyze a situation or make a judgement after only recognizing the standard or traditional structure of a piece.

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6
It’s odd but even when I was a kid, I would write about “old and other times” as though I had a lot of years behind me. Now I do, so there is a difference in the weight of memory. When you’re young, you’re still “becoming”, now at my age I am more concerned with “being”. And not too long from now I’ll be driven by “surviving”, I’m sure. I kind of miss that “becoming” stage, as most times you really don’t know what’s around the corner. Now, of course, I’ve kind of knocked on the door and heard a muffled answer. Nevertheless, I still don’t know what the voice is saying, or even what language it’s in.

7
Confront a corpse at least once. The absolute absence of life is the most disturbing and challenging confrontation you will ever have.

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8
I’m in awe of the universe, but I don’t necessarily believe there’s an intelligence or agent behind it. I do have a passion for the visual in religious rituals, though, even though they may be completely empty and bereft of substance. The incense is powerful and provocative, whether Buddhist or Catholic.

9
On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.

10
I’m out all the time to entertain, not just to get upon a stage and knock out a few songs. I couldn’t live with myself if I did that. I’m the last person to pretend that I’m a radio. I’d rather go out and be a color television set.

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11
I’m always amazed that people take what I say seriously. I don’t even take what I am seriously.

12
I think Mick Jagger would be astounded and amazed if he realized that to many people he is not a sex symbol, but a mother image.

13
I don’t have stylistic loyalty. That’s why people perceive me changing all the time. But there is a real continuity in my subject matter. As an artist of artifice, I do believe I have more integrity than any one of my contemporaries.

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14
Interviewer: Do you practice a form of worship?
David Bowie: Life. I love life very much indeed.