By: Carson Myers and Tyler French
On June 18th of 2013, Kanye West released the song “New Slaves” on his fourth studio album, Yeezus. The song quickly entered the spotlight, and was considered the best song of 2013 by Time Magazine. The album Yeezus also quickly gathered fame and popularity. “New Slaves” was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rap Song, and Yeezus was nominated for the Grammy for Best Rap Album. In his dynamic song, West combines his mastery of lyricism and his production skill. He begins with a raw, simplistic-yet-futuristic beat that creates a unique sound which successfully emphasizes West’s socially and politically charged cries of anger and words of oppression.
The lyrics of “New Slaves” act as a social criticism for present day racism and consumerism that help West develop an argument on the current state of the country’s discrimination. West introduces his argument by lamenting on the oppression his mother experienced in Jim Crow America, through which he explores the generational differences in racism that he and his mother have experienced. He contrasts this with statements of anger about his life and the racism that he still encounters. Finally, he attacks this discrimination and the private prison system that exists in the United States through his lyrics. His words reflect the struggles of a black man in an America where racism still exists as a result of slavery, and his many references to the institution of slavery show his recognition of its effects on American culture.
Historical and Cultural Context
The context of Yeezus politically was determined in most part by the election in November of 2012. At the beginning of 2013, Barack Obama began his 2nd term as the President of the United States and his election, along with the state of the union in the midst of Iraq, Afghanistan, and terrorism, caused a strong polarization as Republicans and Democrats held very different opinions, and strongly disagreed in Congress. Along with this political instability, many Americans were discontent with the United States socially. Racism was very present in Obama’s time in office, and because of its large presence one of Obama’s main efforts was to help heal these divisions and help close the gap, both economically and socially, between whites and blacks (Joseph, 2016).
Many instances of racially and socioeconomically charged violence, police brutality and racial profiling also are shown in West’s lyrics. Kanye West’s song touches on the discrimination he has experienced while attempting to launch his clothing line. He comments on the lack of African American designers and argues that they should not be pushed away from this industry because the color of their skin. In “New Slaves,” he laments that “they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself,” emphasizing the exclusion that black Americans experience as they attempt to control capital resources. Historically, african americans have had a lower average income and have been discriminated against economically in society, and therefore the economic discrimination can have racial tensions as well (Arrow, 1998). West’s lyrical reference to cotton wasn’t by accident. The cotton industry is used to create a symbol for slavery, and this lyric shows that the racially charged ideas in American society as well as the fashion industry can be traced back to slavery. West recognizes the afterlives of slavery in the context of his industry and uses it to create an argument that this discrimination is still present.
West also creates a historical connection to the oppression his mother experienced. With poll taxes and literacy tests present, Jim Crow America oppressed the African American population through taking away their ability to vote and separating the facilities white and blacks could use publically (Smithsonian, 2012). This was the immediate afterlife of slavery, complete division, and West shows this afterlife still present just in a different context. In a 2013 BBC radio interview with Zane Lowe, West cites Michael Jackson as an influential artist and activist. West does not believe his success would have been possible if not for the massive strides of Michael Jackson, a man West saw as an influential civil rights activist. West uses his songs in Yeezus as an opportunity to discuss this social inequality that the African American community encounters. Of all the songs on the album, “New Slaves” creates the strongest direct argument against discrimination, in a song crafted through Kanye’s emotions of anger and fear.
Themes and Style
Even if only the title is acknowledged, the themes of slavery and racial discrimination are already apparent. “New Slaves” is a song that touches on many of the afterlives of slavery found in Kanye West’s life and that of an everyday African-American man. West uses the background beat, insightful lyrics, and his voice to convince listeners that even as a successful hip-hop artist, he still experiences the effects of slavery. The song begins with a raw, futuristic-sounding beat that immediately sets “New Slaves” apart from his past songs. Throughout the song, the harsh, simplistic beat compliments West as he showcases his lyrics and showers the listener with feelings of blatant anger. The slower tempo of the beat in “New Slaves” also aids West’s lyrical emphasis.
In addition to the beat of the song, Kanye West’s lyrics provide insight into his experience with the afterlives of slavery. He begins the song with a reference to the “era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin” (West 1-2), a time that his mother experienced firsthand. This beginning line immediately puts West’s encounters with racism in context; his own mother faced legal racism, an aspect of the past that cannot be ignored. He then explains that African Americans encounter racism regardless of their socio-economic status; “broke ni**a racism” (West 5) causes black people to feel unwelcome in consumer culture while “rich ni**a racism” (West 7) is found as wealthy African Americans are encouraged to “buy more” (West 8) yet even when they purchase more expensive items, they are accused of “want[ing] all the same things” (West 10). Kanye West laments that this racism is inescapable and, even though he is successful and has the ability to buy whatever he wants, West’s originality is still compromised. West’s critique of consumerism can also be seen in the second verse, as he repeats the line “I see blood on the leaves” (West 21-23).This metaphor indicates his view on how racism is currently developing. Instead of the blatant racist actions that his mother experienced in the past, people are now using consumerism to take advantage of the “new slaves” as West observes the “blood” of the “new slaves” on the “leaves,” or money. He claims that the corporations want him to “stay at ease” (West 27), and remain silent about his observations, but this song is a direct act of defiance against these people. Even though West sees the “blood on the leaves” from these “new slaves,” he experiences this racism on a larger scale as people “throw contracts at [him]” (West 36) because they “know that ni**as can’t read” (West 37). Even as a successful artist, people assume that because he is black, he is less intelligent and can be fooled into signing contracts.
However, the racism found in consumer culture isn’t the end of his social criticism. While addressing the setbacks he observes, Kanye West talks about the private prison system and racial stereotyping that goes along with this corruption. He claims it is as if “the DEA” (West 50), the Drug Enforcement Agency, “teamed up with the CCA” (West 51), the Corrections Corporation of America, to try “lock[ing] ni**as up” (West 52) and “mak[ing] new slaves” (West 53). Because the vast majority of prisoners are disproportionately African American, West draws attention to the corrupt system that condones racial stereotyping and targets black people, especially black men.
West’s style in “New Slaves” can be summarized as rebellious, with angry and angsty tones defining the song. Ryan Dombal touches on the importance of West’s passionate vocals by stating that “[h]is intensity here has a heightened desperation as he howls into the void.” As seen in a lot of rap music, West uses his voice to further emphasize his disgust in a culture in which racism is often ignored and overlooked. Throughout the second verse, the song continuously builds as West’s intensity and volume grows. The lyrics already convey his outrage and passion, but his voice adds much more than the lyrics could do on their own. His tone helps relate his emotional connection to the content and how he has lived alongside discrimination and racism his whole life.
Critical conversation around this song focuses heavily on whether the song was built as a protest for only upper class people, or if it carries a message that can be interpreted by a member of any socioeconomic class. With West’s focus is on the clothing industry, it is clear that his personal struggles are mostly centralized in wealth, something that not many others are able to relate to. As Matt Barno writes in his article entitled Kanye West on Civil Rights (2013), “instead of using his platform to address lack of opportunity at the bottom, he is using it to address lack of opportunity at the top. Instead of talking about the disproportionate negative impact of contemporary school funding and criminal justice policies, he’s talking about fashion executives refusing to extend him joint venture funding.” Even though West is using his platform as a way to create social change, an admirable act, he focuses on the racism that he faces at the top while almost ignoring the poverty and oppression experienced by those at the bottom. Laurie Hanna writes that West “said he believes people were laughing at him when he revealed his aspirations to work in fashion” (2015). Interestingly enough, West creates a politically charged album like Yeezus, and yet many of his interviews are consumed by his thoughts on the fashion industry and its apparent racism towards him.
While listeners may find it easy to relate to his lyrics in “New Slaves” about the private prison system or consumer culture, his interviews indicate that his focus may have been on the fashion industry and industries that only wealthy people encounter when he was writing this album. However, “New Slaves” does begin with two powerful lines about humble beginnings as Kanye West says that “[his] momma was raised in the era when/Clean water was only served to the fairer skin/Doing clothes you would have thought I had help/But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself” (West 1-4). West’s experience with discrimination shows his multidimensionality, and that he understands the struggles of those in the lower class and those being discriminated against. This may be the case, but the song’s main focus is clearly on his struggles as a celebrity, which in itself, is very hard to relate to.
“New Slaves” performed live on Saturday Night Live on May 18th, 2013.
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- Kanye West
- Hip Hop
- New Slaves
- African American