Joshua Wright, author of Wake Up Mr. West: Kanye West and the Double Consciousness of the Black Celebrity, uses rapper Kanye West as an example for his discussion on race and fame. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

By Nadine Matthews,
Special to the AFRO

In 1903 W.E.B. DuBois’ seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, introduces the term “double consciousness” to explain a feeling of embodying multiple social identities.  For more than a century the term has been mulled over by thought leaders, authors and social activists. Even today, the questions and debate regarding the Black experience persist.

 Professor Joshua Wright, of Trinity Washington University, recently explored how this double-consciousness affects Black celebrities in his book Wake Up Mr. West: Kanye West and the Double Consciousness of the Black Celebrity. Wright dissects how double-consciousness affects Black celebrities and the different ways in which they choose action or silence regarding the advancement of social causes, among other things.

Wright explained, “In this book, I wanted to use Kanye as a case study for a bigger discussion on race and fame in America. He’s a paradigm shifter in hip-hop music and culture in the way that he portrays masculinity, the topics he has in his music and fashion.”

Wright designed and developed the first hip-hop course as a professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 2012 and later, the Trinity Washington University in 2021. 

“DuBois said as Black people we are always seeing ourselves through the eyes of White people. For the Black celebrity, they’ve always had this special place. They’re seen as a “credit” to the race and so they had to watch what they did at all times,” said Wright. “If you mess up, you are seen as a stain on the race.”

Being a “credit” to your race often involves using one’s platform to speak out on social issues. “Some people in the Black community will say, ‘Well, if you don’t speak up on these issues, then you only care about those dollars that you’re getting from the White man.’ By speaking out, however, they then risk alienating their non-Black fans.” Wright stated. “Then you have those in the mainstream who may feel as though you betrayed them, like, ‘I can’t believe you feel this way. Why do you feel this way?’”

Kanye West has embodied both- first as someone unafraid to speak out against White supremacy. 

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Kanye West, who had already made a name for himself as a producer and rapper, famously declared that George Bush did not “care about Black people.”

 A few years later, he rushed the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards stage and stated that Beyonce deserved the title for “Best Music Video,” as Taylor Swift stood with her trophy next to him. Kanye drew the ire of millions, but he also pointed out the racism many saw in how MTV Video Music  Awards were distributed. 

West was seen as someone using his platform for good by giving a voice to the larger Black community they would not have otherwise had. He was then a hero among heroes in the Black community. Even more so because of the climate around Black celebrity culture at the time. 

Wright explains, “At that time Black celebrities didn’t really want to rock the boat.”

However, in a 2018 interview, West said “slavery was a choice” made by the enslaved, thereby blaming them for injustices against them and boosting the case of White supremacy. His infamous visit to Donald Trump’s White House cemented that impression. After that, “A lot of people were saying he had turned his back on the Black community, that he was canceled, that he had fallen into the sunken place,” Wright said.

The term “sunken place” is a metaphor for the state of a Black person who has fully internalized their racial oppression. It was introduced by director Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit horror film, Get Out, to explain a Black person who has become complicit in White supremacy.  

Wright pushes back somewhat on the idea that West is in the proverbial sunken place. “He is doing some things right, from a financial standpoint,” he believes. 

“There are some people who were in the sunken place. I would say O.J. [Simpson] definitely was there and there is evidence to document that. But I don’t put Kanye in that category.” 

Wright puts West primarily in another category altogether. “Kanye is really a contrarian, meaning when people say ‘it’s hot,’ Kanye will say ‘it’s cold.’” 

Personally, however, Wright indicates that there is a responsibility for those who are privileged to have a platform, to use it to advance issues that affect the majority of Black people. 

“For me, I would do something. I’m not wealthy or famous but I was taught that I’m supposed to do something with the position in which I’ve been placed,” he said. “That I should help and give back. I would like to see Kanye and other celebrities like him use their power for good.”

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