kanye west’s ‘black skinhead’–is he going punk?

May 20, 2013

This past weekend, Kanye West premiered two new songs on Saturday Night Live from his forthcoming album, Yeezus, titled “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead.” The new music, following the premier of the “New Slaves” music video projected on 66 buildings across the globe last Friday, suggests West is returning to the social commentary exhibited early in his rap career with songs like “Jesus Walks” and “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.”

By Justin Allen

Given the sampling of Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” on “Black Skinhead,” as well as the title itself and the less restrained vocals, it also seems West, known for his unique production, may be pulling from alternative and punk music for his new album. Even when performing “Black Skinhead,” he emulated more so a performance of alternative music rather than rap, and his recent liking for black leather could suggest an evolution in his image.

Before delving further into my analysis, I will provide a brief history of skinhead culture, as skinhead and racist are too often perceived as synonymous. Skinhead culture emerged in the late 60s in the UK amongst working class youth. They sported buzz cuts, the origin of their name, as well as Doc Marten boots, cuffed 501 Levi’s jeans and Fred Perry shirts, a clothing style drawn from Mod culture and Rude Boy culture from Jamaica (Yes! Black people!). Further, the subculture itself was, upon its emergence, heavily associated with Black music—most notably ska and reggae which led to the development of skinhead reggae and later 2 Tone, which fused the aforementioned genres with rocksteady and punk. And while the racial politics of skinhead culture are more complex that I have time to delve into here, I wish to underscore that skinhead culture would not exist in the absence of Black culture. It wasn’t until an increase in white supremacist and white nationalist skinheads during the late 70s that people began to conflate skinhead and racist.

So, given this background, it seems that, in naming his song “Black Skinhead,” (as well as performing his new songs for the first time on Malcolm X’s birthday) West is attempting to align himself with a working class and political fervor. He could very well, given the associations many have with the term, also be looking for controversy. On both points I support him. With lines like, “But watch who you bring home—you see a Black man with a white woman, at the top floor they come to kill King Kong,” and “Here come some conservative Baptists, sayin’ he overeactin’ like the Black kids in Chi rack bitch,” if anything, he’s creating conversation around issues of racism, classism and white supremacy. Although, to the AFROPUNK community, this is common of many artists we feature, it is important to note his exposure, not only to a wider audience, but an audience unaccustomed to the aggression and outspokenness most often exhibited in underground music. His exposure he is using to inform, something Black musicians with his type of celebrity do far too little.

However, in praising his content, I can’t overlook the sound of these new songs. Kanye West is a hit maker. He is an innovative producer bounded by the requirements of his major label status to release albums that chart. He pulls from disparate music genres—such as classical, jazz, blues, electronic, and now punk—and strips them of their compositional complexity and uniqueness for the sake of mainstream comprehensibility. His two new songs are no exception. “New Slaves” while passionate and immediately catchy, follows a similar format of “Runaway” in which a simple chord progression is repeated to latch onto the listener’s mind and get stuck in their head. “Black Skinhead” finds West inching, hesitantly, toward the screaming prominent in punk and hardcore music, but never committing quite as much as, to name other current MCs, Azealia Banks on “Yung Rapunxel” and Odd Future during their live performances—fully acknowledging, however, that these two examples are not complete commitments either.

This is all to say, if he wants to scream, really scream. If he wants to push boundaries in the name of being a skinhead, he needs to not only do it lyrically, but sonically. And while fully aware that his further commitment to such music genres is unlikely—this music doesn’t chart, perhaps a greater threat than backlash—it’s important to consider the disservice musicians do, as artists, when they provide their listeners with a watered down version of a genre, never opening up a new pathway of understanding for their audience but rather adhering to what they already know. In attempting to address abrasive subject matter with abrasive sound production, he falls short in his relative restraint. He came hard, but I’d like to see him come a little harder.

Check out Don Letts’ film about the skinhead movement:


* Justin Allen is an undergraduate writing student at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. He currently works as a contributing writer for AFROPUNK as well as writes for a zine, BAD GRAMMAR, that he produces in collaboration with friends Yulan Grant and Brandon Owens.

* Check out a “fantasy anthropological study of African skinhead fashion from the early seventies” by photographer Clayton Cubitt HERE. (one of his images was used in the collage above)

+ click on the image below to read our interview with Black skinhead McDaniel