Kanye’s “New Slaves” on race, culture and identity

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

The famous song “New Slaves” by Kanye West connects to the central themes of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” poem by Langston Hughes, such as community, culture, identity and a journey.

The theme of a community can be seen from the lines “Clean water was only served to the fairer skin.”

Here West alludes back to the era of segregation wherein clean drinking water was served to the “whites.”

It was only after the white people were done drinking that the black people were allowed to use the run-down taps. In a strange juxtaposition, both Hughes and West talk about an issue such as segregation through the point of a black man.

This is peculiar as most history books have a euphemized view of the American civil war owing to the fact that it is written from a white person’s point of view. By being brutally honest and to some extent, vulnerable to their sufferings, both Hughes and West ensure a personal touch and, in this way, gain the trust of their readers and listeners.

This furthers their credibility and makes the reader feel more connected with the view they put forth as they are, to some extent, the first-hand experience.

The theme of identity can be seen conveyed through the lines;

“But they weren’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself,

You see its broke n* racism, That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”, And its rich n* racism,

That’s that “Come in, please buy more”,

“What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?”

West here scathingly denounces the hypocrisy of people wherein they sent him away when they saw the color of his skin but begged for him to come back once they knew of his social status and, more importantly, wealth.

Through these lines, West is trying to convey to the listener the greedy and racist world we live in today.

People tend not to care for the “blacks” unless they have wealth.

Interestingly enough, however, both West and Hughes refer to themselves as “n****” and “negro,” respectively.

This can be seen as evidence of giving into the derogatory terms given to them by racists. In a way, both of them acknowledge that there is no hope left, and people’s image of them will not change.

Another point to note is that these two pieces of work were written almost a century apart.

The fact that the same problems continue to plague the world shows to the reader that West and Hughes were not wrong is assuming there is no hope left, and thus, an element of ethos and sympathy is brought out.

Here West also expresses a “cotton picker” as a symbol of slavery as in the 1800s, a large number of African-Americans were enslaved in America and made to work in the fields and pick cotton.

Ever since that time and now, West cleverly points out that nothing has changed, although it has been nearly 200 years and that the blacks are still discriminated against.

The mentality that they are merely blue-collar workers or field workers still exists.

It is almost as if the general public is going through an identity crisis in trying to distinguish the African-Americans from still being cotton pickers to now being ordinary functioning members of society.

Thus, they are often confused; sometimes turning them away and other times inviting them into the store, pleading them to buy more.

Perhaps the most crucial phrase, which encompasses all the three themes, is “New Slaves.”

These two words evoke a somewhat ambiguous and hard-hitting emotion in the listener as it talks of a journey of the community of the African-Americans from the time they were slaves to the present day, where new chains now bound them.

Kanye himself, belonging to the African American community, tries to convey to the listener that the stigma of black people appearing as slaves in a white person’s mind still lingers on.

Concurrently, however, West could also be trying to express that before, Blacks were slaves to America, and now they are oppressed by companies and businesses.

This motif is brought out through the lines, “Don’t touch anything in the store.” And “What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?”

Here, West plays off of the typical stereotypes imposed on the black community of wanting materialistic possessions to display their wealth and furthers the notion that companies advertise themselves to people as a means of providing them with an identity.

“All you blacks want all the same things.”

In this line, West condescendingly uses the term “blacks” as a euphemism and talks about how black people used to be the only slaves, now due to material objects, anyone can be a slave.

The idea West wants to get across is that people are losing a sense of identity as money is being used to keep people doing what others wish to i.e., buy expensive brands and conforming to the popularity.

Thus, through a seemingly innocent and catchy pop song, West successfully brings to light and addresses vital issues such as identity, culture, and community through the usage of effective symbolism and diction.