Slam Poet. Author. New Media Activist.
Before reading this, put on your headphones and play Kanye West’s “New Slaves.” Trust me. You’ll enjoy this post sooooo much more.
Before I get into this, lets all hop in the time machine and travel back 24 years…
The year is 1989 and 15-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas paid $115.50 for a pair of Air Jordans. His grandmother tells him not to wear his shoes to school because someone might like them. Michael simply responds, “Granny, before I let anyone take those shoes, they’ll have to kill me.”
On May 2nd, 1989 Michael was found strangled in the woods near his school…barefoot. His killer was 17-year-old James David Martin, a basketball buddy.
A month earlier, 16-year-old Johnny Bates was shot to death in Houston because he refused to give up his Air Jordan hightops. The killer was 17-year-old Demetrick Walker, who was later sentenced to life in prison.
Now lets hop in the time machine and return to present times…
We’re still in Houston and this time the victim is Joshua Woods (22 years old). He got one of the few vouchers to buy a pair of Jordans for himself and his 5-year-old son. The last text he sent to his mother read, “Mom I am okay. We are already headed home.” Of course, he never made it home because three young men shot him in an attempted robbery.
He died on December 21st, 2012 – four days before Christmas.
Joshua is one of many who were murdered for their pair of Jordans or sneakers. There was also 14-year-old Paul Sampleton Jr. and 16-year-old Juan Reyna. All across the country kids are killing kids over shoes. For some, this is a new world. Many are asking, “What is going on in today’s world where kids are killing each other over shoes?” Yet for others, particularly myself and others in the Midwest, this is a depressing repeat of history.
Can you imagine living in Chicago while Jordan was playing for the Bulls and releasing shoes? It was hell. In 1992 Jordan released the Air Jordan 7 and won another championship. Chicago also ended that year with 943 murders.
(Isn’t there only 365 days in the year? That’s almost 3 murders a day!)
Now don’t get things twisted. Jordan – the shoe or the man – is not to blame for the murders. I didn’t look to Jordan for answers back then and I certainly am not looking for answers now. But I am asking myself…
“Why does all of our respect & pride, as young black men, hang on what shoes you own?” I’m more interested in what the shoe represents, and what we need to do to deconstruct its importance. The only person that comes close to helping me understand what’s going on is…
Kanye West (don’t laugh).
Seriously, the brother is starting to make a lot more sense to me lately. I personally wish I could be his public translator (because he sounds a bit bipolar in his interviews) to help communicate his rants. Honestly, Kanye West has been speaking about this issue and ways to solve it for YEARS yet everything gets lost in translation.
Kanye’s most pointed statements, I believe, are in his song “New Slaves.” The story behind the song is just as pedagogical (yea, I can be smart like that and use fancy words) as the song itself. Let me give you the full story of Kanye and how I view his anger, for his pain and rants should be our own. I’ll start with the conclusion and work backwards.
The solution Kanye has been ranting and raving about is simple -
Empower yourself and others to become owners. F*ck being a consumer. In fact, consumerism is why we are slaves.
But why is this shattering of black civil society occurring? What has led to the weakening of black cultural institutions in asphalt jungles? Corporate market institutions have contributed greatly to their collapse. By corporate market institutions I mean that complex set of interlocking enterprises that have a disproportionate amount of capital, power, and exercise a disproportionate influence on how our society is run and how our culture is shaped. Needless to say, the primary motivation of these institutions is to make profits, and their basic strategy is to convince the public to consume. These institutions have helped create a seductive way of life, a culture of consumption that capitalizes on every opportunity to make money. (p. 16, emphasis mine).
Consumerism is why we are where we are. Consumption simply means “to use up”. We’ve become users and like the saying goes – You are what you eat (or use). The problem with living in a culture of consumption is that your value is attached to the money you make or that can be made off you.
This is why America hates the poor. My heart hurts every time I see someone shame a person asking for money. I hate the way we shame and yell at poor people like we’re better. But that’s the culture of consumption we live in. A poor person doesn’t make money, which is the biggest shame we impose on them.
The culture of consumption we live in is also based steeply in manipulation. It plays on basic human needs to make a profit. What do I mean by basic human needs? Things like
-Pride (or self-worth)
-Connectedness (or community)
These are not just values folks. They are not just desires. They are needs, something essential to humanity like air, food and water. Advertisers and marketers know this. So what do they do? Make commercials and ads that say “You are nothing and you are nobody unless you______.”
Fill in the blank: Wear this makeup, have this cologne, drive this car, go to this school, buy these clothes, own these headphones, live in this place, own this television, play this game system, or…
Wear these Jordans.
Dr. Cornel West further explains:
The impact of the market culture on black life has been devastating. The market invasion, including the ugly drug invasion, has transformed too many black neighborhoods into hoods, black civic communities into black uncivil combat zones. (pg. 17)
Once the market culture mixed with black culture, things went to shit. We used to see each other as people, fully dignified, no matter what shoes you had or clothes you wore. Then we adopted the values of the marketplace and ever since then people’s dignity has been called into question (unless you’re wearing Tom Ford with a pair of Jordans on your feet).
Realizing this now brings a whole new meaning to “New Slaves” when Kanye raps:
You see it’s broke nigga racism
That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”
And there’s rich nigga racism
That’s that “Come here, please buy more
What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same things”
Used to only be niggas, now everybody playing
Spending everything on Alexander Wang
The point here is that the marketplace has saturated, and even enslaved black culture. We went from “don’t touch anything in the store” to “spending everything on Alexander Wang.” And what was in the middle? What was the middle man between the two contrasting ideas?
Rich nigga racism.
The kind that calls out to you. That draws you in. It says “Come here” and like zombies we follow. Once there, we exchange our dignity for cash. After that, it says “please buy more” and offers us “Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain.” It says, “you are somebody if you buy these things. You will be respected. You can be proud of yourself.” Next thing you know you’re spending everything on Alexander Wang
or killing someone over a pair of Jordans.
Kanye has been raving about the control of the marketplace on black folks for years now. Remember his song “All Falls Down” off his College Dropout album? It was the same message. The difference lately though is that he has faced it himself. He thought that he would be welcomed in the world of design. Instead, he learned that he was still a nigga that corporations wanted to control. They had no interest in Kanye becoming an owner. They only wanted him to stay a consumer, so those that admire him would stay consumers as well. Therefore, Kanye is pissed. I’m realizing that maybe its not because he’s egotistical but because he has no power to do anything when black children start killing each other over products that corporations are selling. Remember, Kanye is from Chicago. He knows what this is like…
So what’s the solution? This is where Kanye and I differ a little.
Kanye says we should become owners. Design our own shoes. Make our own clothes. That’s been his campaign for the last few years. He wants to be a owner like the fashion people he admires. He had a “Jodi moment” and decides to become a seller. Here is the clip from Baby Boy incase you don’t understand my reference
I think the solution is great for it empowers the self-respect you should have for yourself. But I also disagree because it only feeds the culture of consumerism that we need to break free from.
I don’t believe in fighting fire with fire. I say, use water on that b*tch. Or in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” So instead of being users, we need to be givers. Instead of being haters, we need to be supporters. This is the answer to the culture of consumption that many folks live in.
We need to separate respect, dignity and worth from what we consume as people. We need to learn how to admire what people have, without feeling belittled about our own stuff. The best way I’ve done this in my own life is being in community with the poor.
After spending my life with the poor for years now, I could care less about Jordans. If I have them, cool. If not, cool. Either way, I’m content. Funny thing though, once I started to be a giver and not be caught up in the consumer lifestyle – people thought I was the coolest person since Shaft. I feel confident in who I am apart from my clothes and shoes even more now. This is something I constantly try to teach my youth. Who you are matters more than what you wear.
To forever end the killing of children, by children, over shoes we need to educate them on self-respect versus the kind that is dependent on the things you consume. We need to be givers instead of users. We need to honor the poor more. Let them teach us instead of viewing them as dirty folks to give money to. We need self-confident folks who are content with what they have.
In more practical ways, you can support the mother of Joshua Woods. Go to her website http://lifeoverfashion.org to support her campaign in raising awareness.
Also don’t forget, this Christmas spend a few minutes in prayer for our youth. In light of recent events, they sure do need it. You can view more information on my Facebook page http://Facebook.com/bryantcross.
Lets show our youth what life really is and this Christmas lets say a quick prayer over them.