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  • Mischa Dols

Kanye Skin, Kanye Masks

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Obviously there is a lot to say about Kanye and his body of work, so much that if I try to talk about one thing I find myself contradicting or misrepresenting another part of Kanye. I see this “problem” arise in his fans and haters as well: do you like him because of the College Drop-out, his fashion, his amazing quotability, Yeezus or his contemporary religiosity? do you hate him for the MAGA hat, the Taylor Swift moment or his current online abuse of Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson? Kanye West is not a person, in true Kanye fashion, Kanye transcends Kanye. This is exactly Ye’s power (because no one man can have all this power, he is simply not one man). Precisely like his music, he does not represent one thing, he is in a constant state of wandering (an important example being the changes he makes to already published albums) seemingly purposefully wanting to be indiscernible, shifting often both artistically and in persona. Kanye’s work is never just one or two things nor is it everything. One example would be the Yeezus track Blood On The Leaves, within one track Kanye manages to create so many contradictions and resonators that it’s near impossible to make sense of it. Yet it’s impact and power is undeniable.

There is a part of me that wants to dissect this track and pit against each other the sensitive piano and pitch-upped sample of Nina Simone versus the signature blaring brass of trap-duo TNGHT, the tragic image painted by Strange Fruits versus the tacky indulgent lyrics about Kanye’s love life. But even when writing that I feel like I am spoiling the precarious undeterminable wonder of that track, any word outside of the track will always be less than just listening to the song over and over again. The track produces more than the sum of its weird, ambivalent, problematic parts. Listening to the podcast Dissect (a podcast that deep dives into an album, making an episode per song) I felt highly frustrated by it’s butchering of the Yeezus album. It is exactly that trying to force a single narrative, or reducing Kanye to a traceable character that is just “telling a story” is what blatantly misunderstands the radical approach Ye shows towards pop music. It is a real shame, since Dissect had some great moments in its analysis of Yeezus’ music production.

Especially right now, with another round of online drama that Kanye has dug himself into, I want to steer away from participating in the drama (even when it sometimes reveals something interesting).

I don’t want to say anything definitive about Kanye, however alluring it is to spew a bold judgment about anything Kanye. Yet his work is still worth talking about, but nuance is also not the answer, that would be very non-Kanye. That’s why I want to place Kanye West in the schizo-sphere. A three dimensional sphere with n points. An explosion highlights some of these points. The shrapnel is a certain amount of points in the schizo-sphere. The sun is a schizo-sphere with constant explosions. We should take a look at Kanye’s more recent work, The Sun, Frantz Fanon, Flesh, Skin, Aimé Césaire and Arthur Jafa. Let’s see if we can enter the schizo-sphere and let some synapses fire, burn. I would like to invite you to picture this schizo-sphere, put all the references in this post in it and see what you can draw between those points.

A schematic representation of Kanye in the schizo-sphere

Kanye West - Wash Us In The Blood. Video by Arthur Jafa

Arhur Jafa - LOVE IS THE MESSAGE AND THE MESSAGE IS DEATH. Music by Kanye West (Ultralight Beam)

Arhtur Jafa and Kanye West have two amazing collaborations. The first one being Jafa’s 2016 video work Love is the message and the message is Death, that features Kanye’s sacred Ultralight Beam as its main soundtrack. Then in 2020 Jafa made the video for Kanye’s single Wash Us In The Blood. The second shares a lot of the visual sentiment with the first video, I see them as two versions of the same work, the first one being Arthur Jafa feat. Kanye West, the second one being Kanye West feat. Arthur Jafa. Both show images mostly of black Americans in moments of highest intensity. Both the worst and the best. Similar to Kanye’s music, the assemblage of these divergent images doesn’t necessarily “make sense”, what unites them is unapologetic explosiveness, emphasizing intensity, impact and power. What glues these images together is their shared explosion that throughout produces a bright, vibrant, incendiary image radiating an ultralight beam: the sun. They are a few points in the schizo-sphere.

Blood! Blood! all our blood aroused by the male heart of the sun

Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1947)

Cover art for Eazy - Kanye West ft. The Game (2022)

ô lumière amicale

ô fraîche source de la lumière

ceux qui n'ont inventé ni la poudre ni la boussole

ceux qui n'ont jamais su dompter la vapeur ni l'électricité

ceux qui n'ont exploré ni les mers ni le ciel

mais ceux sans qui la terre ne serait pas la terre

gibbosité d'autant plus bienfaisant que la terre déserte davantage la terre

silo où se préserve et mûrit ce que la terre a de plus terre

ma négritude n'est pas une pierre, sa surdité ruée contre la clameur du jour

ma négritude n'est pas une taie d'eau morte

sur l'oeil mort de la terre ma négritude n'est ni une tour ni une cathédrale

elle plonge dans la chair rouge du sol

elle plonge dans la chair ardente du ciel

elle troue l'accablement opaque de sa droite patience.

oh friendly light

oh fresh source of light

those who invented neither powder nor compass

those who could harness neither steam nor electricity

those who explored neither the seas nor the sky

but those without whom the earth would not be the earth

tumescence all the more fruitful than the empty landstill more the land

storehouse to guard and ripen all on earth that is most earth

my blackness is no stone, its deafness

hurled against the clamor of the day

my blackness is no drop of lifeless water

on the dead eye of the world

my blackness is neither a tower nor a cathedral

it thrusts into the red flesh of the sun

it thrusts into the burning flesh of the sky

it hollows through the dense dismay of its own pillar of patience.

Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1947)

The video for Wash Us In The Blood shows us the 3D animated concept of a black mask that later will be part of Kanye’s look for Donda. This mask seems to be an opposite of a white mask he wore to hide his face in public around the same time. This again seemingly seems to hint to something dialectical, something of two opposing sides. But what a absolutely weird look that white mask is, alienated, comedic, anxious, satirical? A parody of white skin? Or a parody of black masks? If there is one point that Kanye continuously makes, both within song and outside in public, is that he shall not be framed in a single way, he goes beyond parody. In a way actualizing one of Fanon’s conclusion in Black Skin, White Masks:

In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. I am a part of Being to the degree that I go beyond it. (….) No attempt must be made to encase man, for it is his destiny to be set free. The body of history does not determine a single one of my actions. I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate the cycle of my freedom.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (1952)

I don't feel pain anymore Guess what, baby? I feel freeeeeeeeee Nothin' hurts me anymore Guess what, baby? I feel freeeeeeeeee

Kanye West, Freeee (Ghost Town Pt.2)

Does Kanye wear the white mask to be anonymous or rather to reveal something? He perhaps shows a development, from white mask to black mask; an acknowledgement of the white mask as something alienating but also a black mask as intimidating? Does he look freeeeee when staging his release for Donda? He locked himself in a replica of his childhood home until the albums is released, set free. Kanye seems to operate on this tipping point, I have mentioned in my earlier post that I look at pop-music because it can show this potential tipping point from locked to free, rigid to smooth, from being to becoming, Kanye embodies this. Is Kanye putting in to practice Fanon's final plea at the end of Black Skin, White Masks? Or is his #blackfuteremonth just a stubborn gimmick?

At the end of the video for Famous we see a slightly blurry sunset played back from VHS, showing its signature star-like lens flare. We hear the beginning of the song Father Stretch My Hands pt.1, featuring the iconic lyrics:

Now if I fuck this model and she just bleached her asshole and I get bleach on my t-shirt I’mma feel like an asshole

The track might as well be named “Daddy Stretch My Asshole pt.1” when shown in combination with the magnificent Solar Anus of the video. In Bataille fashion Kanye doubles down on perversion, making the unholy holy in the first part of the video. And Isn’t Kanye so good at playing with parody? Or at least showing things beyond parody? This is a Kanye staple; doubling down. He produces both heaven and hell. When it comes to blackness he doubles down as well, being very aware of stereotypes and persistently and very publicly attacking those throughout his career (first by presenting unusually nerdy and sweet in his fashion with his pink polo and backpack, then by creating a sort of monstrous villain character during the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy period), in his latest music video he doubles down on blackness through masks and (album) covers.

Album cover for Donda (2021)

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

Black Skin, Black Masks.

There is Black Death, Black Social Death. Black Life, Black by the Sun.

In a different way than his collaboration with Arthur Jafa, Kanye embraces the online body in a more literal way in his music video for Hurricane. The black online body: imperfect, clumsy, riddled with polygons but one with the potential of transcendence. A black online body that doubles down on its own artifice, doubling down on blackness through artifice. Building a new world on prison ground, from what Césaire calls "mes danses de mauvais nègre", from artificial black bodies a vortex brings blackness into the sun. The black online body as the flesh of potential, of "immobile verrition".

Is Kanye West an Icarus that never fell, because there was no earth to return to, only the sun, there was only the sun to go to, even if it means burning to a crisp, even if it means becoming part of the sun, constantly exploding, constantly dying but constantly bringing life.

Et à moi mes danses

mes danses de mauvais nègre

à moi mes danses

la danse brise-carcan

la danse saute-prison

la danse il-estl-beau-et-bon-et-légitime-d'être-nègre

A moi mes danses et saute le soleil sur la raquette de mes mains

mais non l'inégal soleil ne me suffit plus

enroule-toi, vent, autour de ma nouvelle croissance

pose-toi sur mes doigts mesurés

je te livre ma conscience et son rythme de chair

je te livre les feux où brasille ma faiblesse

je te livre le chain-gang

je te livre le marais

je te livre l'intourist du circuit triangulaire

dévore vent

je te livre mes paroles abruptes

dévore et enroule-toi

et t'enroulant embrasse-moi d'un plus vaste frisson

embrasse-moi jusqu'au nous furieux

embrasse, embrasse NOUS

mais nous ayant également mordus!

jusqu'au sang de notre sang mordus!

embrasse, ma pureté ne se lie qu'à ta pureté

mais alors embrasse

comme un champ de justes filaos

le soir

nos multicolores puretés

et lie, lie-moi sans remords

lie-moi de tes vastes bras à l'argile lumineuse

lie ma noire vibration au nombril même du monde

lie, lie-moi, fraternité âpre

puis, m'étranglant de ton lasso d'étoiles

monte, Colombe




Je te suis, imprimée en mon ancestrale cornée blanche.

monte lécheur de ciel

et le grand trou noir où je voulais me noyer l'autre lune

c'est là que je veux pêcher maintenant la langue maléfique de la nuit en son immobile verrition!

Rally to my side my dances

my bad nigger dances

to my side my dances

the carcan-cracker dance

the prison-break dance

the it-is-beautiful-good-and-legitimate-to-be-a-nigger-dance

Rally to my side my dances and let the sun bounce on the racket of my hands

but no the unequal sun is not enough for me

coil, wind, around my new growth

light on my cadenced fingers

to you I surrender my conscience and its fleshy rhythm

to you I surrender the fire in which my weakness smoulders

to you I surrender the "chain-gang"

to you the swamps

to you the non-tourist of the triangular circuit

devour wind

to you I surrender my abrupt words

devour and uncoil yourself

and self-uncoiling embrace me with a more ample shudder

embrace me unto furious us

embrace, embrace us

but have also bitten us

to the blood of our blood bitten us!

embrace, my purity mingles only with yours

so then embrace

like a field of even filaos

at dusk

our multi-coloured purities

and bind, bind me without remorse

bind me with your vast arms of luminous clay

bind my black vibration to the very navel of the world

bind, bind me, bitter brotherhood

then, strangling me with your lasso of stars

rise, Dove




I follow you who are imprinted on my ancestral white cornea.

rise sky licker

and the great black hole where a moon ago I wanted to drown

it is there I will now fish the malevolent tongue of the night

in its motionless veerition!

Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1947)

Whatever Kanye's intentions are, whatever drama or chaos he is causing in the public sphere, his work and its intersections at least open up a bunch of connection within the schizo-sphere. In place of a conclusion I would like to share an analysis of the above poem by Césaire, who I did not quote randomly, rather Kanye and Césaire beautifully complement each-other:

"It seems fitting that a poem that began with an untranslatable phrase should also end there, on Césaire’s immortal neologism—“immobile verrition.” The note to Eshleman’s most recent translation suggests, “In the French text verrition is a Latinism that Césaire explained to Eshleman and Smith as coined from the verb verri, to sweep, scrape a surface, to scan. Kesteloot, who had also consulted Césaire, claimed the root was vertere, to turn.”19 Faced with such a sweep of alternatives and alterity, Eshleman translates this phrase diversely as “motionless veerition” (1984, 2001) and “still verticity” (2013). (Reading Césaire’s phrase “immobile verrition” as a Surrealist, I see that modifier “immobile” as there not to qualify but in fact amplify the “veer” in “verrition,” a brief compression that makes the “veer” in “verrition” sail out.) But what is the gesture of ending such a poem on a neologism at all, one that “veers” so undecidably? The undecidability of this phrase is also a chronological problem: is this neologism best understood by trying to establish its nativity, by tracing its etymological ancestry, by prioritizing anecdotes, by cerebrally picking apart the degree to which “verrition” turns versus the degree to which it sweeps? Or is it absorbed in and absorptive of its immediate “surroundings,” and does it invite the reader into its black, irrational zone, like the shell-shocked soldier of Brock’s formulation, sensitive to the shocks of etymology but more fascinated with the present and its “veer,” its constant, curving motion? If one could walk forever on the curving Möbius strip of veerition, might one be constantly re-presented with equivocal horizons, with “the end of daybreak”? “Verrition” emerges from the submersion of our Orphic speaker in a necropastoral zone. It is the modality this poem births. It is emergent. It is an emergency. The neologistic phrases translators create to accommodate “verrition” are themselves contaminated by its irrational force. In this final moment of the poem, we catch up with the end of daybreak, but day does not arrive. Instead chronology breaks, night floods as a fluid through the crack in daybreak, the sun is inverted to a superfluid black hole, white cells emit black light, a celestial, rising orientation is yoked to an infernal decline, impossible alterities are joined by enjambment as by a Möbius twist. “Veerition”/verrition is that twist. With this neologism, this hyperfluent, visionary poem does not conclude but exceeds itself extravagantly. It indicates a direction—à Outrance—and names a verb—verrition. This limit has now become a limitless zone, a zone charged with paradox, anachronism, and occult potentiality, decomposition, contagion, and black fecundity. Such a zone—spasming and spectacular, black-lit, floral and florid, rife with eructations and declivities, which hosts strange meetings, denaturalizes hierarchies, produces inversion and translation, sheds Art—I call the necropastoral."

The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults (2015) - Joyelle Mcsweeney


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