Rapper Kanye West has been the focus of an intense backlash this week after wearing a controversial “White Lives Matter” shirt, part of his Paris Fashion Week Yeezy season nine presentation. From celebrities like Jayden Smith to Vogue stylist and fashion editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson to commentators like Marc Lamont Hill, the outpouring of outrage about West’s irreverent stunt from the Black establishment has been endless.
In a post on Instagram, West responded to his zealous critics in an Instagram story, writing, “The Black Lives Matter movement was a scam” and ” Now It’s over, you’re welcome.” In subsequent posts, he doubled down on his choice to feature the shirts and flippantly disregarding the wave of backlash. He captioned another post featuring one of the shirts with the words, “THEY DO.”
Kanye West’s “White Lives Matter” stunt might very well be a soulless media stunt intended to drum up attention for his fashion line and incite controversy. But the backlash toward his stunt points to a larger hypocrisy within the Black media establishment that came for him. Because the truth is, when it comes to Black Lives Matter, Kanye is right. And Black celebrity outrage should be directed at the Black Lives Matter organization itself instead of Kanye.
For years, there has been an outcry from the Black Lives Matter constituency itself about the organization’s commodification of and capitalization on the spectacle of Black injustice in America. Most notably, Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, and Lisa Simpson, the mother of Richard Rishner, released a joint statement in 2021 admonishing BLM for profiting from the spectacle of police brutality and demonstrating a lack of transparency regarding fund distribution across BLM chapters, organizers and communities.
“Tamika D. Mallory, Shaun King, Benjamin Crump, Lee Merritt, Patrisse Cullors, Melina Abdullah and the Black Lives Matter Global Network need to step down, stand back, and stop monopolizing and capitalizing off our fight for justice and human rights,” the statement said. “We never hired them to be the representatives in the fight for justice for our dead loved ones murdered by the police. The ‘activists’ have events in our cities and have not given us anything substantial for using our loved ones’ images and names on their flyers.”
“We don’t want or need y’all parading in the streets accumulating donations, platforms, movie deals, etc. off the death of our loved ones, while the families and communities are left clueless and broken,” reads the statement.
Moreover, the co-founder of BLM, Patrisse Cullors, has infamously been the subject of scrutiny for lavish spending sprees on expensive properties. This spending has led to inquiries into the financial affairs of BLM from several states and legal bodies, including the California Department of Justice and the IRS, seeking answers about the allocation of the $90 million raised by the organization during the 2020 outcry over George Floyd’s killing.
It’s undeniable that the popular sentiments surrounding police brutality and racial injustice in America were reduced to easily consumable propaganda by the Black Lives Matter organization. Their cultural production of flashy slogans and aesthetics that were so advertiser- and consumer-friendly that even major corporate entities like Nike and Apple were able to capitalize on the moment to appear “socially conscious” and responsible.
Celebrity culture followed suit and fully embraced these easy slogans and aesthetics while ignoring the contradictions and hypocrisies of the organization, as well as the voices of those impacted by the very culture of racial violence they claimed to oppose with their conspicuous virtue signaling.
Kanye West’s decision to feature “White Lives Matter” shirts on a Paris Fashion Week runway as part of his gaudy collection of fashionable commodities should not be viewed as a cultural sacrilege, but rather, as a manifestation of the already existing ethos that drives Black Lives Matter: a consumerist signaling mechanism designed to accumulate and negotiate status.
And therein lies the core of the hypocrisy animating the performative outrage over Kanye’s stunt: It is much easier to target a cultural boogeyman like Kanye West than it is to self-reflect on how slogans, aesthetics and agit prop become commodities themselves, how easily they become status symbols that signal moral and social currency in a way that detracts from the actual cause of protecting Black life by allowing those with more self-aggrandizing intentions to bypass the struggles and injustices they claim to oppose.
None of West’s critics have even mentioned the controversies surrounding Black Lives Matter. None of the Black media figures who are endlessly chastising West for his “blasphemous” reversal of their sacred edict have spoken about the families of police brutality victims who have come out in full-throated wrath against the organization.
In many ways, Kanye West has become a foil to the Black American cultural elite. His open support for Donald Trump, his outspoken social conservatism and now this “White Lives Matter” media moment should all be taken as opportunities to self reflect, but instead, we see the opposite.
No matter what one thinks about Kanye’s personal beliefs, genius or lack thereof, it is always healthier to face one’s insecurities head on, rather than projecting them onto a convenient scapegoat. The Black establishment media figures and celebrities currently chastising Kanye West for his stunt are at the same time supporting and enshrining an organization and slogan that is associated with the commodification of Black struggle and reckless profiteering from racial trauma.
They may not know it, but when they attack Kanye, they are attacking their mirror image.
Angie Speaks is the cohost of the Low Society Podcast.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.