Kanye West – during a much covered Twitter firestorm pre-empting the release of “The Life of Pablo” – tweeted that ‘white publications’ must stop commenting on black music. The musician and producer specifically cited The New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone as being white, I assume because they are owned by and predominantly employ white people. West implies that it is destructive, or at least unnecessary, for white people to add their comments to black music in a public and critical context, even if that criticism is overwhelmingly positive.
Because I am a white critic, it is potentially dangerous that I am engaging in a discussion of a black man’s opinions. This tension I feel illuminates the current climate, but I also do not want to remain silent about a failure I perceive from publications I read.
A reality is that white publications and writers are not going to stop writing about hip-hop. In fact, if they did, we would call this white-washing. I am inclined to believe West doesn’t care about this. It is not his job to educate white people on the history of minstrelsy and the racism inherent in our cultural dialogues. It seems to me that West is saying that right now white critiques are more destructive to black artists than they are illuminating to white fans. How could a white reviewer possibly understand and communicate the full implications of black art if they do not experience the same identity?
When white critics do comment on black artists, they need to address their distance from the every-day experiences of the people of color they critique. Furthermore, it seems clear these publications could hire more people of color to create a safer critical climate, in which black artists will not be in danger of being misunderstood.
If I was an editor at one of these publications I would take West’s tweet seriously as an entry into a conversation about white criticism of black music. A quick Google search shows Jayson Green – the writer who gave “The Life of Pablo” a near perfect score on Pitchfork – is white. Most of Green’s reviews are about hip-hop, so it seems Pitchfork considers him something of an expert on the genre. His “Life of Pablo” review does not include any confrontation with the author’s whiteness, or for that matter, West’s blackness, though West is clearly engaging this conversation throughout his work.
Would it be okay if Greene published his review from a website West considered “black?” Would it be better if the reviewer of West’s album was black on a website that is predominantly white? These hypotheticals are relevant because West’s tweet seems to be critiquing the context of criticism instead of the writer. These questions need to be addressed in a public setting for critics to make progress. The all too obvious answer is that these publications are too white to truly understand black artists. If there were enough black writers being hired, we wouldn’t be labeling publications as ‘white’ in the first place.
The three publications targeted did not respond publicly, and the only publications that did take up the matter were celebrity websites, that took the tweet as another way to negatively criticize the artist for being too egotistical.
By ignoring West’s tweet, these highly esteemed publications skirted a valuable dialogue about race that could have been vital to the current cultural and critical climate. White criticism of black art has a potential to be dangerous, and it would be too easy to find white reviews of black artists that flirt with outright racism. It is up to the community of white critics to explore and perfect the narratives they build around artists that do not look like them, and right now it seems they would rather ignore this confrontation.