February 9, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiams

“We All Slaves”: Kanye’s Theory of Power

Back in the days, if slaves had they own money they could buy they own freedom. We all slaves, we slaves to Nike, we slaves to Benz, we slaves to public perception. . . . I made music that made money. But at the end of the day, Lucian Grainge still cut my music checks. As powerful as my voice is, Lucian still runs fifty percent of the music industry. Francois Pinaud owns Balenciaga, Puma, Saint-Laurent, Stella McCartney. [Bernard] Arnaud owns Louis Vuitton, Celine, Givenchy. Renzo Rosso owns Margiela, Diesel, Marni, Viktor and Rolf. These guys got factories. These guys have factories. They run that.

—Kanye West, Interview with Sway, November 26, 2013

What, precisely, is the new slavery, according to Kanye? The easy answer is that Kanye is ranting against consumerism, but he is actually pointing out a power structure and wealth imbalance that is often ignored in the mainstream media. Similar to songs like “All Falls Down,” Kanye’s critique includes a critique of himself—“I know that we the new slaves”—for he is a participant, as we all are, in our own subjection to consumer culture.

Ultimately, however, one of Kanye’s more radical points is that the new slavery is about rich people like Kanye—of any race—being slaves to consumption and perception, and being economically subordinate to a class of people far wealthier than 99 percent of the 1 percent, the class of people that owns and controls multinational conglomerates and global investment firms, a class that I’d like to call the 0.1 percent. Yet, the 0.1 percent is a bit of a misnomer, for, as Kanye points out in his now infamous interview with Sway, there are roughly 1,400 billionaires in this neoliberal world. Technically, they constitute 0.00002 percent of the global population.

However, this information is already out of date since the November 26, 2013 interview. As of the end of 2015, there were 1,826 people that made the Forbes World’s Billionaires List. As Kanye also points out, only 11 of them are black, nine of them being African, and two being African American. Kanye is pushing us past the debate about whether examples of black success and wealth like himself are a reflection of racial progress or are simply tokenism. At the highest levels of wealth and power, Kanye tells us, the world is ruled by a very small class of people, and 0.1 percent of those rulers are African American.

Kanye is relatively powerless within the music industry when compared to people like Lucian Grainge, who signs his checks. Grainge is the CEO of the Universal Music Group, and appears first in Kanye’s list of powerful men in the epigraph—most of whom the majority of us have never heard of—who own the luxury brands that celebrities wear as the mark of their status, wealth, and power. But celebrities like himself are not in a powerful position: “They take these celebrities and they show you this fabulous life of non-billionaires. . . . Maybe it’s like 20 hot celebrities a year. It’s 1,470 billionaires. Those 20 celebrities, if they were billionaires they could make sure they’re celebrities forever.” Instead, the billionaires, who are truly powerful, decide whose lives will be showcased by mass media outlets, decide who matters, decide who will have careers in any given creative industry.

To offer one example of the kind of massive empires now being consolidated under the new slavery, consider the conglomerate Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessy (LVMH). According to the company’s website, “LVMH is home to 70 distinguished houses rooted in six different sectors.” Rather than offer a complete list of companies they own in the “Wines and Spirits” sector, here are some of the more recognizable brands (all of the following lists are abbreviated): Dom Perignon, Möet & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Glenmorangie, Ardbeg, Krug, Belvedere. In “Fashion and Leather Goods”: Louis Vuitton, Berluti, Fendi, Céline, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Kenzo, Donna Karan, Thomas Pink, Marc Jacobs. In “Watches and Jewelry”: Tag Heuer, Zenith, Bvlgari, Fred, Hublot, De Beers Diamond Jewellers. Their other houses in other sectors include: Sephora, Starboard Cruise Services, Le Grande Epicerie de Paris, and Cheval Blanc hotels.

All of this falls under the umbrella of one company, and under the realm of one man—Bernard Arnault, named by Kanye in the epigraph above. According to Forbes, Arnault owns enough Christian Dior stock to give him a controlling interest in LVMH, and he “also owns billions of dollars in LVMH stock directly, in supermarket chain Carrefour and, most recently, in Hermes.” His net worth, listed under “Bernaud Arnault and Family” (his son and daughter run Loro Piana and Berluti, respectively), is $36.1 billion, which lands him at number 66 in the global ranking of the wealthiest individuals. Yes, there are sixty-five individuals who have more than $36.1 billion.

The new slavery, then, has masters, and they are a part of a small global elite, but Kanye’s theory of power is not a conspiracy theory about a small group of men plotting to keep control of the planet. However, consumer culture and its attendant spectacles do blind us to the actual power structure shaping world events. A particularly outrageous offshoot of this culture is the cottage industry of youtube videos and blog posts asserting not only that there is an ultra-wealthy secret society such as the Illuminati, but that celebrities like Jay-Z and Kanye West are members. These videos ramble endlessly about the Illuminati, or New World Order, or some another nonexistent organization that is supposedly controlling the world and keeping masses of people poor while the rich co-conspirators get richer.

Kanye responds to such theories with his own theory of power, shifting from a critique of consumer culture to a critique of another facet of the new slavery: the post-Civil Rights Movement emergence of the prison-industrial complex. On the second verse of “New Slaves,” he says:

So go and grab the reporters so I can smash their recorders
See they’ll confuse us with some bullshit like the New World Order
Meanwhile the DEA teamed up with the CCA
They tryna lock niggas up
They tryna make a new slave
See that’s that privately owned prison
Get yo piece today
They probably all in the Hamptons braggin bout what they made.

According to the ACLU, in 2012, Harley Lappin, the Chief Corrections Officer of the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) sent a letter to 48 governors, wherein he writes that the CCA will infuse state coffers with cash by spending $250 million buying and renovating old prisons. In return, all the CCA asks is that they are paid taxpayer dollars to manage the institutions for 20 years, and that the states guarantee that the prisons will remain at least 90-percent full. I wish this were a conspiracy theory, but sadly it is not. The top 85 richest people in the world have as much money as the bottom 3.5 billion because of the policies of the neoliberal order, not because they belong to the same secret society. As Talib Kweli, a mentor of Kanye, says on his recent song, “The Worm Hole”:

The truly oppressed ain’t got the luxury of inventing a monster
The devil incarnate is much realer than the devil in concert
What they doing so sinister
Worse than any blood sacrifice you can imagine
Iller than any cinema
The Federal Reserve, the World Bank and the IMF
Helping the poor get poorer you in debt until your dying breath
Food for vaccines, humanitarian aid
They want control of the region, they really tryna get paid
Obey, thou consumer, make a product out of man
Where’s the conspiracy? It’s always been the plan.