Today my goddaughter excitedly told me that Kanye West released the video for his latest song “All of the Lights” on youtube. She told me that I had to see it because it was “brilliant” (her words).
After our phone conversation, I went to my computer to see the video. As a long-time rap music fan, I had to agree that the song itself is indeed brilliant. West has created a symphony, melding together dozens of sounds and voices. I would defy anyone who is a fan of rap music not to appreciate the sonic beauty of this song.
Then there are the actual lyrics to the song. Here are a few lines:
I slapped my girl, she called the feds
I did that time and spent that bread
I’m heading home, I’m almost there
I’m on my way, heading up the stairs
to my surprise, a n-gga replacing me
I had to take ’em to that ghetto university
Once again, we have a song that is already a big hit and will only become a greater one now that the video has been released addressing the very serious of issue of domestic violence. In the song, Kanye has hit his girlfriend. She calls the police. He goes to prison and pays a fine. Then he returns home, presumably after spending time behind bars, to find his former girlfriend in bed with a new person. He reacts violently to this, continuing the cycle of violence. What message is Kanye intending to send with this verse? That he went to prison but learned nothing while inside? [Which would actually be an accurate portrayal given the reality that prison only creates better prisoners.] Is he making the point that violence is justified if your ex-girlfriend has a new partner? What exactly are these lyrics implying?
Here is another verse of the song:
can’t see my daughter
her mother, brother, grandmother hate me in that order
we met at Borders
told her she take me back
I’ll be more supportive
I made mistakes
I bump my head
courts suck me dry
I spent that bread
she need a daddy
baby please, can’t let her grow up in that ghetto university
Any of you reading this who have had experience with domestic violence will recognize the “honeymoon phase” of the cycle of violence in the lyrics quoted above. Kanye is telling his ex-girlfriend that he has “made mistakes” and is begging to be taken back so that he can be a father to his daughter. However concurrently, he also informs the audience that “courts suck [him] dry.” Presumably, he is pissed off about having to pay child support for the daughter that he doesn’t want to let “grow up in that ghetto university.” Pulsing underneath these lyrics is the constant threat and possibility of violence.
As of today, the video for the song has already received over 800,000 views. That is in just one day since the video was posted on youtube. How can any of the messages that we as anti-violence educators and organizers offer have even half the reach of this song and video? The reality is that we are being completely drowned out by the power and reach of popular culture messages about gender-based and other forms of violence. Until we are able to gain new allies in that world and can respond with equally powerful and “brilliant” counter-messages, I fear that we are just continuing to swim upstream against the current. This, it seems to me, is the great challenge of anti-violence work in the 21st century.
Here is the video for the song: