The Ghost of Bigger Thomas Surfaces in Kayne West’s Monster

Kanye has officially overdosed on artistic symbolism.

After his 35 minute debut of “Runaway” in back in October 2010, it difficult to figure out how Kanye would top a video that incorporated references to modern performance art, ballet, couture, mythology, and Fellini.

And yet, I don’t think anyone counted on Kanye deciding to deck the halls with dead white women in “Monster”.

West’s video (which my friend calls “Resident Evil mixed with Gossip Girl”) opens with a white woman hanging from the ceiling. The video continues in a horror movie fashion theme, featuring modelesque white women draped on couches and lying in beds as if they were dead. Black women also appear in the video, but generally are not dead – they embody a different space, as part of the monster crew, informed by Nicki Minaj’s portrayal of her self. For this specific analysis, I am breaking the video into two key discussions: one on race and one on gender. The discussions overlap, particularly in terms of the positioning of black women and white women in the video, but due to length, gender will be a separate consideration. This post will focus primarily on race.

The blasphemy inherent in a black man treating white women as disposable commodities is embedded deeply into the American psyche. For decades, public depictions of black male-white woman contact (in any way shape or form) was avoided. I’m hard pressed to think of a movie that featured a black man terrorizing white woman that wasn’t a racist propaganda flick, or name more than three mainstream movies or music videos that featured black men in white women engaged in relationships as equals – or even lovers. The specific linkage between black men and white women is fraught with tension, and is generally handled cautiously and with great deliberation.

Monster also appears calculated – almost as if Kanye tore a page from the diary of Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son. The original articulation of self-destructive black rage, West is intentionally drinking deeply from the same brackish water that tainted Bigger Thomas – a vague feeling that something is wrong with him, and it may not be exactly his fault, but he will be perceived as a monster just the same.

The video is even more interesting when brought into the current day. Remnants of Taylor Swift scandal and Kanye’s verbal defilement of white womanhood reappears here as standard horror movie trope – Kanye embodying the big, black, bogeyman, putting a face to fears, and delighting in the chaos created. He became, metaphorically, the monster he labeled post the 2009 Video Music Awards.

But the video isn’t just about one singular event. Instead, Kayne plays a bit more with certain types of embodiments. The grotesque nature of the scenes isn’t seen outside of horrorcore, due to heavily graphic scenes of decapitation and death. In this, West’s video differs from the standard, invisible horror scenes quite a bit of rap trades on, the horrors of a violence and drug saturated environment, filled with the casualties of urban warfare. Instead, he becomes deliberately over the top to illustrate to cast light on his inner turmoil and struggle. Or, to pull a line from Native Son, he is regarded “a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control.”

West is aware of this dynamic – the lyrics to “Monster” (and, one could argue, all the lyrics to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) reinforce that particular picture:

Gossip gossip
N-ggas just stop it
Everybody know (I’m a muthaf-cking monster)
I’ma need to see your f-cking hands at the concert [...]
I heard the people sayin raps are gettin trap mayne
Bought the chain that always give me back pain
F-ckin up my money so yeh I had to act sane

Again, West is aware of the self-destructive nature of what he does – yet does it anyway.

What troubles me though, is the perception of the video as put through a mainstream lens. I can’t shake the feeling that the race of the women involved is what pushed the video to unacceptable in the eyes of some. If Kanye had gone with black video models, would anyone (outside of the black blogosphere/hip hop and crunk feminist sphere) have noticed?

Perhaps, since Kaye is a cross over star.

But perhaps not.

And that particular piece of this – black women’s monstrosity juxtaposed with images of beautiful dead white girls – is where we will pick up tomorrow, with the gender portion of the analysis.