“New Slaves” is a song by American musician Kanye West, written for his sixth studio album “Yeezus”, which was released in 2013. It was met with mostly positive reception by professional music critics and the general public alike. In the song, Kanye West brings attention to the fact that racism is still widespread in American society in various forms, as well as criticizes materialistic consumerism and other aspects of modern American culture and reality.
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Rap music, which is traditionally dominated by black Americans, has always had many references to race and racial injustice. A lot of musicians who achieved success in this genre of music come from a very troubled background of poverty and even crime. Some of the artists, however, glamorize criminal lifestyle, while others criticize it and point out that unjust society is often responsible for the fact that people and, especially, black people have to resort to the life of crime, because of the lack of other opportunities and institutionalized racism. In “New Slaves”, Kanye West explores the idea that racism and the systems of oppression and exploitation do not only affect the poor and disenfranchised black people but are also persistent in any other area of life.
Right from the start of the song, Kanye West evokes a powerful image with the lyrics “My momma was raised in the era when / clean water was only served to the fairer skin” (West, 2012). This, of course, is a reference to the era of racial segregation in the American South, which was based on the idea that black and white people should be “separate but equal”. The segregation laws aimed to separate people in each and every aspect of life, not allowing different races to go to the same schools, restaurants, public bathrooms, or even use the same drinking fountains. The latter is directly referenced by West. Another important message in the opening lyrics that needs to be pointed out is that just how recently the segregation laws were abolished. It might seem like the dark and shameful times of legal, systemic racism are long gone, but in reality, there are still people who lived through it and who remember it well.
There are, however, different forms of racial prejudice. Kanye West says: “What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things” (West, 2012). In these words, West points out how even affluent and successful black people are still racially stereotyped. While some white people might suffer from class prejudice, if they do break from poverty and achieve success and become rich, they will not be treated any different than other rich people. At the same time, Kanye West criticizes those who subscribe to the stereotype, including himself. He does that ironically because that stereotype does not exist for white people, which means that while mindless consumerism should be critically analyzed, the real issue is still racism.
Several times West repeats the line “I know that we the new slaves, / I see the blood on the leaves” (West, 2012), which is a reference to the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. This is another allusion to the terrible racial oppression of the past since the original song is about the harrowing practice of lynching. Black people and, especially, black men often used to be denied the proper judicial process and would be executed by the mobs of white people on the mere suspicion of having committed a crime. Despite the fact that times have changed and this kind of thing is not acceptable anymore, there is still a lot of racial injustice. Kanye West says he knows about it, but it is not in his power to change things, he can only bring attention to it and make other people think of these issues. At the very least, he can just try and use that knowledge to build a better life for himself and those he cares about, using the same systems he criticizes.
One of the most important topics brought up in the song is a racial disparity in sentencing and incarceration rates. Kanye West says: “Meanwhile the DEA / Teamed up with the CCA /… / They tryna make new slaves” (West, 2012). Here, West criticizes both the prison industrial complex and the notorious War on Drugs that disproportionally affects black people. According to García and Sharif (2015), “Current estimates are that one in three Black men will be behind bars at some point in their lifetime” (p. 28). Besides that, a criminal record will lead to discrimination even after an individual is released in almost any aspect of their life. The prison system appears to be the most problematic institution in terms of racism (García and Sharif, 2015). Some of the lyrics where West describes the rich beneficiaries of the prison complex are criticized as misogynistic, but there is a possibility that West was being ironic, while again referencing another racial stereotype. Victims of lynching were often black men accused of harassing white women, so that continues the themes brought up by West earlier in the song.
“New Slaves” is a beautiful and relevant composition, which lyrics explore and criticize some of the most pressing issues in the modern American society. Kanye West talks about these issues honestly and unapologetically, and that makes the message of the song incredibly powerful.
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Jee-Lyn García, J., & Sharif, M. Z. (2015). Black lives matter: A commentary on racism and public health. American Journal of Public Health, 105(8), e27-e30.
West, K. (2012). New Slaves. On Yeezus [Mp3]. New York City, United States: Def Jam Recordings.