by Danny Haiphong
Airheaded commentators compare Beyonce’s media products and Kanye West’s off-hand quips to Muhammad Ali’s heroic political struggle and genuine sacrifice in the Sixties. That’s nonsense. “Beyonce can dress up in Black Panther dress and subsequently fail to use her platform to educate others about the Black Panther Party precisely because she is selling a product, not building a movement. The same goes for Kanye West and all corporate artists.”
Keep Muhammed Ali's Legacy Away from Beyonce and Kanye West
by Danny Haiphong
“The article reduces the state repression of Ali received as a mere byproduct of his ‘political stance’ and proceeds to compare the treatment Ali received to the criticisms of Beyonce and Kanye West.”
A recent article in Medium took to task those who mourned the death of Muhammad Ali.
“Conservative America,” according to the author, tells figures like Beyonce and Kanye West to be quiet while it celebrates the life of the late world boxing champion and activist. Self-proclaimed "hipsters" and "culture critics," however, often take the luxury of ignoring concrete analysis for the allure of identity political liberalism. What the author makes no mention of are the concrete differences between Muhammad Ali and celebrities of the Kanye West variety. To analyze these differences would force the author to examine the motion of history and political struggle beyond the liberal lens.
Identity political liberalism can be defined in the piece as such. Since Muhammad Ali is celebrated for his opposition to war and racism, one would be hypocritical to criticize Kanye West and Beyonce for their particular forms of opposition. The author clarifies this position, stating:
“Kanye West had the courage to call out The President of United States for ignoring the people of New Orleans. Beyonce had the courage to embrace a movement that has been criticized by the police and mainstream America. If you can’t stomach their political statements there is no way you can say you are a fan of Ali because no ‘entertainer’ of color has been more in your face about condemning America’s racist political crimes than Muhammad Ali.”
This argument commits a logical fallacy of significant consequence. The author equates Beyonce and West's achievements on the political stage to Ali's actions in the 1960s. This conclusion derives from a purely subjective position. While it is true that Kanye West and Beyonce have made political statements in the past, no analysis of the particular character of these statements is given. Such an examination reveals exactly what propels cultural figures into political action and what contradictions ultimately limit the usefulness of their political action.
“The author equates Beyonce and West's achievements on the political stage to Ali's actions in the 1960s.”
In the 1960s, a revolutionary upsurge emerged from the heroic Black freedom movement and the connections it made to the anti-imperialist struggle around the world. The brutality and exploitation inherent in white supremacy and segregation influenced organizational formations, like the Nation of Islam (NOI), to call for more radical alternatives to the non-violent resistance that characterized the Civil Rights Movement. Ali was influenced by the teachings of Malcolm X, who at that time was being trained to lead the NOI. The US war in Vietnam was nearly a decade old by the time Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X and the NOI took a firm stance against the war in Vietnam. Eventually Malcolm X would take opposition to war a step further by arguing that Black Americans had more in common with the people of Vietnam than the US government.
It was the development of international solidarity in the Black liberation movement that compelled Muhammad Ali to make his famous declaration against the Vietnam War and travel to Cuba and Palestine. Revolutionaries such as Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and WEB Du Bois in the first half of the 20th century paved a path for insurgent Black revolutionaries in the second to position the struggle for emancipation in the US alongside the global fight for self-determination and socialism. It was argued by organizations such as the Black Panther Party that Black liberation could not be achieved without a socialist arrangement of society on a worldwide scale. Muhammad Ali's political life must be placed in this context. The article reduces the state repression of Ali received as a mere byproduct of his "political stance" and proceeds to compare the treatment Ali received to the criticisms of Beyonce and Kanye West. Yet what isn't said in the article is how state repression of an entire movement helped produce the corporate artists that the author compares to Ali.
“Corporate subsidiaries such as Warner Music Group control the music and careers of signed artists and enforce the ideological regime of imperialism through the sale of their processed music.”
The US counterinsurgency war against the Black liberation movement was geared toward the complete and utter destruction of revolutionary possibilities in the US. This war included the creation of an entire intelligence program to undermine, at times with deadly results, the efforts of Black revolutionaries. It also included reforms in the fabric of US society. Starting in the late 1970s, the ruling class opened seats in local, state, and federal political office to a select few Black Americans. Increased access to political office for the Black elite, and helped isolate radical and revolutionary forces calling for social transformation. It is here that the Black misleadership class emerged. The creeping crisis of imperialism made the influence of this class all the more necessary as mass incarceration, surveillance, and unemployment would come to characterize Black life in the US from the 1980s onward.
Over the last three and a half decades, the world capitalist system has undergone a process of decay that has necessitated the monopolization of all sectors of US society. An increasingly disposable and criminalized Black labor force coincided with the consolidation of the corporate media. The consolidation of the corporate media included the monopolization of the music industry that created Kanye West and Beyonce. Today, six corporations own 90 percent of the media and the same is true about the record industry as a sub-sector. Corporate subsidiaries such as Warner Music Group control the music and careers of signed artists and enforce the ideological regime of imperialism through the sale of their processed music.
“Using Ali to defend Beyonce or Kanye West gives undue attention to those who don't deserve it.”
This is why, despite all the praise she has received, Beyonce’s music is void of political content, and why she invests millions in sweatshop production. Corporate control over the music industry also explains why Kanye West has become such a twisted and maligned figure in public eye. Ultimately, Black labor is only useful when it degrades, dehumanizes, or sanitizes Black struggle and Black people. Beyonce can dress up in Black Panther dress and subsequently fail to use her platform to educate others about the Black Panther Party precisely because she is selling a product, not building a movement. The same goes for Kanye West and all corporate artists.
Mohammed Ali's legacy must be kept away from the corporate gaze of the media. The ruling class has desperately sought to suppress the ideas of anti-imperialism and Black liberation ever since the movement that brought Ali's politics to life was brutally repressed isolated. If these politics are going to be revived and applied in the 21st century, it certainly won't be any of the corporate music industry's "artists" that lead the way forward. Using Ali to defend Beyonce or Kanye West is not only fruitless, but also potentially dangerous. It gives undue attention to those who don't deserve it. Instead of hiding behind "conservative America" in liberal fashion as identity political liberalism often does, the focus for a true movement for social transformation must be on uniting revolutionary ideology and practice among the exploited and oppressed. Only the grave diggers of the world capitalist system can force the celebrities of today to either help build a new world or be swept away with the old.
Danny Haiphong is an Asian activist and political analyst in the Boston area. He can be reached at [email protected]