CIU 210 - Audio-Visual Essay
Kanye west is a famous American rapper/producer and having one 21 Grammies ("Kanye West", 2017), I don’t think he needs an introduction. Apart from being really famous and respected worldwide as a musical and creative genius, he is equally infamous and heavily criticised for his controversial lyrics, public outbursts and statements.
Kanye West on George Bush
Kanye West at VMA 2009
Black Skinhead, stylised as (BLKKK SKKKN HEAD) was released in 2013 as a music video from his sixth studio album "Yeezus".
Methodology and Ideology
The song is dark and rebellious with the video containing dark imagery with anti-establishment and anti-racism themes and I will use semiotic analysis methodology to demonstrate how the various signs depicted in this media text are used to oppose the dominant ideologies of race; as in black stereotypes, with some references to media bias and cultural hegemony and its naturalisation within the black community; on a satirical and a dark humorous note.
About the Ideologies
The dominant ideologies of race are that white people are a superior race in terms of intellect. Another belief of this ideology is that this intellectual superiority ultimately gives the white man a right to dominate and rule the black people. The video tries to point out how the American media negatively portrays black community as uneducated street criminals and drug-addicts. I believe that this media text also refers to cultural hegemony because through this Music Video, West tries to point out how the ruling classes, or in this case the white supremacists, manipulate the system and the media to reinforce their power and ideology in America.
In the video, running parallel to the above mentioned ideologies, Kanye also tries to explain his own personal responsibilities and his responsibilities towards others as an influential and powerful celebrity. He tries to showcase his rise to fame, his struggles within the industry (more importantly with the Record Labels and the media) and also tries to predict what may happen to him in the future.
The video title is a reference to the Ku Klux Klan or KKK; an American white supremacist terrorist group which used violence to oppose and intimidate black leaders in 1860s during the reconstruction era in the southern states and during the civil rights movement in the 1960s ("Ku Klux Klan", 2017). The term Skinhead refers to a cultural movement, which originated in Britain in the 1960s, who were identified by their shorter hair and more working class image. Their short hair may have come about for practical reasons, since long hair could be a liability in industrial jobs and street fights ("Skinhead", 2017).
KKK . Image taken from http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/kkk-fliers-washington_n_6785614
The title itself explains a lot about the video. The letters KKK in the title symbolise the African-American struggle, slavery and racism in American history. By just looking at the title, one could understand what the media text is going to be about. If it had been used by any other artist; especially a non- American one; KKK might’ve not represent the same thing. It could've symbolised something completely different, but only because the artist here is American and that too, a black American; we can connote the letters to slavery and the history of black people in America.
Coming back to the video; it opens with three figures who look like black men, wearing black conical hoods, resembling those worn by the Ku Klux Klan. Their hoods form a black border that covers most of the screen and the silhouettes of the outlying cones which resemble sharp fangs of an animal stay on each end throughout the video ("Black Skinhead", 2017) suggesting that we’re looking from a predator’s point of view; which could possibly be a wolf as suggested by the lyrics. The fangs are white, with white carrying positive connotations of (light, day, purity) and the rest of the frame is predominantly black, carrying negative connotations of (dark, night, evil) (Hawking, 2017). Throughout the video, the primary action takes place in the middle portion of the screen, which features various CGI versions of West dancing and rapping ("Black Skinhead", 2017). The video is predominantly black and white or charcoal coloured which again signifies black v/s white or good v/s evil.
The black-hooded men
The denotations here are the three black men wearing black KKK hoods. They are first seen with their eyes closed, implying that they’re asleep and when they open their eyes, they look directly into the camera, which signifies awakening and connotes that they’ve had enough.
I believe that the first scene signifies defiance and mocks the white supremacists. The connotation here is that its time for the oppressors to pay. The white fangs signify us, the self-righteous audience and the media; who are about to witness this deposition of power. Furthermore, we see the hoods spread out like a cape, which resembles spreading of the wings of a bat, signifying growth or takeover.
For the men to be three is also deliberate and important. According to ("Significance of three", 2017), the number 3 itself holds a lot of significance. In the Christian faith tradition, the number 3, symbolised by the Trinity (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer), has come to mean wholeness. The three attributes of God are omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence. Many phases of life happen in combinations of three:
some believe in life/death/rebirth
Dogs vs. Wolves
The three men then transition into these scary agitated Doberman dogs, which again signifies that they’re angry. We can also hear wolf howls in the background, which could be a sign of danger for the dogs or their master.
Dogs symbolise loyalty and the agitated expression is an index of anger from oppression and slavery. The choice of the dogs here is also important. Dobermans are traditionally known to be extremely loyal and great guard dogs. Although they are considered to be working dogs, Doberman are often stereotyped as being ferocious and aggressive ("Doberman Pinscher", 2017). The connotation here is that black slaves used to be loyal to their white owners. They were like guard dogs who would protect their masters from danger. But now, they are angry at this prolonged abuse and mistreatment.
The real skinheads
In the next scene, we see a group of bald black men facing away from the camera, possibly representing the "real black skinheads". They all have shaven heads which is iconic to the black slaves in history. This scene signifies dehumanisation and is self-derogatory. The men look like an army of identical automatons, shorn of any personality or agency. Their facing away from the camera indicates internalised racism and self-degradation (Hawking, 2017).
Next, we see a CGI caricature of West, rising from within the slaves. It’s facing away from the camera, then turns around to reveal that its face is hidden. The strange human hybrid is then seen dancing to the music in Kanye-like moves. I would also like to point out that the transition to this scene from the previous skinheads’ scene incorporated some fast moving frames, which could signify lashes of a whip.
The denotations here are:
the turning towards the audience from the initial position of the skinheads
facelessness of the character
scars on the body
The connotations that I can derive from this scene are that after repeated mistreatment of the black slaves (skinheads), which is indexed by the lashes; a faceless monster emerged and is ready to face the perpetrators of this oppression. It will not turn its back on this cruelty (or look the other way) and will fight for justice. "Facelessness" is iconic of not belonging to a particular individual and signifies a group. This creature represents the black community as a whole. The scars on the body are evidence of oppression and somewhat justifies my observation of the whip lashes (fast moving frames).
I believe this to be a representation of a young Kanye West or more importantly, early stages of most successful black rappers or entrepreneurs.
The Gold Chain
Next, we see another CGI version of West come forth and rap and move along to the song. The focus here is again taken away from the face of the character and instead put on a large shiny gold chain that he’s wearing.
The image of a chain carries obvious connotations of slavery, but here it’s a gold chain, instead of an iron one. West talks about this in his other song from the same album called “New Slaves”, where he discusses “rich nigga racism” and how the same people who enslaved his ancestors are only too pleased to take his money: “Come in, please buy more/ What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?/All you blacks want all the same things/ Spending everything on Alexander Wang” (Hawking, 2017).
Watch this music video by American rapper Lupe Fiasco; aimed at the reality of the music industry and its negative influence on the people.
This gold chain is an icon of what slavery has turned into today. According to West, most of the black musicians, producers and rappers are owned by "white bosses". These modern day black men are tricked in by large rewards and payouts to spread the white supremacist agenda of portraying black people as gangsters and drug dealers and their women as “Bitches”. West thinks that these black people (artists), including him, are the “New Slaves”.
We see an image of West with his eyes gleaming like a demon and another image of west with wolves in the background.
As indicated by the lyrics, these images imply that he is possessed by the demons of the white supremacists, who are also his bosses. They make him say and do stuff to influence and shape the industry, upcoming artists, fans, etc. according to their own personal racist and promoting black stereotypical agenda. Kanye admits being a part of this system which is also evident from the second image below with the wolves. The expression and mannerism of the wolves with respect to Kanye are indices of a team, or being on the same side. Even in the lyrics, we can hear Kanye say,” I’m aware I’m a wolf”. The lyrics and the imagery represent self realisation and regret. Wolves are a connotation of being bad.
Scars & Armour
We see another transformation of the CGI West in which he is seen having armour-like textures on his virtual skin and deep scars on his back.
The armour connotes strength and resilience but his mannerisms suggest that he is tired, implicating that this new West is like a worn out soldier. The armour could also be a reference to “300”, a movie about strength, courage, honour and loyalty. Further signs of this can be seen in the lyrics,” I keep it 300, like the Romans”. Note that the soldiers in the movie "300" were Greek, not Romans. Kanye did this deliberately to indicate that he is portraying his own version of reality. This is also evident in another line from the song,“Trapped in a theater like Hitler" as you may already know, in real life, Hitler was never actually trapped in a theater. He died in a bunker. Kanye is referencing the movie “Inglourious Basterds”. Kanye isn’t referencing real life, he’s referencing the media’s version of real life.
Hitler's death in Inglourious Basterds, 2009.
According to ("A meaning behind 'Black Skinhead'", 2017) Kanye deliberately referenced two historical events, that had famous movies based on them, and referenced the media’s version of these real events, as opposed to what actually happened. By doing so, Kanye is making an extended metaphor on how real life can be altered by the media, a concept which correlates to his own life (how the media perceives him as an ****, etc).
Kanye West v/s The Paparazzi
I think the video is trying to signify West’s realisation of his past mistakes and his present condition after trying to bring a change in himself and the industry. The unmistakable scars on virtual Kanye’s face and back are a strong and instantly identifiable signifier of America’s dark past as well as his own personal struggles within the music industry. The armour and the scars together suggest that he is powerful (rich and famous) and fighting hard for his community but he’s also getting tired of all the negative publicity and mistreatment he’s been getting from the bias media and powerful people in the music industry.
The Fame Monster
In another scene, we see West transform into this weird glitchy-looking faceless monster. This monster has a striking resemblance to singer Lady Gaga and her strange 2009 MTV Music Video Awards outfit. Lady Gaga has also released an album called “The Fame Monster”.
In my opinion, West is implying that he has turned into this avant-garde and fashion-crazy fame monster; which is quite evident from his past and current multi-million dollar deals with brands like Louis Vuitton, Bape and Adidas. His fashion enthusiasm involves a lot of money; part of which he spends and part of which he earns. See http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-style/news/kanye-wests-yeezys-are-the-priciest-sneakers-of-the-year-w430077
The glitchy monster could symbolise a modern-day or the digital age phenomena. West considers himself to be too popular as he is always on the news and in the public spotlight (mostly for the bad reasons).
In the final scenes, we see the monster’s downfall, which signifies the myth of Hollywood, where stars are born and the life of glamour gets to them and then they are crushed under their own weight. This myth is also signified by another version of the CGI character, which is seen to be too muscular to be true. It looks like an exaggeratedly buff version of West.
The above image is an index of too much power to be contained or being too full of oneself. The video implies that West is so powerful that it’s consuming him. This could also be a reference to the Marvel comic character, Hulk.
The final clip is of Kanye lying down in a pose reminiscent of Jesus on the cross, the camera zooming towards his face as the word “God!” is repeatedly chanted in the background.
By equating himself to a holy figure, Kanye is signifying his power and influence as a popular celebrity. He is like "a modern-day Jesus" to his people. But he also points out that this defiance against the industry will cost him just as Jesus was crucified by the Romans. His popularity and influence will be the ultimate reason for his downfall.
Although, the video and the song are minimalistic and may not seem much to an average audience, the message and meaning behind this media text are indeed very powerful and deep. In addition to the video, the lyrics themselves convey a lot more information than I have already included in this essay and a full analysis of them would require another 2000 words, so to conclude, I would like to say that by using semiotic analysis methodology, I have demonstrated how this media text represents self-deprecating and satirical themed visuals, sound production and lyrics to oppose the dominant ideologies of racism, media bias and cultural hegemony and its naturalisation.
JTJ, F. (2017). Kanye West: Genius or Moron?. The Hippo Collective Magazine. Retrieved 31 March 2017, from http://www.thehippocollective.com/2015/09/03/kanye-west-genius-or-moron-cartoon-logic-2/
Hawking, T. (2017). Deconstructing the Imagery in Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” Video. Flavorwire. Retrieved 31 March 2017, from http://flavorwire.com/405339/deconstructing-the-imagery-in-kanye-wests-black-skinhead-video
You tried, Kanye. You tried.. (2017). Gender studies. Retrieved 29 March 2017, from https://12ms158.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/deconstructing-blkkk-skkkn-head-yeezus-and-kanyes-attempts-at-anti-racism/
A meaning behind 'Black Skinhead'. (2017). Genius. Retrieved 29 March 2017, from https://genius.com/discussions/27139-A-meaning-behind-black-skinhead
Kanye West – Black Skinhead. (2017). Genius. Retrieved 30 March 2017, from https://genius.com/Kanye-west-black-skinhead-lyrics
Kanye West - BLKKK SKKKN HEAD (Explicit). (2017). YouTube. Retrieved 28 March 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q604eed4ad0
Significance of three. (2017). Shawlministry.com. Retrieved 31 March 2017, from https://www.shawlministry.com/significance_of_three.htm
Feathers, a red lace mask and a bridal headdress... Lady GaGa stuns in five outrageous outfits at the MTV VMAs. (2017). Mail Online. Retrieved 31 March 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1213289/Lady-GaGa-stuns-outrageous-outfits-MTV-VMAs.html
Ku Klux Klan. (2017). En.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 30 March 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan
Black Skinhead. (2017). En.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 30 March 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Skinhead
Skinhead. (2017). En.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 30 March 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skinhead
Doberman Pinscher. (2017). En.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 30 March 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doberman_Pinscher
Kanye West. (2017). En.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 29 March 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanye_West