by Ben Tuthill
On October 30th a professor and residential advisor at Yale University wrote an email to her students about racial appropriation and Halloween costumes, opening up a long-brewing blackhole of anxiety and confusion over institutional racism and academic discourse. Since then, Yale – and the rest of the United States – has been caught up in new and this time particularly poignant conversation about race, identity, and what the hell to do about it. It’s a debate we’ve been having since before our Civil War. In many ways it feels like one questionable email is finally bringing it to its head.
On the same day, Travi$ $cott and Kanye West released the Nabil-directed video for their single Piss On Your Grave. I don’t want to force a parallel; plenty of unrelated events happen at the same coincidental time. There’s nothing to indicate that Nabil’s video has any intention of reflecting the spirit of what’s happening on American college campuses. But I think the Yale protests and his video are manifestations of the same inchoate force, and it’s impossible for anyone who’s invested in both American identity politics and the career of Kanye West to not feel a painful connection.
Nabil’s greatest technical talent is his landscape cinematography, and Piss On Your Grave is maybe his best work yet. The forest clearing is stunningly idyllic. There’s nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now. It’s warm, it’s clean, it’s quiet. I can’t imagine a more jarring presence in that setting than Kanye West. He looks like he literally can’t handle the quiet: he won’t keep still, his typical agitation reduced to pacing and head jerks. Mos Def and Travi$ Scott match his nervous aggression: Mos keeps a stocking over his face and communicates only through upward-thrusting middle fingers; Travis Scott smokes a joint but can’t stay still long enough to lean against his tree for more than ten seconds. Like Grant Singer’s U Mad and the BRIT Award’s performance of All Day earlier this year, the only palpable emotion here is anger. It’s indirect and sputtering, going nowhere and directed at no one in particular. But it’s very much there at the surface, dressed up with nowhere to go maybe only because it has *everywhere* to go.
The line that sticks out to me most from the first few days of the Yale confrontation is one that seems emblematic of the movement as a whole: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain”. The Atlantic article that quotes it depicts it as an absurdism, the same way that it makes the painful video of a young black woman screaming “Who the fuck are you?” in the face of a defensive white professor seem comedically apoplectic. But to write that off as unrealistic millennial solipsism is to directly ignore the obvious truth: there is pain, being felt, right now, and no one is paying enough to attention to listen to it.
To the casual (white) observer, the Yale protests don’t *make sense*, in the same way that Kanye and Travi$’s undirected rage doesn’t *make sense* to the casual viewer. Listening to a college student scream “You shouldn’t sleep at night!” to an apparently reasonable professor doesn’t make any sense any more than Kanye shouting “piss on your grave, I’ll piss in your face, I’ll piss on your bitch, I’ll piss on your date” to a reasonable me. But, to quote another Kanye West song, “it doesn’t have to make sense”. This isn’t a debate.
This is a Nabil video, which means that some abstract force enters before the end to render everything previous null. In this case, it’s an enormous, skeleton filled grave opening up underneath Kanye and co.’s feat. It’s a horrifying idea that something so agonizingly desirable as an immaculate forest clearing can exist on top of a bloodfield of rotting corpses. It’s an even more horrifying idea that that clearing can rip open up in front of you and air out its agony like a re-torn scar. And maybe the most horrifying idea of all is the realization that there’s nothing at all that you can do about it.
There are alternatives, I guess. You can push someone in. You can throw yourself in. Maybe someday you can fill it in or build a bridge across it. But no one in Travi$ and Kanye’s world knows how to do that yet. For today all they can do is stand at the edge and look. The debate, if it comes, will have to come later. Right now, there’s pain, and all we can do is shout, and piss, and listen.