On Wednesday October 20, 2016 at 8pm I attended the Kanye West Saint Pablo Tour at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington. This was my first time seeing West in concert, so I didn’t mind the fact that he was over an hour and a half late. Only excitement and anticipation in me grew as others nearby got frustrated and left, thinking he may not come out…but it’s Kanye. I wasn’t going to allow myself to miss out on this incredible experience.
The lights finally dimmed down to a near darkness around 9:30pm. Following this was a loud eruption from the crowd as Kanye walked onto a slanted platform that lifted him above the middle of the arena over the heads of hundreds of fans that were standing in the court area of the venue. As the stage moved over the top of the crowed, like a flying saucer, you could see the people underneath mirroring the bottom of the stage like rippling water.
He stood in the center of the platform, his face barely visible from my seat at the top of the venue. Light illuminated from underneath the stage where I watched fans on the ground floor dancing below. There was a large screen hovering over the platform that I barely paid attention to, until on it I noticed the chain hanging from the center of Kanye’s back. Like a dog tethered to a pole, a metal chain was leashed from his back to the center of the platform. It tugged from the floor as he approached all edges of the stage, following as he made each step.
At first I assumed it was for safety purposes, and it probably did perform some of those functions, but the image of bondage was taken to another level as soon as I was able to grasp what Kanye was wearing: He had no shoes on, high cuffed pants that exposed his ankles, and the illusion of a blood stained shirt from the red lighting that illuminated over the stage. As a Black woman, I find myself very sensitive to images of slavery, no matter how implicit, but this seemed obvious and intentional. Was Kanye performing to an arena full of thousands of White fans as a slave? I asked my friend, also an African American, what he thought about what Kanye was wearing and he responded matter of factly, “Yeah, he’s dressed as a slave.”
I second guessed my opinion, not because I couldn’t believe it, but because the arena was dark and shadowy, and I could barely see him on the stage. In addition to the shadowiness of the arena itself, the live screen, although showing a close up of Kanye on the platform, was littered with special effects that reddened, blurred and manipulated the screen’s images. Because of this piecing together the slave theme was awkward, even as a African American sensitive to the images. Therefore, I know overall this message most likely flew over many people’s heads, literally. I posted on twitter, to find that even many Blacks did not notice the relationship between his attire and the slave era. West’s inclusion of “Blood on the Leaves” which begin’s with a sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” ties together the theme of Black chattel slavery in the states, the intensity of her voice in the song always resonates with me,
“Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Blood on the leaves…
Black Bodies hanging in the Southern breeze”
Was he illustrating his being a slave to the industry? Kanye West is one of the few African American world-famous rappers that owns his own label, GOOD (Getting Out Our Dreams) Music Inc. that he founded in 2004. I’ve written other articles that focus on Black musicians that are ‘slaves’ to the industry, working under white owned labels while performing cookie cutter pieces that re-enforce negative, white-supremacist ideals of Blackness. But, unlike an ignorant ‘signed’ rapper, Kanye is what my dad describes as a music genius. Similar to musicians like Stevie Wonder and Michael
Jackson, Kanye is involved in multiple aspects of his music career as a writer, producer, designer and entrepreneur. This is the Black Excellence I was able to witness that pulled me towards Kanye West as I watched him perform Wednesday night. As a producer, we could witness his appreciation for his beats and instrumentals as he hummed through the openings, “That’s what I like about Kanye, he makes his own beats so he gives us time to appreciate them too. It’s a part of the product,” my company told me during one of these instrumental pauses. We sat right underneath the speakers on the top of the arena, fully experiencing each beat as we watched the crowed underneath the platform of the stage. It was an incredible view.
As a Black Lives Matter Activist with a focus in writing and communications I couldn’t help but try to unwrap what Kanye was communicating in his performance. I couldn’t help but draw a relationship between Kanye’s attire and the #EndPrisonSlavery movement in the United States. Inmates (modern-day slaves) across the country have been holding the largest prison strike in history protesting the conditions and calling for the abolition of the 13th amendment. This accompanied with the newly released documentary film, The 13th, which outlines the relationship between slavery and today’s criminal justice system, is opening eyes across the country to the critical need for criminal justice reform and most importantly an end to a form of slavery that has been maintained by corporations under the theme of ‘law and order’ since the emancipation of Blacks in the United States.
I also recognize that even if Kanye is for some unlikely reason, completely unaware of the movement to end prison slavery or reform the criminal justice system, he is an intelligent and influential African American man who is aware of the negative impacts that slavery has had (and continues to have) on our community for centuries. The fact that his attire is different from the clothing he wore earlier in on the tour is what made me assume his awareness, Thursday August 25th at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana he wore redlined satin sweatpants with a jean jacket covering the chain on his back. While this time in Seattle he incorporated the chain into his appearance, as it hung from the center of the back of his white shirt. Ava DuVernay’s ‘13TH’ was released October 7, 12 days before his performance in Seattle.
In addition to this change in attire following the release of “13TH”, many of the songs that he performed were analogous with Black Lives Matter themes, like ‘Feedback’ which makes reference to the unjust deaths of Blacks as a result of widespread police brutality.
“Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us/Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us,”
Kanye’s concert was also riddled with church vibes as many of the songs he performed were gospel themed. He referenced speaking, “The good news,” a phrase that eludes to preaching the gospel. A sample of a sermon was played from Pastor T.L. Barrett opening “Father Stretch My Hands”. Kanye also preformed Jesus walks and closed the show with “Ultra Light Beam” as the light flashed over him in contrast with the darkness that engulfed the surrounding arena. During the closing, on the screen above him effects drew white light surrounding his body in an angelic shape as his platform moved back across the center audience and lowered to the ground.
The concert was everything and more than what I imaged. I have a friend who’s been trying to convince me to see Kanye live for months and now that the opportunity had come I couldn’t help but take it. Prior to the event, like many I was a fan of ‘ The Old Kanye’, missing his College Dropout and Late Registration hits. I did exploded when I heard “Heartless” (2008), my single lady theme song, I was also happy to be introduced to newer titles that I hadn’t yet heard. I was pleased to find that he mixed different eras of his work throughout the show, but now my strict love for ‘The Old Kanye’ has dissipated into an appreciated for the development of an incredible artist. The perfect combination between controversy and entertainment is the truth that I look for when consuming an artist’s work, whether that be looking at a painting or listening to a song, and that perfect combination was overwhelmingly exceeded in my attendance of Kanye West’s Saint Pablo Tour.
Below I included the setlist of the tour from his performance in Vancouver on October 17th, as soon as the Seattle setlist is published I’ll revise this with those updates.
Kanye West Saint Pablo Tour Setlist
- Father Stretch My Hands (Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir cover)
- Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1
- Pt. 2
- Pop Style (Drake cover)
- THat Part (ScHoolboy Q cover)
- Facts (Charlie Heat Version)
- Don’t Like (G.O.O.D. Music cover)
- All Day
- Black Skinhead
- Niggas in Paris (Jay-Z & Kanye West cover)
- Can’t Tell Me Nothing
- Blood on the Leaves
- Freestyle 4
- Jesus Walks
- Flashing Lights
- Low Lights
- Only One
- I Love Kanye
- Touch the Sky
- Good Life
- Ultralight Beam
So if you were wondering, now after seeing Kanye West live, Yes I am a fan of whole Kanye, not just the ‘Old Kanye’.