Kalam and Kanye embody the binary of good minority/bad minority.On 28 August, the New Delhi Municipal Council announced it was changing the name of Aurangzeb Road to APJ Abdul Kalam Road, in honour of the former President. Just two days later, at the Video Music Awards in the United States, the rapper, producer and fashion designer Kanye West announced that he was running for President in 2020. These two events have nothing to do with each other, but they still make a nice juxtaposition—and not just because they both involve (former or potential) presidents. The two announcements, and the figures behind them, reveal much about the way that India and America handle their minorities, juggling assimilation, appropriation, marginalisation, conciliation and control.
In India, the situation is nicely summed up by the anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani’s phrase “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.” Mamdani coined the phrase immediately after the 9/11 attacks, in the context of Islamophobia in America, but the idea applies equally well to India. Mamdani was critiquing the tendency to divide “dangerous” populations into a potentially civilised, moderate, self-controlled “good” side and a barbarous, fanatical, uncontrollable “bad” side. But, as Mamdani argues, the ruling classes don’t just see two groups of Muslims, one to ally with, one to fight against. Instead, all Muslims are potentially bad, potentially suspect; they must prove themselves to be on the “good” side of the divide. In recent days, this logic was articulated with great clarity by the Union Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma, who noted that APJ Abdul Kalam was a great president “despite being Muslim.”
If Abdul Kalam is the archetypal “Good Muslim” (vegetarian, veena-playing, Gita-quoting), then Aurangzeb is surely the epitome of the “Bad Muslim.” Portrayed as some kind of bogeyman, Aurangzeb is known as a fanatical destroyer of temples and purveyor of religious bigotry. In reality, things were not so simple: Aurangzeb did destroy some temples (a practice that was common not just to Muslim leaders but to Hindu kings as well), but he also gave grants and land to other temples.
As Mamdani argues, the ruling classes don’t just see two groups of Muslims, one to ally with, one to fight against. Instead, all Muslims are potentially bad, potentially suspect; they must prove themselves to be on the “good” side of the divide.
Mamdani’s larger point is that the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim divide relies on cultural essences (the irrational fanatic vs the urbane moderate) that obscure much more complicated relationships between history, religion and politics. Looked at politically, Abdul Kalam and Aurangzeb share at least one quality: they were both keenly interesting in developing the state’s military strength, Aurangzeb through conquest, Abdul Kalam through missile systems. But such confluences are blocked out by a myopic focus on the supposedly eternal differences between cultural types.
In the United States, while religious discrimination is hardly unknown, the main cultural dividing line has long been race. In this context, Kanye’s surprise presidential announcement takes on added significance. It’s hard to know if Kanye is serious; the media, along with political and cultural figures, have largely treated the announcement as an elaborate joke, another of Kanye’s attempts at spectacle. Certainly, if does run, he’ll be seen as a purely novelty candidate.
But Kanye is important because he refuses to play the role of the “good” cultural minority. He is no Abdul Kalam. Or, to make the more apt presidential comparison: he is no Barack Obama. Like Muslims, African-Americans have consistently been divided into the “good” (calm, accommodating, reformist) and the bad (angry, brash, revolutionary). And even the “good” ones are constantly suspected and made to prove their loyalty.
Like Muslims, African-Americans have consistently been divided into the “good” (calm, accommodating, reformist) and the bad (angry, brash, revolutionary). And even the “good” ones are constantly suspected and made to prove their loyalty.
Obama has cultivated the image of an eminently reasonable, calm and reform-minded politician. But he has still been met with hysterical resistance, from doubts about the validity of his birth certificate to wild claims that he is destroying America. (Obama’s case is complicated by the fact that his father was born a Muslim, though he later became Christian, and even later, an atheist; for white American chauvinist, Obama is thus doubly suspect.)
Perhaps in an attempt to bolster his patriotic credentials, Obama has distanced himself from Kanye, twice calling him a “jackass.” (Kanye replied cleverly, in his song ‘Power’: “They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation; well that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation.”) For Obama, this makes pragmatic sense; Kanye often appears as pure id, with all the upsides and downsides this entails. He rambles, he blusters, he boasts, he makes brash claims. But beyond that, Kanye aligns himself with an image that, for Obama, is too dangerous to touch: the angry black man, willing to speak truth to power.
Kanye refuses to play the Good Minority/Bad Minority game; never one for humility, he puts himself in the lineage of Malcolm X and Mohammad Ali, revered figures who channeled the anger and outrage of a long-oppressed community. But he also undercuts his own claims to greatness by, for instance, playfully changing Malcolm X’s militant slogan “By any means necessary” to the crassly consumerist “Buy any jeans necessary.”
Beneath the bombast and bluster are surprisingly sharp political insights and critiques. Kanye is intensely aware of his own materialism, and of the showiness that epitomises hip-hop culture.
This mixing of the sacred and profane is a key element of Kanye’s appeal (alongside, of course, his prodigious musical talent). And beneath the bombast and bluster are surprisingly sharp political insights and critiques. Kanye is intensely aware of his own materialism, and of the showiness that epitomises hip-hop culture. He both revels in it and despairs of it. His latest album Yeezus is, in part, about how blacks in America are either trapped in cycles of vicious poverty or lured into the world of conspicuous consumption. As he says in the bluntly-titled song ‘New Slaves’:
You see it’s broke nigga racism
That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”
And it’s rich nigga racism
That’s that “Come in, please buy more”
“What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same things”
This is not Kanye’s first dip into politics. He was widely criticised for his impromptu remark during a Hurricane Katrina fund-raiser: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Of course, this was absolutely true: whatever Bush’s personal feelings about minorities, his policies and actions as President made it clear that he did little to help the most oppressed in America.
And Kanye was not just going after the president. Earlier in his improvised remarks, he said, “I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’” Again, completely true.
If Kanye really does run for president, his opponents may attack him for his antics or for his ego. But for many, the real problem is that he steadfastly refuses to be a “good” minority.
If Kanye really does run for president, his opponents may attack him for his antics or for his ego. But for many, the real problem is that he steadfastly refuses to be a “good” minority. There’s very little chance he’d get elected president; he probably won’t get any roads named after him either. But, if the rapturous applause he received at the Video Music Awards is any indication, he has tapped into widespread feelings of discontent and disillusionment. He has said good riddance to the role of the “good” minority, and his audience seems happy to follow him.