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Religion professor shares insight on Kanye West

Dr. Shea Watts, visiting assistant professor of religion at Wingate University. Photo by Wingate University

WINGATE — Kanye West has had a bad couple of weeks. Having already caused controversy early this month for showing up at his own fashion show wearing a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt, days later West sent the Twitterverse into a tizzy with an antisemitic late-night screed in which he said he was going to go “death con 3” on Jewish people. As a result, Adidas, Vogue and other companies have spent the past week cutting ties with the hip-hop star, costing him hundreds of millions of dollars.

Dr. Shea Watts, visiting assistant professor of religion at Wingate University, watched it all with fascination. After all, Watts, a musician himself, has been a fan since West’s debut effort, “College Dropout,” sent the rapper’s star soaring. He even gives students the option of interpreting a West song during an assignment in his Global Perspectives class.

Early this week Watts was surprised to see an email from an Insider.com reporter pop up in his inbox. “I thought it was spam,” he says.

It wasn’t. The reporter, Yoonji Han, had stumbled across a 2018 essay Watts wrote while a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary about West’s 2016 album “The Life of Pablo” and wanted Watts’s thoughts on the artist now known as “Ye.”

Watts’s takes are featured prominently in Han’s article, which presents a timeline, since 2013, of West’s public comments and song lyrics regarding slavery. Watts was fascinated by West’s characterization of a new type of Black slavery in the song “New Slaves” on “Yeezus.”

“He suggests there are different layers of racism,” Watts told Insider. “I believe he’s alluding to class and how that changes how racism is expressed and experienced. Being a new slave is about being held captive to consumerism, even assimilation of class.”

In addition to his early takes on slavery and being Black in the United States, Watts, as a religion professor and as director of contemporary worship and arts at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, has always been fascinated by West’s weaving of religious imagery and ideas into his work, from “Jesus Walks” on “College Dropout” to “No Church in the Wild” on “Watch the Throne,” his 2011 collaboration with Jay-Z, to “I Am a God” on “Yeezus.”

“Really what Kanye was arguing is that he is, not exactly Messianic, necessarily, but this sort of God figure,” Watts says. “And he was doing it in very interesting ways, and theological ways.”

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But since “The Life of Pablo” came out, West’s behavior has been erratic. Always ready to challenge received wisdom, West cozied up to Donald Trump, started wearing a Make America Great Again hat, and chastised his fellow African Americans for not breaking free of the shackles of slavery, saying that slavery “sounds like a choice.” In his paper, which he presented at the American Association of Religion conference in 2018, Watts argued that the lyrical “digression” from “Yeezus” to “Life of Pablo” was a troubling development — one that has led to West’s very bad October.

In 2018, West retroactively added a line to his song “Yikes,” rapping, “Sorry, I chose not to be no slave.” That same year, West told an audience that he would have “run, fought or got killed” had he been a slave, while also incorrectly saying there were only 800 slaves in the U.S. in the 1800s (he was off by about 4 million).

To Insider, Watts said that West’s revisionist history might be a way to use the power of positive thinking to offset bipolar disorder, with which he was diagnosed in 2016.

“He may actually believe that thinking differently about slavery actually changes things like history,” Watts said. “Thinking things into a different reality.”

Whatever the reason, West’s revisionism and antisemitic comments are “very dangerous and harmful,” Watts says.

“I mean, he’s playing right into the hands of white supremacy,” he says. “That’s the whole argument: ‘Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ What if I don’t have boots? There’s no straps there.”

Ultimately, Watts pines for the Kanye of the early 2000s.

“In a way he’s become the very thing that in his early music he hated,” he says, “which is the Black token.”

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