Nothing’s certain in life but death, taxes and Kanye West stealing the limelight at award ceremonies. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. But as the dust settles on Wednesday’s Brit Awards, conversation continues to be about Madonna’s unfortunate cape slip. Apparently elder pop stars being susceptible to laws of gravity like the rest of us is a really big deal, or something. Anyways, it’s meant that for once, Kanye’s been outdone in the controversy stakes. Which is a shame, because of all the rapper’s many awards show acts of sabotage, his performance at London’s O2 was arguably his most interesting yet – an on-point political and cultural statement that’s been written off by many of as a stupid mishap.
Immediate reactions to the performance of new track ‘All Day’ centred on the fact it was all but impossible to hear the song from home. Kanye caused ITV to mute huge chunks of the lyrics by littering it with what the channel called “inappropriate language” – by our count, fourteen uses of the word “nigga” and a couple of curses. According to a source at ITV, Kanye broke a promise to perform a clean version and, despite performing after the 9pm watershed, the track was censored to the point where you could barely get a feel for its huge bass rattles and defiant baller rhymes (“shopping for the winter and it’s just May, nigga!”). Rather than outrage, like at the Grammys when he ransacked Beck’s Best Album acceptance speech, Twitter was this time full of patronising chuckles from rockist bores: what kind of idiot ruins the world premiere of their new single by dropping language like that all over it? Of course ITV were going to mute him. He’s only got himself to blame. Right?
Wrong. Kanye’s a perfectionist as well as a provocateur, and knew exactly what he was doing. Search YouTube for previous TV performances and you’ll see that, when it comes to switching swears for primetime prudes, he’s a total pro (my favourite? The way he swaps “bitches” for chickens on this Jools Holland rendition of ‘Bound 2’). Instead, his coarse, uncompromising performance of ‘All Day’ – a dark, violent thunderclap of guitars and trap rattles that makes me wanna punch through walls, by the way – did exactly what it meant to do. It continued the one-man political and cultural protest he’s been raging for years: a protest against the cosy culture nature of white-wash mainstream music awards and their persistent failure to recognise black artists.
A grand total of 16 black performers have graced the stage in the last five years at the Brit Awards. Kanye put almost double that number onstage on Wednesday, performers from a genre that’s grossly overlooked by mainstream media. Krept and Konan, Boy Better Know and Novelist were just some of the luminaries from London’s grime scene standing with Kanye as the dystopian murk of ‘All Day’ rang out to 5.8m viewers at home. With artists from a genre rooted in London’s impoverished underclass lit by tall flumes of flame, each with their hood up, it struck some as a protest forged in the fires of 2011’s London riots: a subject Kanye recently described as an inspiration for his new Adidas range. “Last night a statement was made,” as Wiley tweeted afterwards. “Kanye knows the Brits ain’t letting dons in there like that so he kicked off the door for us.”
Kanye brought a 25-man gang of grime performers onstage for the same reason he refused to tone down his language for the performance: he wanted to challenge the way black music is ghettoised and the way black performers, as he perceives it, are routinely passed over at mainstream music awards ceremonies. When you consider Macklemore has more Grammys than Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., DMX, Busta Rhymes, KRS-One, Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Big Pun, Jeezy, Ja Rule, and Kendrick Lamar combined, you wonder if he has a point.
‘All Day’ was first announced in passing in an interview with GQ last summer, and has been eagerly anticipated ever since. It’s a song simply about “winning”, he told them: while his lyrics normally dwell on the struggle he had to go through to become the success he is today, ‘All Day’ simply basks in that success, boasting about his hours spent in the mall spending his millions. It’s the way long-time collaborator Jay Z writes: “He’s the poster child of winning,” said Kanye. “And I think I was the poster child of, like, fighting and winning. But you always saw the fight. And with Jay, you always saw the win.” But while ‘All Day’ itself is pretty apolitical, the way it was presented on Wednesday was anything but.