I feel like me and Kanye might still be friends.
Not that he has any reason to befriend me, but I like to think we could understand each other if we ever met. I’ve spent a lot of time with his music, and as tends to happen, I feel I’ve grown close to him. I’ve grown with him, even, or at least with my idea of who he is.
I don’t think it’s uncommon to feel this way about an artist. It’s especially easy with Kanye, who writes both the good and the bad of himself into his music. His voice is strong but self-searching, earnest and upbeat. I hear his words speak frankly to me, and I suppose in my own way, I’ve answered back.
Until recently, I’ve never been compelled to question my relationship to Kanye. I’ve been staunchly (maybe even stubbornly) in support of his side of things, even when he seems at fault. And I’m not usually troubled by the criticism thrown at him.
But when several AASA members wrote an editorial calling out SAE’s use of a Kanye line as an email sign-off, I found that I couldn’t just brush things off. I felt increasingly anxious about what had happened, and it wasn’t simply because a frat had appropriated the lyric. I was troubled that the line itself was being condemned as racist and fetishizing in the same vein of disapproval, as if Kanye were somehow to blame for a frat’s immaturity.
To be clear, I was not surprised by the critique, nor was I really in disagreement with it. I know that “Eating Asian pussy” isn’t the best example of Kanye’s sensitivity. I’m aware that analogies to cheap takeout are reductive and amount to casual racism. I see how the reference is dehumanizing, how it fetishizes Asian women, and how it ultimately perpetuates a racialized misogyny that leads directly or indirectly to violence against women.
I had no reason to question the arguments in that editorial. I probably should have even been more enthusiastic about it. And yet, I felt discomfort. The song isn’t even about that, I wanted to argue. I felt that maybe Kanye had been misjudged or partially scapegoated. And it seemed so important to separate out SAE’s quotation of the line from Kanye’s line itself.
Are the two things different? I think this is an important question. I believe that they are, and I believe that originality has something to do with it, that the context and authenticity of voice change how we should consider and evaluate identical words.
What are we meant to understand when someone uses another person’s words to say something that they “would never say” themselves? It’s pretty clear that they still mean to say whatever the other person has said. But attributing the words to someone else disassociates them from ownership and thus from responsibility.
In this case, SAE’s use of the line is a kind of self-congratulatory way of encouraging sexual conquest without openly claiming the misogyny their words embrace. They seem to understand that it’s not okay to say simply what they mean, i.e. “Hey, let’s go out and fuck Asian chicks because they’re cheap and available to us.” So they hide behind someone else’s words. And they didn’t write the line, so what’s the problem? Shouldn’t we be pointing fingers at the original perpetrator? Kanye is an easy target for this sort of criticism, conveniently enough.
The line is controversial, the line is crass. Okay. But it’s also more complicated than that, especially given other lyrics in the song and in the rest of the album. So much of Kanye’s style is saying one thing and then unsaying it in the next line. He breathes braggadocio but cuts deep into his own bullshit just as readily. A lot of Yeezus (and Life of Pablo for that matter) concerns his own failings as he navigates a celebrity lifestyle he can no longer sustain.
I feel it’s important to stress that the two instances of “Eating Asian pussy” are pretty significantly different. I don’t say this in order to diminish Kanye’s share of responsibility, but I think appropriative and evasive behavior needs to be recognized for what it is.
At the same time, despite what I want to believe about the frat email, I won’t try and pretend that it makes me feel good to defend Kanye on this point. Why am I reluctant to condemn him? Faced with the complex questions that AASA has posed, what does it mean that I’m ready to give this kind of answer?
When Yeezus came out, I remember one of my Asian-American guy friends raving about the “Eating Asian pussy” line. “It’s so good,” he would say, laughing in awe. When I asked him why he liked it, he told me it was funny and clever. I guess I never felt quite so excited about it, but I also didn’t stop listening. In fact, I don’t remember ever feeling consciously offended by the song, at least not in the way it seems other people were put off.
It’d be way easier for me to understand if I were just flat-out offended. Maybe then I could feel less wary that my reaction is somehow wrong or incoherent, the product of some self-annihilating mixture of internalized racism and misogyny.
But maybe that’s not fair. Truthfully, I think there’s something strangely and ambiguously positive about the lyric. On some level, I hear the reference to Americanized Chinese fast food as an inclusive gesture. I think the reference certainly carries with it an element of cheapness that, when mapped onto women, is highly destructive. But there’s also a way in which it celebrates and embraces. Like, hey! Asian culture exists and we can eat it!
It’s a low bar. But I hear the cheeky tone of voice, and I think about how, even though classism and xenophobia still inform our attitudes towards people and food, there’s something really possible and exciting about being part of the cultural fabric. People need to see themselves represented, and even when the roles are problematic, that silver lining of recognition makes it hard to turn away.
I watched a lot of old movies this summer, most of them from a Hollywood that had yet to understand “Oriental” as an antiquated term. I would see these young Asian women playing roles that I could never imagine existing today—Dragon Ladies, geishas, helpless dolls, hypersexualized prostitutes, etc.—and feel sad for them. Pity them, even, for not knowing or caring what kinds of ideas they were unintentionally perpetuating.
But I also heard some actresses explain why they took the role. Many of them recognized how few opportunities Asian Americans had as actors and actresses in mainstream film, and instead of giving up on acting, they found reason to play even these undesirable parts. One woman, Nancy Kwan, really did gain international fame. And she became one of the most important figures to change Hollywood’s attitude towards people of Asian heritage starring in major films.
I think there’s a reasonable comparison to be made here between Kanye’s line and the orientalist film roles. Both scenarios represent inclusivity—on society’s often degrading terms, maybe—but inclusivity nonetheless.
Maybe that a problematic song lyric could feel inclusive is not such a good thing. But at least Kanye’s line does feel that way to me. SAE’s misuse of his line could never feel positive.
Kanye owns his line openly, disarmingly. The lyric is only part of what he writes, and having the context of the rest of the song and album and everything else I know about him frames the line differently for me. SAE’s sign-off, on the other hand, is an interpretive act. It pulls the line from its context and makes Kanye’s words predatory rather than celebratory. Quotation twists the lyric into an aggressive group mantra.
Some people might disagree that there’s a meaningful difference between the two uses of the line, but maybe this is where my relationship to Kanye’s music helps me hear him differently. I know I am implicated in his words by force, but what makes a difference to our conversation is that I choose to see his lyrics as inclusive. I want to opt in, and I wonder if this is what everyone does with the artists that they love, admire, choose to quote. Like SAE (and unlike them), I find my own meaning in Kanye’s words.