Kanye West on the Commodity Fetish

Last night I sat up and watched the Kanye West BBC interview that seemed to have caused a little stir on the Internet this past week or so… I am a little bit behind on my pop culture news so I’m not sure of all the discourses happening around the interview, but most of the things that I had seen concentrated on the implications of his views on race. I’d like to concentrate on what I see as his underlying point, a perhaps not-fully realized idea that seems to frustrate him deeply, especially in his inability to communicate it to the interviewer. For his final point in the interview, he basically comes to make lucidly self-aware analysis of the commodity fetish (Skip to 16:43):

And here comes another post where I use basic Marxist theory to analyze the contemporary music industry and popular culture!

I couldn’t find anything that has already been written that made the connection between Karl and the Kanye interview. There was this post on a college class’s group website – which shows that Kanye has been engaging with these ideas for a long time – and I did find a few tweets, but I couldn’t imagine that any mainstream press were doing Marxist analysis of American pop culture these days (if so, please point me in their direction!)

The reason why I find this whole thing so fascinating is that I’m not sure if Kanye West, or any of his close associates (what up Virgil!) have ever read Captial, or if they’re even aware that he’s approaching a specifically Marxist critique of Capitalism in many of his latest interviews. I can speculate that with all their current European explorations, they’ve run into some kind of Marxist philosophy, even while the engage with the upper echelon of the Capitalist design machine. But it fascinates me that he’s approximating to some of the same points as a 200 year-old German philosopher, via the commercial rap industry.

Karl Marx defines commodity fetishism in Capital Vol. 1:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was…


A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.


This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

Basically, what Kanye is seeing and trying to point out is that “products” are tied up with and contain the social context in which they are produced. From what I understand of the interview, he aims to dismantle the structural inequalities he’s come across in his career as a “creative” by taking control of the point of creation, means of production, and probably modes of distribution.

Kanye’s analysis surprises and excites me, mostly because I was initially skeptical of the Yeezus album. Not because of the music (which I loved – and thought was a decent commercial representation of the creative energy existing within contemporary New York – especially the queer party scene), not because of the content (even the exaggerated misogyny I imagine was a tool used to critique), but more because I was worried that while Kanye engaged in a critique of hyper-Capitalism from the vantage point of just beneath the “glass-ceiling”, he wasn’t really understanding that he was still fully engaged in the process of Capitalist mystification, or the creation of a commodity to be fetishized. Not that fighting the system from within the system is an easy task. His platform as a producer and rapper has put him in the place where he’s able to be heard, so it would be really hard for him to break down the same system that puts him in the place to be influential enough to question it. It’s one of the fundamental paradoxes of any artist in today’s contemporary digital, hyper-communicated era.

The Russian artists during the early-twentieth century revolutions believed that real revolutionary art educated the masses in the process behind the creation of the product, to demystify the production process, and break the cult of the commodity fetish. This is the kind of self-awareness that I want from my revolutionary products, and something that Kanye has eventually been able to do via interviews. For example, through speaking about the album, he’s been able to reveal that he worked with an assembly line of talent from both mainstream and the underground. However, for Kanye’s music, especially the Yeezus album, this demystification is not embedded in the product itself, and the consumer can choose to just ignore the interviews, or perhaps what Kanye’s saying really is just going over a lot of people’s heads. So therefore it is not a revolutionary product in itself (I don’t think Kanye would disagree – in the interview he seems disillusioned, even bored by music at the moment, mostly focused on the revolutionary potential of product design.)


I’ve recently come across some interesting alternatives to the current system of Capitalist art production and distribution that intrigue me as an artist, and resonate with me after watching the interview. They are based on speculation, but ideas worth exploring regardless. At best they could even provide a guide for creatives (like Kanye), who are wrestling with these issues.

Even though Kanye doesn’t specifically arrive at a critique of the exploitation of labor in a creative Capitalist economy (as Ben points out in the comments below), Kanye does flirt with alternative modes of value distribution. He says in the interview that by the time his daughter is six years-old, she’s going to be getting checks off of people taking her picture. I interpret this as a sort of a non-populist version of what Jaron Lanier puts forth, the idea that people should be paid for the proportion of value that put into the creative economy.

I see Lanier’s thoughts as a guide for my own vision of a future technology driven economy, creative or otherwise.

The past can also serve as a guide. Djenne-Djeno in what is now modern day Mali was an ancient cosmopolitan West African city. According Peter Garlake’s Early Art and Architecture of Africa (a book that our bad-ass Art Director Diego Gutierrez lent me) archeologists believe that in around 800 ce:

A long process of integration of different ethnic groups, craft guilds, lineage, and kinship groups, had reached maturity and made up a single urban whole. Specialist workshop quarters and efficient cartels achieved economy of scale. Competitive emulation encouraged innovation and the creation of new styles and techniques. The earliest gold jewellery to survive dates from this period.

All these developments took place before trans-Saharan contacts had been pioneered let alone established, and long before Islan reached the Niger. Jenne-Jeno was an entirely indigenous African town in its early stimuli, foundation, growth, and development. The trajectory of growth was determined by the interactions within the very mixed population and citzenry. There are no signs of any central authorities. Although excavations were far from comprehensive, no monuments, palaces, temples, barracks, or fortifications have yet been recognized. Even the town wall may have been built for protection against floodwaters rather than armies. Jenne-Jeno forces us to reasses all the presuppositions about the formation of cities and states in Africa.

This describes a dense communal and ethincally diverse urbanity in which hierarchies of royalty and empire were absent. For lack of a better description, pre-Judeo-Christian African Anarcho-Communal urban living. So what do we speculate that the role of art looked like in this society?

The scale and numbers of sculptures suggest that they were household objects, not communal shrine furniture. Only the bearded male figures can be allowed possible royal or divine connotations. They may represent heads of families or lineages or ancestral figures particular to small related groups… The art of Mali does not appear suitable for any large, monumental, public, or social role. Most of it is about private and personal concerns, pleasures and pains.


I think this is an amazing concept. Although it’s based on speculation on a past we never observed, I find it quite alluring. It basically describes an ancient industry of art in which craftspeople could make specialized, personal, and handcrafted private art for average people. Now check out this quote from Kanye’s BBC interview where he explains his goal in entering the fashion industry:

I’m trying to make a higher level of product for the real world. Because people say, “life isn’t fair.” And unless you’re Kanye West, or this pretty girl that dates a soccer player, or your parents had money, you don’t get to wear Versace all the time! And you hear it! We love Versace!… Versace is the greatest designer of all time! We love Versace!..

The creatives, they want to connect with people. These are artists. The clothing designers, they want to connect with people the same way that music gets to connect with people. But the cost of silk is too expensive, and they won’t lower their quality level.

So I can spend two million on a record and give it out in a democratic way. They could spend all their time making the greatest dress in the world, and it’s just impossible to hand make that many.

I know I may be jumping to conclusions as I wrap up here, but seeing these connections has me really excited, especially since creation combined with education has become the crux of my professional mission on this Earth!

Perhaps, for the solutions to the above problems highlighted by Kanye (and I know that we all see manifested in our contemporary youth cultures) we can look back to the past and imagine a world where we can train more individuals to specialize in highly skilled arts and design products. That way, more people could afford them and in turn more people could afford to specialize in making them. We wouldn’t have the superstars of today, but we might just have a happier general population. What if art in ancient Djenne actually had the purpose of helping facilitate a more egalitarian society, one in which diverse individuals and groups competed over aesthetics, rather than resources?

Also, I know it’s hard to draw analogy to modern times (the Garlake book warns us to not do so), but let me just indulge and imagine for a minute that perhaps African-American descendants of Djenne-Djenno living in the United States have an embedded cultural code that connects them to this ancient egalitarian urbanization. If aesthetics and peaceful communal living in a diverse society are completely intertwined in ancient West African culture, could this implied connection between aesthetics and equality also serve as the foundation for a sub-conscious obsession with aesthetics and so-called materialism amongst Americans today? I’ve always believed, and as Kanye has always tried to point out, that our contemporary world’s material obsessions are really just manifestations of a desire for equality, citizenship, and freedom from a system that exploits the many in the interest of the few, not just for the disenfranchised in the United States, but for the entire world:


  1. it makes me feel like a bit of an asshole to suggest this, cause I love Kanye most of the time, but isn’t his last sentiment there kind of like an admission of being addicted to a conditional sensation of pleasure, based entirely on material products? even to a point that he likens it to the feeling he gets when he’s being creative and imagining a completely alternate reality – maybe I’m not understanding him right…

    i like your point about kind of egalitarian production of aesthetics (see: airbush t-shirts in the 80s), but is that really what he’s getting at with his consistent glorification of the one percenter lifestyle? there’s some element of ‘if it feels good do it’ implicit in his approach to material consumption and no amount of really intelligent reflection changes the fact that he gets that across to people probably as much as any pop star in my lifetime. im not judging him, but it does kind of make it hard to see him as subversive. Kanye is kind of the poster child for capitalism to me…

    anyway great post.

  2. Thanks Ashoka!

    I think time will tell with Kanye. For now I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. As he advances in his career, we all will be watching I’m sure!

  3. Hip hop is steeped in Marxism. If he hasn’t read Capital, he has been influenced by other hip hop artists who have (through 60’s Marxist revolutionaries). Tupac was the son of Black Panthers. Explore the relationship between hip hop and politics, the answer is there…

    1. Yes, but Hip Hop is also steeped in Hyper-Capitalism… Kanye has chosen complete immersion in this side, only to become disillusioned by it. Even though he may be influenced by “Revolutionary” rappers such as Dead Prez (as he’s said in interviews) the conclusions he’s making specifically about product design I would argue are fairly novel concepts for Hip Hop.

      In some ways what I hear him saying is that Hip Hop in itself is NOT revolutionary enough. They encourage us to be rappers, and entertainers, etc. They don’t really want us to be inventors, owners, and innovators.

  4. Well, some would say that entertainment is production on a powerful level, no? Production of ideology, of ways of relating itself..

    I think part of the difficulty is that the production side of entertainment has a whole different set of issues than the “consumption” side, where meaning is produced as much by “audiences” who bring their own needs & concerns and histories to media images and entertainment. Some argue that things that are exploitatively produced can still have some liberatory power.

    but another thing that’s interesting here is the question of Kanye’s control (if you think he has it) of the means of cultural production – to what extent does that mean the product is liberatory?

    Of course underlying that is a question of how much does he really have control or is that part of his media performance (i.e. is he a hostage to market forces even so?)

  5. This is an interesting reading with what seems a major flaw. Perhaps it’s just me but as far as I can tell you’ve stripped the actual critique of capitalism out of this excerpt from Capital. You write, “Basically, what Kanye is seeing and trying to point out is that “products” are tied up with and contain the social context in which they are produced.” And maybe this is what Kanye is up to but it IS NOT what Marx is on about. This vague notion of “social context” overlooks, and is then redeployed in your speculations into the historical past, the fact that for Marx commodity fetishism is an effect of capitalism as mode of production, not a general product of “social context.” Basically, there is not commodity fetishism without commodities. This matters because the function of fetishism here is to name the ways subjects (us) in capitalist societies misrecognize the source of value, human labor, and think it is in the thing itself. This complicates your argument about Kanye West since, by most measures, he is pretty well compensated for his labor. Now if you could show how these statements point to the many hands behind his music from conception to distribution then maybe he is critiquing commodity fetishism but I don’t see it. (This is especially problematic when you consider the textile industries lurking, in places like Bangladesh and even the garment district, behind these little forays into fashion design; in the interview Kanye fetishizes Versace and in doing so obscures the labor of those hands through which Versace became Versace.) It might be more interesting to think of Kanye West as a commodity where his labor is but one part of a huge production apparatus. Whatever the case, if the point in the end is not revealing the exploitation of labor in the production of surplus value for capitalist (i.e. owners of the means of production), then I’m not sure what Marx gets you here. It’s an interesting thought piece but I’d just urge you to attend not only the broad notion of “social context” but also to the direct textual context of the analysis you quote.

  6. Hi Ben, aren’t I addressing the specific context in the two paragraphs about Yeezus after the one you quote?

    I’m not saying that Kanye himself is a Marxist, or even a real revolutionary. What I’m saying is that he’s toying with these thoughts, and coming to some conclusions that I see a spark of potential and for revolutionary possibilities and new processes.

    The actual suggestions that I make in the piece (and I admit to jumping to conclusions) are related to and thinking with Black people in America in mind specifically – the country’s most important source of labor until the 1970’s when the U.S. took its labor needs global – and the American culture that Black people have been principal in molding (without recognition of their contribution i.e. labor) and the subsequent capitalization of Black American culture by corporate America via it being exported to the world.

    I feel you on garment workers in Bangladesh. What I’m suggesting as an alternative is if Kanye wants to “make good products for everyone” (black people in the hood? – maybe specifically even Chicago?) then the answer is that we teach everyone to make good products.

  7. Thanks for your reply here. After rereading those paragraphs I still think the specific critique of capitalism as a system of labor exploitation is missing but I do see where you are going. One way I’ve approached this question is to challenge Marx’s claim that the fetish actually blinds subjects to the system that produces commodities. Instead couldn’t the fetishism be precisely an acknowledgement of the labor, both specific and common, that produces value? This is what you are getting at regarding Kanye’s remarks on production and the democratization of luxury.

    Your point about Black labor and the process of packaging it and selling it raises interesting questions about how to analyze this through Marx since cultural production straddles wage labor and the more diffuse “creative” labor of artists, etc. On this front you could almost see the defunding of arts programs in public schools as a sort of wage depression that has lead to even more intense profits for owners of in the media industries. I think this is very important given the point you make regarding Black labor as the major source of domestic labor in the US. In fact, I think Kanye’s music, as you point out, has always shown an awareness of these issues, especially when it comes to contemporary service labor (I’m thinking here about his references to retail and fast food work, etc.).

    Finally, if you want to follow this rabbit hole a bit further there is series of essays by William Pietz in RES (an anthropology journal), called (I think) “On the Concept of the Fetish,” that gives a history of the term’s integration into Western philosophical discourse through encounter narratives between Europeans and West African traders. It’s a good explanation of both the core of the idea–things treated as having agential power–and its connection to racialized notions of intelligence, belief, and production.

    Thanks again for your reply and the piece itself. I enjoyed reading it; it’s rare I can have both my hip hop and Marxist hat on at the same time, at least in public.

  8. Hi Chief —

    A friend of mine showed me this article and it raises some hard questions. I agree with Ben here that this take on commodity fetishism is insufficient in that it doesn’t deal with the fact a fetish would still exist even in the mode of production you prescribe (training everyone to make “high-quality” art.) Value is not created only in the “quality” of an object, and quality may not even be a real relation anymore — what is quality other than a perception? The MacBook and the PC, different on the surface as they may be, perform the same basic function; their surface-differences (which is also largely a product of advertising) is what makes the MacBook twice the price. Similarly, Kanye West and Jay-Z aren’t all that different from the unknown street rappers throughout, say, Brooklyn, but their surface difference — their aesthetic — garners more attention and thus makes them richer. You want to envision “a more egalitarian society, one in which diverse individuals and groups competed over aesthetics, rather than resources,” but human aesthetic faculties — in the form of appearance as well as libidinal desire — have long been posited a resource for capital, and thus a site of value-production and exploitation. Aesthetics, like resources, are intimately linked to fetishism, and thus to political domination.

    It’s also disheartening to see you “imagine a world where we can train more individuals to specialize in highly skilled arts and design products” as a world of justice. Like I said above, such a conception is based on the radical alienation of our aesthetic faculties from our bodies. And as we both known, there once was a time in American history in which individuals were trained in the specialized skill of cotton-picking. This is to say, we must not forget that the labor process makes humans into commodities, too.

    And what about the commodities necessary to Kayne’s creative process that Kayne fetishizes? Coltan metal used to make CD’s comes from the Congo, where thousands of Congolese miners have died and are dying just so Kanye can have his privileged “creative” time. In his elision of this fact Kanye takes these humans as a means to his ends — he treats them like objects. This is why understanding the labor process and fetishization’s necessary link to exploitation is so important. If social justice is to come, if a more “egalitarian society” is to manifest, we must cease the unconscious exploitation of the world — or rather, make the exploitation of the world conscious.

    On that note — have you seen the video to Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad?” The final scene — the black actor applying black-face — sort of sums up one way in which ‘blackness’ has been appropriated and exploited, and does a lot to begin a discussion on aesthetics as a site of value and struggle.


    Thanks for writing.

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