Kanye’s misrepresentation of Africa and Development

Kanye West performs at The Museum of Modern Art's annual Party in the Garden benefit, New York City, May 10, 2011. (Jason Persse/flickr)

Kanye West finally dropped his new album, The Life of Pablo, over the weekend. Since it came out following his performance on Saturday Night Live, the musician has taken to Twitter to talk about music, art, debt, and Africa.

West asked Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and later Google’s Larry Page to invest in him and his ideas. Neither seemed to reach out, leading to a pair of tweets that managed to misrepresent philanthropy and the fact that Africa is a continent, not a country.

Kanye makes two common mistakes. The first is a matter of geography and relatively superficial. The second is rhetorical and important when considering arguments against foreign aid, whether it is through philanthropic giving or government spending.

Let’s start with the easier of the two. Africa is a continent made up of 54 different countries. It is the second largest continent in the world and home to the second most number of people. Nigeria alone is the 7th most populous country in the world. In fact, three African countries are home to more people than France – but few people confuse the country with the continent of Europe.

(world atlas)

(world atlas)

The second part of West’s tweet is more consequential. In talking about his desire to have wealthy individuals invest in him, West struck out at investments made to help children in Africa. Though that summary may be unfair to what West was saying. His basic point is one that is often stated in order to question foreign aid and philanthropy: what about us?

Most often, the question is set up to ask about the American poor or war veterans. Both are issues that the U.S. government struggles to address. Why focus on things happening to other people in other countries when there are plenty of problems right here, goes the thinking. For Kanye, it is about making an investment. Philanthropists and billionaires, like Page and Zuckerberg, are willing to donate millions of dollars to help other people in far away lands. Why not put some money behind the artistic endeavors of Kanye West?

Before addressing the rhetorical problems with what West said, let’s look at philanthropic investments in the arts. A report on philanthropy in 2012 found that arts and culture were America’s fastest-growing philanthropic cause for that year. Some $14.44 billion went to nonprofits that support the arts. Spread across all the various project, nonprofits, museums, and other entities, it is not as big of a sum as it might sound. But it is not small by any means.

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Less than 4.3 percent of charitable giving goes to organizations that work abroad. That accounts for less than $10 billion of the $230 billion donated by individual Americans in 2007. Arts and culture-directed philanthropy were $13.7 billion in the same year. The point is not to compare the two, but to show that both account for a very small portion of philanthropy in the U.S. Most of that money goes to religious institutions (about one-third) and colleges/universities.

The lack of donated money going to artists like West is not because it is going abroad. That also sets aside the fact that West works in an industry designed to make money. People buy his albums and pay for his concerts, making a profit for him, the people who work to make his music, and the record label. Granted, it is a suffering industry. The less than $15 billion made globally by the music business is well below the $40 billion made in 1998.

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At a deeper level, West indulges in the comparison of lives home and abroad. Such an argument gives weight to one life over another because of random geographic luck. Because taxpayers in a given country pay into their own government system, it stands to reason that they should reap the overwhelming majority of the benefits. That is why less than 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget goes to foreign aid.

Whether or not is explicitly about one group or another, there are choices to be made as to how to spend public and philanthropic money. In parts of the world where extreme poverty rates are high, relatively small budgetary spending by countries like the U.S. can go a long way. The Gates Foundation could fund a few musicians like West, or reach millions of families each year. It chooses the latter.

Dividing people apart and saying that one group is more deserving than others is rife with problems. West admitted in later Tweets that he is seeking money so that he does not have to spend his own in order to achieve his artistic dreams. Some philanthropists may step up and help fund his next creation to the tune of a few million dollars. They could also make a donation to a place like the Against Malaria Foundation where it is estimated that every $3,340 can save a life by preventing malaria deaths.

A few million dollars can save hundreds of lives. It could also support the next Kanye West clothing line. West is hoping for the former, but it is equally often the latter.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.