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Van Lathan had never met Kanye West before the rapper showed up at the offices of celebrity news site TMZ on Tuesday and proclaimed that dwelling on slavery is a “choice” for African Americans. But like so many fans, Lathan felt like he already had a relationship with West.
A senior producer at the site known for juicy scoops and controversial interviews, Lathan leaned on West’s debut album, College Dropout, when he was trying to figure out his own life and career path. When Lathan’s father lost his house in Hurricane Katrina, West was there with his famous comment on live TV, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” along with Late Registration.
“At times when I needed that push, I watched somebody be fierce, and be an artist, and be unabashed, and be out there, and it was inspiring,” Lathan, 38, told TIME of his admiration for West.
“It’s crippling to see what’s happened.”
What happened is that West said in an interview on TMZ Live on Tuesday: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice. Like, you was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all? It’s like we’re mentally in prison.”
Lathan’s impassioned response became viral internet history – nearly 1.2 million people viewed his take-down of West on Twitter.
Lathan said he felt emboldened to confront West after the rapper turned to other employees in the room and asked, “Do you feel like I’m thinking free and feeling free?”
In an effort to be as honest as he could Lathan shot back: “I actually don’t think you’re thinking anything.” He continued:
I think what you’re doing right now is actually the absence of thought, and the reason why I feel like that is because Kanye, you’re entitled to your opinion. You’re entitled to believe whatever you want. There’s fact and real life consequence behind everything that you just said. While you are making music and being an artist and living a life that you’ve earned by being a genius, the rest of us in society have to deal with these threats to our lives. We have to deal with the marginalization that has come from the 400 years of slavery that you said for our people was a choice. Frankly, I’m disappointed, I’m appalled, and brother, I’m unbelievably hurt by the fact that you have morphed into something, to me, that’s not real.
The Louisiana native said he could not let West disregard his history and cultural heritage so easily.
“I am my ancestors, I am their survival, I am their will,” Lathan said. “I am the descendant of slaves who refused to die and we all are if you’re black and in America. Any speech that is used to weaken them and make them culpable for the wretched and putrid circumstances, I don’t feel like I could really tolerate that.”
See the full TMZ interview here:
The last few weeks have seen a change in West, who has populated his Twitter with mysterious musings, including compliments for President Donald Trump, photos of him wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and support for right wing pundit Candace Owens. For his more liberal fans and followers, it’s been a disappointing turn. Conservatives – including Trump himself – have welcome West with open arms.
West attempted to clarify his comment on slavery, saying in tweets – which were later deleted: “To make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved.”
For Lathan, the clarification still goes too far into a subject that he says West clearly doesn’t know enough about.
“It still seems as if he’s saying that anyone who didn’t organize mass slave rebellions was somehow mentally weak,” he said. “We can have a discussion about mental slavery. We can have a discussion of how slavery and Jim Crow changed the African American perspective of freedom and success. If you’re actually talking about people who endured these atrocities, you can’t really use them to make a point with faulty information.”
Still, the TMZ producer doesn’t think the recent controversies will hurt West’s career. He will still release good music and people will still buy it and get inspired. But don’t count Lathan among those looking forward to any new albums from West.
“I think I need a little bit of a break,” he said.