"Diamonds from Sierra Leone" was released in 2005 as the first single on Kanye West's second album, Late Registration. Borrowing unsparingly from Shirley Bassey's theme song to the James Bond flick Diamonds are Forever, it is noteable for more than its catchy sampling or a Jay-Z guest appearance. Rather, it's worth taking a look at (and a listen to) because multiple versions of it exist, and these versions both tell a story and offer a glimpse into the mindset of one of hip hop's most notorious and controversial figures. Through extension, it might also tell us a little about the United States.
Kanye West is a walking contradiction. Let's get that much straight. One might argue that it reflects poorly on society that a man who is quite unapologetically an arrogant, self-righteous bastard can simultaneously be loved enough to become a very, very rich man. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. West is divinely egotistical. To confirm this, we need only to remember any of the times he's drunkenly rambled about being the greatest at any award show, or re-watch for the hundredth time the video of him saying "George Bush doesn't care about black people" just seconds before Mike Myers' jaw hits the floor. And yet, it's precisely his fame, his wealth, and the volume of his voice that make him worth paying attention to. He is an American cultural artifact. He was a mostly normal guy coming out of an upper-middle-class background who dropped out of college and was touched by fame. And fame, history has shown, has intriguing effects.
Here's where things get interesting and a little confusing. So, Kanye wrote this song, "Diamonds from Sierra Leone". It's not political, nor do I expect that he knew Sierra Leone's location, let alone socio-political background. Essentially, the original version is about Roc-a-Fella Records, and Roc-a-Fella's hand sign is in the shape of a diamond. He initially intended to call the song "Diamonds Are Forever", just like the tune he sampled to create the song, but this was too close to a Jay-Z song called "Diamond Is Forever", so he went with "Diamonds from Sierra Leone". Why? Because that's where his diamonds are from. Simple enough. This version of the song, the original, appeared on the "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" single that predated the release of Late Registration. Afterwards, however, he came to learn about the diamond trade in Sierra Leone and came under some criticism for praising these diamonds without knowing the cost in human life paid to obtain them. In response, he released a remix of the song on the album in place of the original version (the original version is a bonus track) and used the remixed version in the song's music video.
Look at it this way: As the scope of international affairs has broadened, the world has, in effect, grown smaller. Communication with far-distant locales takes a fraction of a second, national economies are intertwined and interdependent, and social issues cross national boundaries. This truth seeps into every facet of American culture, from movies to music, and in this context Kanye West explores the connection between his own possessions and diamond mining in Sierra Leone, a surprisingly telling take on America’s place in a global setting. West’s feelings as expressed in the song reflect a greater American mindset, a mentality that recognizes the interwoven nature of personal possessions and supporting international situations, even if his view of Sierra Leone is one-dimensional.
If you're willing to buy that, then “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” may be seen as another cultural take on the lives of others in distant nations, however unconventional it may initially seem. Within the realm of popular culture, West’s decision to focus on his own understanding of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone is admirable and gutsy, and while critics may attack for a hundred different reasons, the song and the accompanying video still present an intriguing perspective. West’s song is a collage of points, an oftentimes scattered series of rhymes poured over a pounding bass line. Still, whether West is talking about getting passed over for an award, bashed in magazines, or discovering that his diamonds are, in fact, from Sierra Leone, an undercurrent exists beneath his words: that he’ll get what he deserves. The album version and the video play more heavily with the Sierra Leone conflict, and its initial lines voice West’s concern: “Good mornin’, this ain’t Vietnam / Still people lose hands, legs, arms for real / Little was known of Sierra Leone / and how it connects to the diamonds we own.” West is the first to admit that he doesn’t know the specifics of the diamond trade, but is aware that it is based in a history of violence, slave labor, and the abuse of child mine workers. The lines that follow set up West’s inner conflict on the subject:
See, a part of me sayin' keep shinin',
How? When I know of the blood diamonds
Though it's thousands of miles away
Sierra Leone connects to what we go through today
Over here, it's a drug trade, we die from drugs
Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless
'Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless
Set the grammar errors aside for a moment. Write it off as poetic license or chalk it up to being a poor student, but don't dismiss the intent. On one hand, West is attached to his diamonds, but on the other, his knowledge tugs at his conscience — he understands that his purchasing of diamonds and the loss of a child’s arm are inextricably linked, just as he understands that even shadier economic systems like the drug trade and diamond trade are interconnected, even beyond national boundaries and across oceans. West further explores his own moral dilemma in subsequent lines:
And here's the conflict
It's in a black person's soul to rock that gold
Spend your whole life try'na get that ice
On a polar rugby it look so nice
How could something so wrong
make me feel so right, right?
While we probably ought to criticize West for the assumption, essentially, that all dark skinned individuals have an inherent need for expensive jewelry, the lines still reflect further upon West's exact predicament. He’s completely immersed in a hip hop culture that values articles of wealth, to the point that he’s willing to look the other way at the social implications if it means he can keep his diamonds. He comes to a conclusion a few lines later, remarking, “people askin’ me is I gonna give my chains back / that’ll be the same day I give the game back.” His status as an artist and his possession of diamonds are presented as inseparable, and from this point forward in both versions of the song, his mind seems to be made up. West’s rationalization for this is simple — he’s earned what he has, and his instinct tells him to hold on to the possessions he’s gained, even if part of him feels that it’s wrong. He tells us, “I remember when I couldn’t afford a Ford Escort or even a four-track recorder / So it’s only right that I let the top drop on a drop-top Porsche / - it’s for yourself that’s important.”
The problem for West is telling. He can take an active interest in what he sees as an unjust system, or he can ignore it completely and change nothing in his life. This is a condition common among Americans; it takes only a brief look at news stations and magazines to recognize that in other parts of the world conflicts are abundant and deadly serious, but it’s equally easy to change the channel or put down the magazine, returning to everyday life without a second thought. We might view this as an instance of a narrow gaze — after all, to West, Sierra Leone is nothing but a name and a corresponding atrocity. Similarly, West’s self-proclaimed victory over poverty and the lifestyle he lives as a result plays into the possibility that he feels a sort of triumphalist despair. West’s victory over “the other” is economic, not militaristic, and is not actually limited to West at all, but rather America at large. While American military forces may no longer be seen as resolutely justified in their actions, few question the foundations upon which America has grown into the world’s dominant economical power. Arguably, the American money machine holds more power over developing nations than its war machine, and in cases like West’s, even this reality seems morally questionable.
One thing is certain — neither Kanye West nor his diamonds exist in a vacuum. Human systems affect one another regardless of distance. Without cultures that facilitate the import of diamonds, Sierra Leone would have no demand for the diamonds that the mining industry supplies. Removing diamonds from the equation in Sierra Leone and expecting human rights abuses to vanish is, of course, overly simplistic at best. Human interaction and cultural trends will always be more complicated than a cause-effect system (i.e. Kanye West wants diamonds, so children in Sierra Leone are forced to mine them), but the basis remains intact: these things are connected, and if they were not, Kanye West wouldn’t feel guilty for wearing diamond-studded jewelry.
In the final analysis, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” presents a conflict between the desire for personal comfort in terms of possessions (as well as cultural status) and the knowledge that the global landscape that enables this sort of lifestyle is often fraught with atrocity and strife. Whether this is reflective of an America that has built its current idea of success on the backs of less empowered nations, or whether Americans are viewing nations like Sierra Leone through a narrow lens, the conflict remains and will always, to an extent, be present, looming over the American collective psyche. The problem this song brings to the forefront is apathy, one that all nations may eventually have to face down. It's a lingering knowledge that things are very wrong in the world and that perhaps something can be done, but again and again people turn a blind eye to reality in favor of keeping the unnecessary luxuries of their lives.
West, Kanye. Late Registration. Roc-a-Fella, 2005.