(Lainey: as mentioned a couple of weeks ago, as we approach the launch of the new look for our site, we are adding a “Long Reads” section; the first entry was Duana’s essay about the 30th anniversary of Pretty Woman, arguing that Julia Roberts’s Vivian Ward is a feminist icon. This is our next “Long Reads” piece by Melayna – and it’s her birthday today! Happy Birthday, Mel!)
Kanye West was recently featured on the cover and profiled in an extensive Wall Street Journal piece, “The Creation and the Myth of Kanye West”. Because Kanye is a complicated artist, the exhausting journey of being a Kanye fan is often an exercise in ethics and hypocrisy. It’s not rare to be uncomfortable with what a rapper is saying in their music. But with Kanye, there’s more to grapple with, the most difficult part of his image to swallow being his present political views. I’ve never completely bought the argument that Kanye changed when he became a Kardashian, or the more popular theory that he was never the same after his mother died. I never believed that we were supposed to judge Kanye through his personal or family life; it was always about the artist and his art for me. Kanye has never been particularly likeable, nor did he try to be. We just agreed with more of the things he said in the earlier days of his career, especially around his worldview. Seeing his platform explode into multiple industries and income brackets has just exposed more of his layers, including some extremely troubling political views.
For many Kanye fans, it’s not about his best album, verse, or George Bush drag. For those of us still lurking in the light (or darkness), it’s when we decided to stick to the music (or shoes) and completely ignore the man. But for every cringey Make America Great Again hat moment is a memory tied to Kanye’s golden years. Whether it’s hearing the rapper who rapped his debut single with his jaw wired shut, his prolific beats on hundreds of songs (many of them anthems like Jay-Z’s “Takeover”, “Lucifer”, and “Izzo” (H.O.V.A.), John Legend’s “Used to Love U”, Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name”, Drake’s “Show Me a Good Time”, Lil Wayne’s “Comfortable”, and “Let the Beat Build” and many others), his hits with other rappers, his incredible remixes like “Get By” and the “Power” remix, featuring Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz (and co-written by late NBA star Kobe Bryant) or his mostly iconic solo albums, Kanye has undeniable global influence on hip-hop and music in general.
But then there are the unforgivable elements of Kanye’s career. I actually think both the Taylor Swift moment – and the years long feud that won’t end – is iconic. There are moments that people attempt to pinpoint to Kanye’s fall from grace; I think here of some questionable albums on each side of his masterpiece album Watch the Throne, telling Sway that he didn’t have the answers and shamelessly bullying and slut-shaming Amber Rose for years after their relationship ended. But nothing has generated the visceral reaction that Kanye’s relationship with Donald Trump has. It’s a relationship that has always had the potential to both discredit Kanye and threaten to tarnish his legacy. Of course, that depends on who you ask. But looking at what Kanye had shown us up to this point…he is doing it with not only full agency, but with baffling pride.
On December 13, 2016, a month after Donald Trump’s election victory and a month before his inauguration, Kanye staged a publicity stunt where he stood next to the future President, posing for pictures, and a meeting was implied by both parties. Of course, we now know that Kanye’s public meetings with Trump bear no political fruit besides displaying their egos, just confusing viral moments. But back then, it was fraught with even more mixed messaging. As he affirmed in the WSJ piece, a month before the meeting and during a concert in November 2016, Kanye framed his politic as that of a non-voter who would have voted for Trump, simultaneously disrespecting his ancestors who died to vote and Black Americans today by ignoring the fact Trump is a racist. He allegedly told his audience that Trump “inspired racists to reveal themselves” and “this is the beginning…neither candidate would fix racism in this country".
While Kanye seemed to be on the right track by implying liberals can be just as useless in the plight against racism as conservatives, he purposely chose the wrong side, seeming to be drawn by Trump’s energy.
It doesn’t make complete sense, but Trump’s Black surrogates usually don’t. It didn’t take Kanye long to join the cartoonish likes of Trump loyalists Diamond and Silk and more notably, in 2018, Candace Owens. Beginning with a tweet about loving the way she thinks and ending with tweets about being used, Kanye and Candace’s political alignment was short-lived. On conservative bully and anti-Black hatemonger Candace Owens, if she and Kanye had not failed miserably at their alliance, who knows what they would have accomplished at this point. Their relationship began with Candace seeming like an opportunist and a bystander, supporting Kanye’s political views. Many of us will never forget Kanye’s painful display at TMZ in May 2018, and most remember TMZ’s former staffer Van Lathan’s valiant opposition to Kanye’s pro Trump, dangerously ahistorical rant. What did not stand out but remains a reality is Candace interrupting Kanye and the TMZ hosts, attempting to correct and direct Kanye’s words.
The fallout from the TMZ interview, particularly around his comments about slavery being a choice, was terrible. Black Americans who still took Kanye seriously were unable to grapple with the disloyalty and hurt, and calls to finally cancel Kanye were again reignited. Hope seemed to be restored three months later in August 2018 during an emotional interview at Chicago’s WGCI Morning Show, where Kanye directly apologized for hurting Black people with his words, and talked about realizing how much Black people love, count on, and depend on him:
“I don’t know if I properly apologized for how that slave comment made people feel. I’m sorry for the 1-2 effect of the MAGA hat and the slave comment and I’m sorry for people who felt let down by that moment…I just appreciate you holding on to me as a family.”
He promised that going forward we would see a new, clearer Kanye. Then he made the pivot from politics to God plain in October 2018, tweeting: “My eyes are now wide open and now realize I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative !!!”
But 2019 came around: the year of Kanye’s Sunday Service, a non-denominational but religiously-toned vocal performance with Kanye backed by his choir. They started at his home and looked like celebrity gatherings, moving into public spaces and churches after an April Coachella performance, and have evolved into another brand for him (with expensive merchandise). This led to the release of his highly anticipated and (to be honest, solid) album Jesus is King in October 2019 and the choir’s album Jesus is Born on Christmas day.
But Kanye did not abandon politics with his shift toward God; in fact he attempted to rationalize the marrying of the two. On his press run for Jesus is King, he spoke at length on Big Boy’s radio show about how his message of love through God makes him impenetrable to critics, and doubled down on his support for Donald Trump:
“My father is a Black panther, my mother got arrested for the sit-ins at age – they were fighting for us to have the right to our opinion, not the right to vote for whoever the white liberals say Black people are supposed to vote for…last year y’all tried to tell me who I’m supposed to vote for because I’m Black. This year, white liberals try to tell me who I’m supposed to vote for because I’m Christian.”
And despite his specific apology the year before, he had this to say about apologies:
“This idea of apologizing, apologize for saying George Bush don’t care about [Black people], apologize for running onstage with Taylor Swift, apologize for wearing the wrong colour hat…I ain’t apologizing for nothing, y’all dealing with grandpa now, I done been through too much… I’m the founder of a 3 billion dollar company.”
So to see Kanye emerge today, continuing to frame his support for Donald Trump as bold, different and independent – while hurtful – is not surprising. One of Kanye’s biggest talking points about supporting Trump is a collapsible half argument about how Black people are brainwashed into being Democrats. He gave his latest iteration of it to WSJ:
“I’m a Black guy with a red [MAGA] hat, can you imagine?...It reminded me of how I felt as a Black guy before I was famous, when I would walk in a restaurant and people would look at you like you were going to steal something. ‘This is your place, Ye, don’t talk about apparel. This is your place, Ye, you’re Black, so you’re a Democrat.’”
In 2016 and now, Kanye continues to be played by Trump as a clear political tool, but sometimes it feels like Kanye is playing Trump. Kanye has the privilege of the independent thought, facilitated by seemingly limitless resources, required to separate himself from the realities of most Black Americans. That is not bold, but Black conservatives have a tendency to position themselves as brave outliers to justify the often-inhumane policies they support and vote on. Compounding this, Kanye had and took the opportunity to distance himself from Trump and politics completely, only to return. I can’t help but assume he still has political aspirations and there are more painful, dangerous political moments to come.
Kanye has not made his political aspirations a secret, often talking about the year he will run, potentially making him the third celebrity with questionable experience to be elected US President, after Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Like Kanye, Reagan and Trump tried being Democrats first.
Despite past attempts to paint himself as legitimately and politically connected to Trump and being made into a mockery or memes, he will not stop. In the WSJ piece, Kanye brags about his access to Trump, drawing an example of his involvement in the eventual freeing of ASAP Rocky, only to reveal a story where he called Jared Kusher from his pool in Calabasas. We are far from the scenario of Kanye being a viable or electable political figure, but he seems to dream without boundaries, and we have seen worse.
If we abandon the dichotomy of the old vs new Kanye and reckon with who he shows us, it’s clear Kanye has always controlled the often-chaotic narrative of his career, always keeping himself in the centre. His growing success and fame in other areas has only proven his unstoppable influence – and fueled his ambition – despite a lot of nonsensical and hurtful things he says about various issues. The paradox has only served him well. Kanye has always had a god complex in his music, and now he seems to be performing more of a humble servant with the Sunday Service, spreading a message of love. But there is no room for Trump in that, especially now.
It’s easy to blame Kanye himself for this, but like any celebrity, his fans keep him afloat, financially and even ideologically. He has never faded to irrelevancy, his most controversial moments often gaining the most traction. It’s no wonder he scoffs at his immunity to cancel culture, claiming it’s so meaningless that he’s been routinely cancelled before the term was even popular. He has always used his power and influence the way he wants to, and today’s Kanye, the “prophet”, is no different, no matter the implications. Political and religious leadership is not the same as celebrity superstardom, but can exist as a tentacle of it, as grotesquely evident today. If Kanye continues to transform his celebrity persona into positions of power that directly affect the livelihoods of people, the fans have to hold him to a higher ethical standard. And that’s on us. That’s on me.