I love Kanye West. The people who know me know this. People who don’t know me all that well probably know this. A whole lot of the identity I’ve for better or for worse associated myself with over the last few years has been that of a passionate Kanye apologist, sometimes even with inconsistent values when it comes to defending him. I’ve often gotten the sense that even close friends doubt the authenticity of my Kanye fervor, that they see my pro-Kanye stance as contrarian and attention-seeking. They’re wrong.
Musically, Kanye is a brilliant and insightful writer and storyteller with an unprecedented sense of collaboration and perfectionism. He’s so frequently and thoroughly reinvented the hip-hop landscape throughout his career that his influence has even overflowed into other genres. No one in my lifetime has changed music as much, and I’m grateful to have watched and felt his impact.
Making a well-received case for his personality is a far more challenging task, but there’s a genuine defense for it. I find his self-confidence – a trait that we’ve for years scoffed at as disgusting egotism – to be inspiring. An old friend of his and fellow Chicago MC Common spoke at Stanford last year and shared a heartwarming anecdote about a young Kanye spazzing out to his own lyrics atop a table in a room full of pre-release listening-party journalists–this was before The College Dropout, before anybody knew who Kanye West was. Yes, his impeccable musical instincts are mighty important, but don’t think he’d be our Bowie, or Prince, or Jackson without the self-belief that clearly he’s had since day one. The candor with which he speaks even under fame’s most intense scrutiny is just as fascinating and deeply refreshing in today’s cultural landscape. He often sounds inarticulate, but that’s because he’s literally delivering his unfiltered thoughts as they come to him, and it’s led to some gratifying call-outs and insights that those outside of the celebrity bubble would otherwise never get a taste of.
This is where I begin to tread lightly, because this last point is the exact piece of praise Donald Trump’s support base has lauded their candidate with throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Some have compared Trump to Kanye, and it seems easy to intuit a line connecting two guys who regularly say what often goes unsaid, but it’s a bad analogy. We’ve often heard the term demagogue thrown around in the last year, and rightfully so – whether or not he’d be willing to embrace that label, Donald Trump is a textbook demagogue. He’s time after time backed off of the promises that at some point composed the centerpiece of his campaign, and replaced them with those he suspected would sway a new desired demographic’s allegiance his way: the wall became a fence; “Lock her up!” became “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons.” Blatant lies and denials of beliefs he’s on record to have expressed became second nature throughout his campaign. Donald Trump is not an example of a person speaking his mind. His self-proclaimed take-down of Political Correctness was executed only to veil his calculated, manipulative, and dishonest campaign approach, because that’s what it took to get people to like him. Kanye’s aversion to fakeness didn’t kick in as he watched Trump sucker half of the country into buying false promises. The same Kanye that lost an entire fanbase as he interrupted a Taylor Swift acceptance speech to tell the world his truth, that denounced “kissin people ass” as “so unlike [him],” is down for Donald Trump.
I was sitting with a group of my housemates when a friend had just gotten back from the San Jose Saint Pablo Tour show, and he immediately told us what Kanye had said. My stan instincts immediately kicked in, and I was put on the defensive as everyone around me settled comfortably with validation into a night that birthed a damning piece of anti-Kanye evidence: Trump is bad, Kanye likes Trump, therefore Kanye is without a doubt bad. The hit my fandom was about to take over the next few weeks modestly began that night, but I wasn’t convinced of anything just yet. Although he did express voteless support for Donald Trump, it was another example of the media selectively parsing through his countless words to give a contextless soundbite that would stir up the most outrage, and it was a part of Kanye’s greater message. He at one point explains his approval of a Trump presidency by anticipating an outlet for racist beliefs that would be needed in order for some type of positive change to come: “If people are racist and they feel more inspired to say how they feel, then they’re exposing themselves, bro […] It’s already the beginning of change.”
The legitimacy of that argument is questionable, and up for the individual to decide. But it is undoubtedly true that if a president creates an environment of tolerance for publicly expressed racism, then communities at the receiving end of bigotry will feel unsafe in this country and marginalized individuals may even lose their lives. A president shouldn’t receive praise for any accidental or perceived progress his hateful rhetoric might eventually bring to American society; like every case of hate and bigotry, he should be called out for it.
But Kanye failed to mention any of this, and he failed to criticize Trump or his administration at all. He even praised Trump’s “genius” election tactics as though they held any bearing to the effectiveness he’d display while holding the world’s most powerful office, as though the impressiveness of a uniquely-run campaign should take precedence over the importance of a well-run country.
In San Jose, Kanye clarified that he maintains his beliefs amid his Trump support: “That don’t mean that I don’t think that Black Lives Matter. That don’t mean I don’t think that I’m a believer in women’s rights. That don’t mean I don’t believe in gay marriage. That don’t mean that I don’t believe in these things because that was the guy I would’ve voted for.” But what this is saying is that Kanye’s approval of Trump, who he seems to understand represents a set of values that violates his own, reveals either a belief that our next president functions off of some higher-level moral compass – which would mean Trump’s master plan, all this time, has been to feign hatefulness and then do a complete 180 as a means of bringing about social justice in a country that’s got its work cut out for it – or it reveals Kanye’s apathy towards these issues he claims to care about. The first is ludicrous, the second is a shame, because Kanye has throughout his career skillfully thought up, both through song and rant, insight to challenge institutions that oppress. The Trump administration’s age-60+ wealthy white homogeneity in a 2016 diverse country should scare people (despite the accusations that a call for diversity is reverse racism). Steve Bannon going from Breitbart to Chief Strategist should scare people. The death of fact, the cancerous spread of fake news, and staunch climate change denial should scare people. Trump’s win coming weeks after we heard him talking about “grabbing pussies” should scare people. The KKK’s support of Donald Trump should, of course, scare people. This is the exact political climate we need our art to protest, and it’s also a grotesque exaggeration of the pieces of discrimination Kanye has in the past protested.
Our new Kanye West, meanwhile, is meeting with the president-elect to discuss “multicultural issues” and “bullying,” and emerging from Trump Tower proud of his newly acquired signed copy of Trump’s Time Person of the Year issue, giving far too much credence to the TrumpYe friendship narrative.
That last part was the gut punch, the move that shocked me fully out of delusion and inaugurated a new chapter of my Kanye fandom: the I don’t like this Kanye era. A friend of mine and fellow Kanye apologist rationalized the magazine tweet by saying he was just excited to have met the president, but where’s the “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” Kanye whose audacity gave Mike Myers nightmares, or the Yeezus Kanye that gave anti-establishmentarianism a gorgeous, tortured voice? Why isn’t he calling Trump out for anything?
Kanye has always had an infatuation with geniuses. He always talks about Jobs, Hughes, and Disney, but he’s adding Trump to that elite shortlist, and it doesn’t seem to based on anything more than the unorthodox campaign he effectively ran. Whether or not the presidency will bring change, Kanye seems to be aware of what Trump represents, but it’s only the geniusness he’s granted the election tactics that seems important to him. He’s turned Trump into a muse, and the campaign into a piece of art. For a guy who’s always thought so far and wide outside the box, Kanye’s become dangerously myopic. He’s made a career out of dreaming and achieving what couldn’t possibly seem real, but he’s finally lost touch of reality.
Image from here.