Either in the sense that it is brilliant or because it defies belief, Kanye West has an incredible mind.
Whether or not he’s known exactly what he’s been doing for the past two decades, it is unquestionable that West has redefined hip-hop on at least three different occasions. On 2007’s Graduation, he introduced hip-hop to European EDM influences that would soon become the chart-norm. On 808s & Heartbreak, he melded it together with R&B, and icy 80s synth-pop, defining the sound of the genre for much of the following decade. And on 2013’s Yeezus, he took the experimental angst of Death Grips and repackaged it for the mainstream, inspiring the current wave of confrontational and hyper-distorted SoundCloud rap. No artist has shaped the culture of hip-hop as profoundly as West in the past decade – and for that he should be praised. However, the things that make him a brilliant artist are the same things that would make him a terrible politician.
Throughout his career, West has always acted on instinct and embraced his contradictions. While that has allowed him to create bold, grandiose statements on greed, fame, and guilt in the 21st century, he has never been particularly good at articulating himself. When West wades in on controversial issues outside of his music, he usually gets himself into trouble. Last week was no exception, when he tweeted support for Donald Trump and conservative commentator Candace Owens.
“I feel an obligation to show people new ideas,” – Ye vs. the People
Although West’s political views have often seemed incoherent, there is a consistent thread throughout his philosophy: he is a staunch-believer in the power of disruption. This is the thread that links together ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’, Taylor Swift at the VMAs, and the current pro-Trump moment he currently finds himself in. Whenever West sees convention, he rejects it – often by any means necessary. This is a quality that allows him to create groundbreaking music – many collaborators have noted that West is able to draw ideas out of them that they never would have considered – but is politically problematic.
West’s support for Trump is consistent with his philosophy in this sense. Like his other heroes (Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso, and Steve Jobs), Trump has disrupted the conventional thinking of his field. Regardless of whether that disruption is helpful, its existence alone is valuable to West as he appears to value the concept of disruption much more than the content of it.
“See that’s the problem with this damn nation / All Blacks gotta be Democrats, man, we ain’t made it off the plantation” – Ye vs. the People
When Kanye wears a MAGA cap or says that he loves Trump, it would be overly simplistic to say that this shows support for any individual Trump policy. Despite talking a lot about the issue, he’s barely spoken about any particular Trump policy, or quality that he likes about him. West’s love for Trump looks more like an intellectual experiment than a serious political stance.
Similarly, West’s support for Trump appears to be inspired by a desire to disrupt conventional thought, something that West sometimes talks about as ‘deprogramming’ people. In doing so, he is questioning the conventional narrative around African-Americans and Trump (that they hate each other) and asking his audience to question all truths that they hold as self-evident. Admittedly, this sort of intellectual game is potentially valuable, as challenging widely-accepted views can test the robustness of their premise. However, West is certainly not the first person to test this narrative – although he is probably the most famous – and the reasons for African-Americans’ dislike of Trump are clearly linked to the President’s policies and past comments and actions on race issues, as opposed to some conspiratorial ‘programming’.
Secondly, West’s view notably ignores the brutal realities of politics and the Trump administration. Politics is not a game and it should not welcome disruption as readily as music does. When West attempts to disrupt with his art, the consequences are minor: he releases a bad album and his fans are disappointed. When Trump’s attempts at disruption fail, or succeed with malicious intent, people can be deported, fall into poverty, or die. When you are the President of the USA, your actions have the potential to ruin lives and a flippant disregard for convention is not commendable – it’s dangerous.
my MAGA hat is signed 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/DrDHJybS8V
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
West’s suggestion that African-Americans wouldn’t support Trump because they’ve been programmed to only support Democrats is patronising to black voters. African-Americans voted overwhelmingly in favour of Hillary Clinton (89%) over Trump (8%) but they were given good reasons to throughout the campaign. It’s not accurate to say that because they voted for Clinton, African-American necessarily love Democrats – they just prefer them to the alternative. And to suggest that overwhelming support for something is necessarily an example of groupthink is a logical fallacy. Just because people widely-agree on something does not mean that they haven’t engaged critically with it. I doubt West would argue that the overwhelming support critics gave to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an example of groupthink.
What is especially frustrating about West’s recent outburst is that his ire has been directed at the sort of people that he grew with and who supported him when many in a predominantly white media would have happily buried his career. The right-wing commentators that have embraced him for his pro-Trump tweets are not doing so in good faith. When West criticised George W. Bush or upstaged Taylor Swift, they responded with outrage and demanded that he faced consequences for his actions. The latter case became a media circus partly due to the racially-charged imagery of the event, with pop’s young white princess confronted by an ‘aggressive’ black man. It was at moments like this that African-Americans repeatedly stood up for West and asked his critics to engage with the substance of his message, even if they disapproved of his delivery. Now that they face a hostile administration, West’s decision to stand against them, in favour of a conceptual principle of ‘disruption’, feels like a betrayal.
When West denounced Bush, he was speaking for the voiceless, putting his own career on the line for the good of other people. Now, he speaks for the most powerful man in America – a man whose narcissism convinces him that he is victim while holding the most important position in western politics. To hear the son of an ex-Black Panther and an esteemed educator speak so favourably about an aggressively hostile president is disappointing. It is also irrelevant whether Obama did little to prevent gun crime in Chicago, as West has claimed. There is no requirement for him to publicly align himself with any president and such claims are a manipulative distraction.
I haven’t done enough research on conservatives to call myself or be called one. I’m just refusing to be enslaved by monolithic thought.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 27, 2018
Similarly, the suggestion that refusing to support Donald Trump is inherently opposed to a philosophy of love is unreasonable and manipulative. You can lead with love and still allow yourself to criticise. Any of the great activists for peace and freedom can tell you that, and it is not necessarily true that loving everyone is the most compassionate way to act. The victims of the Trump administration’s policies need support from those with power – and West’s philosophy neutralises or absolves him of his power to criticise. There is a point between love and hate where genuine balanced criticism can be articulated, but West’s talk of ‘dragon energy’ and his brotherhood with Trump drags him away from that point.
West’s support for Trump feels like a move in an intellectual game and in doing so, it ignores the realities of racism and poverty in modern America. I don’t believe that Kanye is a MAGA supporter in the same way that Kid Rock is. Instead, he is using the slogan and concept to experiment with its cultural significance and meaning. West appears to care about MAGA no more than Warhol cared about Campbell Soup. He loves what it represents and the ideas behind it. But while politics may be an abstract concept from the comfort of West’s home, governments still have the power to change lives, often for the worse.
People cannot survive on ideas alone. They survive through the quality of their healthcare, their schools, and their local services. Whether through ignorance or malice, the Trump administration poses a threat to these institutions – institutions that West has not had to rely on for at least 15 years. While he may be giving us bold ideas, his words will mean very little to the people who are really suffering under this administration. It used to feel like the philosophy of Kanye West had room for those people. Now, it only has room for ideas.
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Words by Conrad Duncan