In 2014 – post-Yeesuz pre-Pablo – and a much simpler time, I wrote a paper on Kanye West for my contemporary critical theory class. My thesis was that Kanye’s song, “New Slaves”, is a piece of self-aware cultural criticism with the exact “attitude of vigilance” that the feminist author and theorist bell hooks calls for in her 1989 essay Critical Interrogation: Talking Race, Resisting Racism. “New Slaves” tackles issues facing contemporary African Americans: racism, capitalism, American society’s legal and economic systems and the culture of commodification, all of which, Kanye raps, are exploiting black people. I pointed to the song as an example of how rap music is one of the most important forms of political and social commentary operating today and why, despite the scandal surrounding him, Kanye West is a voice worth listening to.
After Kanye’s latest comments about slavery being “a choice”, the irony isn’t lost on me.
More than four years after that song and after a social media hiatus, Kanye starts tweeting again. First his tweets are inspiration mantras – “all you have to be is yourself” and “don’t trade your authenticity for approval” – interspersed with photos of his fashion designs. Then on 21 April, he tweeted, “I love the way Candace Owen thinks.” Candace Owen is a conservative political commentator and Trump supporter with a YouTube channel called Red Pill Black that promotes right wing values to black Americans.
The real sucker punch came on 25 April when Kanye tweeted his support of Trump: “You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone.” It was like we’d fallen through the looking glass. Trump replied, “Thank you Kanye, very cool!” and then there was a picture of Kanye’s ‘Make America Great Again’ cap signed by Trump. Kanye posted text conversations from pleading friends asking him to use his platform more carefully. Kim Kardashian got involved, telling Kanye to tweet that his views do not represent her own. And then in an interview with TMZ, Kanye said, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice… It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.” Kanye’s escalating comments are more than disappointing: they feel like a betrayal.
Kanye attempted to clarify his “400 years” comment on Twitter: “the reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years. We need free thought now. Even the statement was an example of free thought […] It was just an idea.”
Kanye West has always been a free thinker, an outspoken person without a filter. What’s concerning is that his trajectory from “all you have to be is yourself” towards “[slavery] sounds like a choice” taps into the philosophy at the core of ‘Red Pill’ subculture. They believe that their freedom of expression is being oppressed by political correctness and it’s largely why they follow the doctrine of Breitbart and the reckless leadership of Donald Trump. Kanye has also fallen down this rabbit hole, believing that freedom of the mind is the greatest threat facing humanity: “we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years. We need free thought now.”
In the TMZ interview, one of the channel’s office staffers, Van Lathan, speaks up: “You’re entitled to believe whatever you want, but there is fact and real world, real life consequence behind everything that you just said.” He continues: “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 marginalisation that has come from the 400 years of slavery that you said for our people was a choice.” Kanye’s mantra of freedom of expression is so dangerous because of the prioritisation of mind over body. Kanye, like many of the male and financially secure ‘Red Pillers’, can afford to argue that their freedom of expression is being oppressed because they don’t experience the material consequences of a Trump presidency. Their bodily autonomy, status of citizenship and rights aren’t yet under threat.
While in previous public statements and in his music, Kanye was just as controversially outspoken, he fought on the side of the marginalised. What’s changed is that he’s now occupying a rhetoric and space in the internet reserved for the far-right. The platform that fans, like myself, have given Kanye over the years has been turned into his playground for dabbling in a toxic doctrine that has no real-world consequence for him.
Perhaps it was inevitable. With the escalation of ‘fake news’ and the election of a reality television star, politics has become pop culture: an empty addiction that doesn’t seem real. But the consequences of policies are real. For Kanye and Trump, politics might have been “just an idea”, but for the rest of us, it’s our lives. I miss the old Kanye.
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