What Is Kanye West Even Getting Out of This?
Here is Kanye West’s year in a nutshell: generating headlines via antagonistic and poorly reasoned support for Donald Trump and the alt-right. Just recently, on Saturday Night Live, he gave a strange and divisive speech reaffirming his support of Trump, explaining that he felt “bullied”—by what was thought at the time to be the SNL cast but was later clarified by Kanye to be his own personal staff—for insisting on wearing a MAGA hat. When he returned to TMZ Live, his first such appearance since his infamous declaration that “slavery was a choice,” TMZ.com was blanketed with gleeful banners showing a smiling Kanye giving a thumbs up. The message was clear: “Get ready for whatever he might say next!”
Yet all of that was nothing compared to Kanye’s recent visit to the White House. Alongside NFL legend and activist Jim Brown, Kanye sat down with Trump and the White House press pool in the Oval Office, to, nominally, talk about criminal justice reform. Instead, the meeting was perhaps the most distressing and bewildering spectacle of this ongoing nightmare circus, with Kanye passionately proclaiming that his MAGA hat made him feel masculine and that doctors “misdiagnosed” him with bipolar disorder when he was actually just sleep deprived.
The righteous anger that once made Kanye a folk hero has now made him a pariah, but one no less visible than before. He’s always relished the opportunity to talk about his ideas, and that seems to be true now even (especially) when he can’t articulate them properly. He is actively seeking out platforms and being granted them, which poses a major problem: it’s not clear what he, as a person, is gaining from it, to say nothing of the rest of us.
On the surface, this all might seem like a pathetic attempt at keeping his name in the news. Kanye’s next album, Yandhi, was originally meant to be unveiled after his SNL performance, but has since been delayed until November. Still, “even bad press is good press” doesn’t really explain his behavior. Kanye remains one of the biggest and most respected artists in the world; he doesn’t need cheap controversy to sell albums. It’s a headline whenever he walks out the door. Probes into his mental health aren’t completely misguided (Kanye proudly boasts of being off his medication), but that also can’t fully explain his passion for Trump and the alt-right.
The case for engaging with Kanye—for giving him a platform—is the same one that has animated pundits in this current era of PC panic: that if both sides of a story are heard, people will eventually and naturally be drawn to the side of reason and facts. Anyone, in theory, can and will be convinced. But it does not seem possible to convince Kanye. (Perhaps this is why his scheduled “Times Talk” event with Charlamagne Tha God and the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica was abruptly cancelled.)
Many of Kanye’s friends and associates have accepted the responsibility of engaging him privately, explaining to him why his words have been harmful or ignorant. But not only have those people not changed his mind, they’ve further become part of the show. Screenshots of texts from people like John Legend and J. Cole challenging his statements, Kardashian damage control, and Kanye’s own admissions that other people are more knowledgeable about his new pet issues haven’t shifted his thinking at all. During his TMZ Live appearance, he read verbatim a text from Chicago rapper GLC, responding to a recent rash of tweets from Kanye about abolishing the 13th Amendment, in which GLC explained his own far more coherent objections with specific aspects of the amendment. Kanye was happy to parrot GLC’s argument, but only seemed to partially grasp it. Still, whether Kanye understands and internalizes the counter-arguments made directly to him doesn’t even seem to be the point. Instead, we’re simply being asked to turn our eyes to the grand show that is him spewing whatever is on his mind. While Kanye is more than happy to have a discussion with anyone about his views and love for Donald Trump, it’s simply just for the sake of the event.
What is Kanye actually getting out of this display? On TMZ Live, after once again endorsing a conspiratorial belief about Democrats attracting the black vote through welfare, Kanye says to Harvey Levin and his crew, “Why can’t I say that?” It’s a question that serves as the theme to Kanye’s recent public persona—though, in a way, of course, it always has. But the rebellious, truth-to-power element that once felt intrinsic to his outbursts (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”) has now been inverted, and he doesn’t seem to realize it. Instead of dismantling power—white supremacy, specifically–he’s upholding it. It’s enough to make one wonder whether his post-Katrina comment was about fighting a verifiable racial injustice or simply going against what was considered appropriate at that time.
Because so many people in Kanye’s field of vision—friends, interviewers, social media—disagree with his newly but fundamentally awful political opinions and arguments, he seems more emboldened than ever. One of the topics Kanye is most passionate about is the mythical idea of “cancel culture,” and it’s here where he specifically believes himself to be righting a wrongful power dynamic. Recently on Instagram, he expressed remorse over bowing to public opinion and not standing behind his friend and collaborator A$AP Bari, who was accused of sexual assault by a woman who claimed Bari threatened her and exposed nude videos of her to the internet. Kanye also said the same about XXXTentacion, who was accused of battery and kidnapping by his ex-girlfriend. Photos of West in the studio with 6ix9ine, who pleaded guilty to a sex crime on a minor, ended up on social media, and Kanye says the rapper will be on his upcoming album. Though perhaps Kanye’s support for these men could have been construed as some awful coincidence, his Oval Office comments about how Trump revived his masculinity made it clear that Kanye’s fixation on “cancel culture” extends only to a very specific sort of person.
But “cancelling” people isn’t real. No actually famous men, save perhaps Kevin Spacey, have been “canceled.” Louis C.K.’s “cancellation” hasn’t kept him out of comedy clubs, and XXXTentacion’s “cancellation” didn’t prevent him from being hailed as a legend upon his death or from scooping up posthumous awards at the AMAs and BET Hip-Hop Awards. Kanye’s most recent album ye easily went No. 1, even as he proclaims that he himself was “canceled.” Despite Kanye and the people he’s mimicking treating “cancel culture” as though it was some new new rule of law, it’s never actually existed outside of people’s Twitter timelines. It should be no surprise, then, that Kanye’s ridiculous obsession with the concept of being “cancelled” dovetailed exactly with his return to, and overuse of, Twitter.
Most maddening is how rudderless it all seems. Kanye doesn’t need an excuse to talk out of his ass, and he doesn’t need the attention or free promotion. His progressive friends have been turned into pawns for his theatrics, their good intentions used for nothing other than grease on the tracks of the content machine. When all this is said and done, everyone will be left exhausted—presumably including Kanye, who might also find himself abandoned by both his new and old audiences. Will it have been worth it for anyone except TMZ or the tech vultures who text Kanye knowing he will post screenshots of their messages? Is it worth it for Kanye West?