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2 May 2018

Noise over substance: the empty politics of Kanye West

For West, expressing himself is always in itself radical – regardless of the value, or consequences, of what’s actually being said.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“You don’t have to agree with [Donald] Trump but the mob can’t make me not love him,” rapper Kanye West tweeted on Wednesday 25 April, frustrating a large portion of his fan base, and beginning an outraged entertainment news cycle still rolling today: culminating in West last night calling slavery “a choice”.

While stopping short of endorsing any specific Trump policies, West drew parallels between their personalities: “We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.” Dragon energy, West explained in another tweet, belongs to “natural born leaders” who are “very instinctive”.

He later tweeted a photo of his Make America Great Again hat, signed by Trump. (Less than an hour after the original tweet, West added a clarification on the request of his wife, Kim Kardashian West. “My wife just called me and she wanted me to make this clear to everyone. I don’t agree with everything Trump does. I don’t agree 100% with anyone but myself.”) Trump himself responded, tweeting, “Thank you Kanye, very cool!”

And, after debates on West’s Twitter feed about the history of civil rights activism in Republican and Democratic parties, media cycles speculating on the state of his mental health, a public conversation between West and the surgeon who operated on his mother the day before her death, and the release of a new song, West last night appeared on TMZ, making perhaps his most provocative statement of the last week. Speaking on the duration of slavery in America, he said, “400 years? That sounds like a choice.” (Later, he clarified: “To make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will.”)

These sentiments have alienated a significant portion of West’s fans, especially those who see him as an outspoken champion of civil rights. This is, after all, the man who made his name with lyrics about the insidiousness of 21st-century racism in America, and the hollowness of consumerism as a response to structural inequality, on his debut album, College Dropout. This is the man who went on live TV after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to announce “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Several celebrities announced their disappointment – from Samuel L Jackson to Janelle Monáe to Jaden Smith. Many more simply unfollowed his account.

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Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1977, and raised in a southern suburb of Chicago, West’s celebrity brand has fluctuated over the course of his 20-year career – variously labelled an “artistic genius” (director Steve McQueen), a “jackass” (Barack Obama) and a “a God” (himself). But it’s impossible to read a consistent narrative across his seven albums – except for an unwavering devotion to individualistic self-expression, and a fierce objection to any person or establishment that might seek to impede that.

The first words on his breakout 2002 single, “Through The Wire”, are simply: “They can’t stop me from rapping”. “Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it”, he jokes on “Power”, perhaps his most self-aware song. “I embody every characteristic of the egotistic”. And on Yeezus’s provocative “I Am A God”, he offers his controversialist manifesto: “Soon as they like you, make them unlike you”. As well as condemning Bush on live TV, he’s jumped on stage at awards ceremonies and contradicted judges’ decisions not once, but twice, and made headlines with deliberately provocative tweets from “Kim doesn’t understand what a blessing I am to her” to “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!”

As a political endorsement, “You don’t have to agree with Trump but the mob can’t make me not love him,” is a particularly Kanye Westian one. It is emptied of any concrete support, defined entirely in negatives, and obsessed with rejecting hypothetical constraints. “You can’t make me,” is essentially all the substance it contains, a childlike declaration of independence. “I can do, think, feel whatever I want.” This is the essential foundation behind everything West says – calling 400 years of slavery “a choice”, or to emphasise that it’s victims were “mentally enslaved” – is, for him, just another way to insist that no one could ever enslave or control Kanye West. “They cut out our tongues so we couldn’t communicate to each other. I will not allow my tongue to be cut,” he tweeted after his appearance on TMZ. “Kanye vs the media is modern day Willie Linch [sic] theory.” Speaking to the TMZ newsroom, West said, “Do you feel that I’m being free and I’m thinking free?”

“I actually don’t think you’re thinking anything,” TMZ reporter Van Lathan observed. “I think what you’re doing right now is actually the absence of thought.”

For West, a commitment to individualistic self-expression is in itself radical, empowering, and democratic – regardless of the meaning what’s actually being said, or what the consequences of his words might be. He followed his Trump tweet with the insistence: “Ye being Ye is a fight for you to be you”, and “Any fan of me wants Ye to be Ye even when they don’t agree because I represent the fact that they can be themselves even when people don’t agree with them.”

This isn’t the first time West has hit headlines with comments about Trump: He included a wax replica of Trump in the music video for his song “Famous”, while a meeting between Trump and West at the Trump Tower in New York hit headlines in December 2016. On tour, a month earlier, West told the crowd he would have voted for Trump, were he someone who voted at all.

“There’s non-political methods to speaking that I like, that I feel were very futuristic. And that style, and that method of communication, has proven that it can beat a politically correct way of communication,” he said, explaining Trump’s appeal. “I actually think that his approach was absolutely genius. Because it worked!” West is more interested in his own right to speak than he is in his ability to speak thoughtfully. So, too, is he more interested in Trump’s way of speaking than the content of his words.

Of course, this entire story is a symptom of a news cycle that values noise over substance. West has shouted loudly while saying almost nothing, but commentators and audiences have engaged with his careless, throwaway remark about Trump as though he has made a serious or impactful political statement. It’s the kind of headline that can only be generated in a cultural landscape where we evaluate pop personalities for their political persuasions, and politicians for their personalities. The kind of landscape that allows a reality TV star to be elected President of the United States.

“I know you don’t read a lot about politics or political history,” the singer/songwriter John Legend wrote in a loving but damning text, which West shared in a (now-deleted) tweet. It’s a generous dose of perspective that’s almost funny: why on earth are any of us interested in the political opinions of someone who doesn’t even read? And then you remember: Donald Trump doesn’t either.

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