Can you imagine what it must feel like to receive 200,000 likes for a tweet? It is a sensation both Kanye West and Donald Trump will be mutually familiar with. But to focus on the former for a second – and therefore, I guess, fall prey to his trap of usurping the internet’s focus – since the rapper-entertainer-guru returned to Twitter during the weekend of Coachella festival, after eighteen months in the technological wilderness, he has kept his audience entertained by posting endless streams-of-consciousness.
Scrolling down West’s feed now is a bit like walking backwards through a dense art museum, one he has built from avant-garde scraps of his own unpredictable, business-savvy psyche.
Most recently, there are countless uploads of minimalist interior designs which, at one point, he describes ironically as “tweets from the sunken place”. This is in response to the comic mockery claiming that he has allegorically fallen into the realms of subservient, racialised mind-control, like the lead protagonist Chris in Jordan Peele’s cult satirical film Get Out!.
In the space of a few days, he has also made announcements about YEEZY fashion updates, and multiple album releases. This may well explain his apparent return to erratic form – he has an alleged habit of binging time in the recording studio to the point of exhaustion and subsequently falling asleep in public places. In the past, he has also tended to spend months aggressively tweeting before a new music release to conjure-up discussion and hype from his fanbase.
What’s more, he has counterbalanced anything artistic or materialistic with hippy bites about free-thought, self-realisation and human interconnectivity: “no race religion region or political party can argue with the power of love” goes one of his contributions to what he has called a philosophy book written “in real time.”
But it is his spiritual, if not explicitly political, endorsement of the divisive US president Donald Trump – who certainly shares the rapper’s skill of leveraging discursive power over social media – that has received the most scrutiny. After taking a selfie while wearing a cap with Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, he responded to the immediate backlash of criticism he received by tweeting: “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.” Among other unorthodox modes of rebuttal, he subsequently uploaded a screenshot of a texting conversation between himself and John Legend after the singer tried politely pushing back against his tirade.
One of the most significant aspects of this whole series is the way Trump has retweeted and engaged quite seriously with Kanye’s expressions, including this afternoon, when he stated – obviously in a tweet – that “Kanye West has performed a great service to the Black Community – big things are happening and eyes are being opened for the first time in Decades.”
Of course, this is not the first time Kanye and Trump have indulged in attention-grabbing bromance. In late 2016, in the middle of what was perceived to have been something like a psychological meltdown, thus generating his relative silence ever since, West visited Trump Tower in New York to “discuss multicultural issues” before posing for photos together in the lobby.
As someone who has engineered a decade-and-a-half of exponentially growing pop-cultural power, the act of calling out presidents has been a consistent feature of West’s career. The opening couplet of “Crack Music” from his 2005 sophomore album, Late Registration, which allegorically frames black music as the new addictive substance for white people, in subverted comparison to the invention of crack in 1980s urban America, goes: “How we stop the Black Panthers?/Ronald Reagan cooked up the answer.”
A year after this, alongside actor Mike Myers on the NBC-aired ‘Concert for Hurricane Relief’ in 2006, in which he was scripted to make a plea for donations, he instead ad-libbed a piercing rant about racial inequality, adding the now-famous line: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
But then folded into his controversial appreciation of the current president has been an explicit denouncement of Barack Obama, too (who, it’s worth pointing out, famously called Kanye a “jackass” after he stormed the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009). “Obama was in office for eight years and nothing in Chicago changed” he tweeted on Wednesday. This weekend we have been told to expect an update regarding West’s plans to form a celebrity-laden taskforce to fix the Windy City’s infamous problems of poverty and violence.
There are certain contradictions inherent in all of these things, which only scratch the surface of uncovering truth about what West really thinks, and whether it can all be explained away by the genius of celebrity.
On the one hand, there is the eyebrow-raising fact that this is a black, demonstrably conscious and incomparably influential spokesperson for modern hip-hop culture endorsing a president whose power has quite openly legitimised the conception of alt-right thought and overseen nationwide spikes in xenophobia and racism. Anyone with a basic knowledge of either one of Donald Trump or Kanye West’s personas can glance at the last week and see there is something internally wrong about trying to reconcile their respective political theories (if either of them even have one).
Furthermore, West’s authenticity, as someone whose career has ebbed-and-flowed between sub-genres of music as well as levels of outspokenness, will now be called further into question. In his brilliant recent interview with David Letterman, veteran rapper Jay-Z commented on West: “That’s my brother…What I respect about him is that he’s the same person…He [once] interrupted our studio session and stood on a table and started rapping. We were like, ‘Can you please get down.’ He was like, ‘No, I am the saviour of Chicago.’ He didn’t even have a record.”
But is he the same person? It is so difficult to tell. Defenders will say yes, and that his tweeting about love and humanity and art ought to be seen as packaging for his back-and-forth with Trump, as a vehicle for transcending narrow ideas about material politics; that it should not be taken as reflective of any serious alignment with traditional right-left stances. In other words: that our fascination with criticising West is his (successful) distraction technique that will ultimately become either a PR-stunt or just a wildly articulated continuation of his multi-channelled, spontaneous art.
It is on a deeper level that what we are seeing is perhaps more chilling. There is increasing worry across the Western world that far-right ideals are being normalised by widespread support of political leaders who hold opinions like Trump. Plus we are still far from fully-awake to the extent of how social media, ideological echo-chambers and digitally-curated discourses are impacting our world and our social relationships. Kanye West know exactly how powerful his commentary is potentially going to be in terms of further activating Trump’s chaotic monopoly over reckless change in modern democracy.
Surely, though, the most intriguing thing to pay attention to now, going forward, will be how much Kanye West is able to continue holding our gaze. Will his fans, or anyone, care about this beyond this weekend? How successful will his next line of YEEZY sneakers be? How many albums will he sell this summer? Because answers to these questions may well correlate with how brutally normalised Donald Trump being president of the United States of America has become in all our minds.