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Kanye West’s return to Twitter has produced a bountiful harvest of thought-provoking information, obtuse statements, and classically Kanye “Kanye-isms” more plentiful and maddening than at any other point in his storied history as the enfant terrible of mainstream media. In a single, 24-hour news cycle, he announced the release date of his eighth studio album, a collaborative album with Kid Cudi, and production work and drop-dates of records by Pusha T, Nas, and Teyana Taylor. And that only covers the musical front.
His ongoing Twitter activity has also produced a novel’s worth of self-help and creative advice; musings that he intends to publish in an actual book that he is (was?) writing in “real time.” We have learned that he has parted ways with his manager, Scooter Braun, but that he has “hired the head of supply chain from Gap” in service of turning his YEEZY brand into the “biggest apparel company in human history.” We have learned that he still aspires to run for our nation’s highest office and that “Cars have four wheels. Hoodies have hoods.”
On a “normal” week – already a concept that bears little weight in 2018 – any one of these offerings would have been enough fuel to feed the fires of think-pieces on Kanye-clickbait for weeks. But however we choose to define a normal week, this is not one of them. Like it or not, we must collectively turn our attention to the great, big, orange elephant hovering over this Twitter feed: Kanye West supports Donald Trump and everything he stands for – even if his wife Kim Kardashian-West is insisting on the exact opposite.
Before we defend the incendiary, latter half of that statement, let us first coolly assess the former. In Kanye’s social media maelstrom this week, it became clear, beyond any point of possible misunderstanding, that West wholeheartedly approves of our president. This is not the first time we have been presented with this information; a swell of anger and disbelief very much like the one currently devouring the internet first erupted in November 2016, when West stated during one of the Saint Pablo Tour’s final, monologue-riddled evenings that he “would’ve voted for Trump” had he bothered to vote in the election at all. For a nation still in shock at the cataclysmic result of said election, this was the equivalent of bathing an open paper cut in lemon juice.
A few weeks and one hospitalization later, Kanye made his second public appearance post-discharge with a visit to the then president-elect at Trump Tower. What was surely the most controversial photo-op of the decade produced scant few details other than their combined interest in issues such as “bullying, supporting teachers, modernizing curriculums, and violence in Chicago.” Kanye also expressed his admiration for Trump in his ability to “reach out to people both from traditional and nontraditional, political viewpoints,” a skeleton key to West’s ideology and one that we will return to in due course.
But these instances utterly pale in comparison to the rhetoric spewing forth from the subconscious of Kanye West in the past five days. First he tweeted support of Candace Owens, a figure embraced by the far-right who works for Turning Point USA, a nonprofit organization that spreads conservative values on college campuses around the country. Owens specializes in “urban engagement,” and she has been a vocal critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, recently referring to the activists involved as “a bunch of whiny toddlers, pretending to be oppressed for attention.” Kanye wrote that he “love[s] the way [she] thinks,” and was suddenly counted as an ally of the right by conservative pundits.
Then the proverbial shit collided into the fan. Doubling (or if possible, tripling) down on his admiration for the president, Kanye unleashed his own brand of fire and fury. “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,” he tweeted. He went on to add that he “love[s] Hillary too” before sharing a selfie wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat signed by Donald Trump himself. The president retweeted this image along with a message thanking Kanye, dubbing the exchange “very cool.” That Kanye used this note as a jumping-off point to criticize Barack Obama was just icing on the incredibly hard to swallow cake.
The response has been swift, passionate, and divisive enough to tear the fabric of pop culture asunder. It has been a field day for mainstream media outlets, and something akin to Christmas morning for conservative talking heads now able to easily claim one of the biggest stars on the planet as one of their own. As mentioned, Kim Kardashian-West was forced to join the fray, citing that her husband “never said he agrees with [Trump’s] politics” and lambasting the media for coverage that seems to “demonize” Kanye, particularly those who chalk up these recent developments to a resurgence of the mental health issues he publicly battled at the end of 2016.
Kanye’s musical peers and collaborators have already been split into diametrically opposed camps. As of this writing, Kendrick Lamar and Tyler, The Creator have reportedly unfollowed him on Twitter, while Chance the Rapper came to his support with the somewhat baffling statement, “Black people don’t have to be Democrats.” Janelle Monáe agreed with Kanye’s commitment to “free thinking,” but not “if it’s rooted in or at the expense of the oppressed. If your free thinking is used as fuel by oppressors to continue to oppress black people and minorities, I think it’s bullshit.”
Of course, this says nothing of the moral predicament that the vast majority of Kanye West fans now find themselves in. It seems inconceivable to a point bordering on the surreal that the same man who threw down the gauntlet “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on national television is now spotlighting an anti-Black Lives Matter activist and singing the praises of a president who was unable to say a single word condemning the white nationalists responsible for a domestic terror attack. The love he shares for his “brother” Donald Trump directly contradicts nearly every thematic through-line of his work, an astonishing about-face from his previous dissections of the injustice people of color face at everything from the private-prison system to the double standards that bar even the biggest black celebrities from achieving the same recognition as their white counterparts.
That Kanye West supports Donald Trump is no longer up for debate; we can now treat this as a given, entirely supported by direct statements from both parties. We must then move onto the thornier half of this discussion: that inherently, no matter what Kim Kardashian may posit, Kanye West supports everything Donald Trump stands for. However, this is a truth based on ideas that fully transcend the political arena. This is ultimately not a partisan issue, nor is this about race or about mental health. This is a truth that stems from fame and celebrity.
For these intents and purposes, let us make a clear distinction between the concepts of “fame” and “celebrity,” two sides of the same coin that bear slight differences. Fame is the position of being in the public eye, with the general idea being that the greater one’s exposure in this arena, the more power or clout one holds over said public. Celebrity can then be thought of as one’s personal brand that develops upon entering the public eye, or the skill set one can employ in the service of furthering their fame. They are consistently in dialogue with each other, with one constantly determining the state of the other.
No better illustration can be found of the dynamic relationship between these two concepts than the life of Donald Trump. He was raised in New York of course, heir to a troubled real estate business in the cultural epicenter of the Western world. Trump was surrounded by those sitting atop the pyramid of fame, constantly reminded of the privilege and power one enjoys at such a position. But as a mediocre businessman with no real discernible talents, he had only one way to join their ranks: by crafting an artifice of celebrity around himself, a cult of personality with no other traits or ideals beyond self-worship.
Upon establishing this self-ordained celebrity, Trump had the even greater foresight to know that the only way such a vacuous personality could hope to gain traction in fame and status is through controversy. It is irresistible to those outside the circle of fame, catnip for a general public who view fame as a form of deism. He spent decades using a celebrity that pushed the envelopes of decency and taste to raise the standard of his fame. This culminated in his remarkable performance in the 2016 presidential election, a show of force that has made us all reckon with the notion that our taste for public disaster is not only insatiable but capable of overriding all forms of rational decision-making and all moral qualms.
In a piece published at the height of Charlie Sheen’s equally-captivating car-crash of decency in the public sphere in 2011, author Bret Easton Ellis succinctly explained our deep-rooted desire to submit to the personalities who challenge our understanding of the nature of fame: “We’re not used to these kinds of interviews. It’s coming off almost as performance art and we’ve never seen anything like it—because [Sheen]’s not apologizing for anything. It’s an irresistible spectacle, but it’s also telling because we are watching someone profoundly bored and contemptuous of the media engaging with the media and using the media to admit things about themselves and their desires that seem ‘shocking’ because of society’s old-ass Empire guidelines.”
As Ellis’ recounting of Charlie Sheen’s “tiger-blood” era reminds us, Donald Trump is by no means the first person to employ a tactic of chaos to further fame, but he remains (and will likely go down in history as) the one to achieve the most quantifiable success in doing so. Though that depends on the future of a certain Mr. Kanye West.
For the entirety of his career, Kanye West has acted in nearly identical fashion. The aforementioned challenge to President George W. Bush was merely the first stop on this trajectory, one that includes such cultural touchstones as his interruption of Taylor Swift, his gleefully-destructive entry into the world of high fashion, stubbornly declaring Bill Cosby’s innocence, and now, this.
A display of love and affection for the forces that are objectively working towards further vitriol and disunity in public life is a natural next-step in Kanye’s evolution. His latest comments are in no way more shocking than the ones he made about Bush over a decade ago, the ideology behind it has simply been flipped. This is a painful fact for many to come to terms with, and it is this fact that has produced what is likely to be the biggest provocation of West’s career thus far. Those that have followed Kanye, those that have scrolled through his feeds and parsed each lyric of his albums for meaning, cannot understand why he would betray his ideals to this extent.
Those that feel this way are missing the point; it is in this moment that we are, for perhaps the first time, seeing Kanye’s true colors in all their complexity. Let us now come back to what he first praised (and is still praising) Trump’s character for: his ability to shake up the public’s perception about any given topic and remake it according to his own ideals; to “reach out to people both from traditional and nontraditional, political viewpoints,”; to paraphrase the film sample West chose for the song “N*ggas in Paris”, to be provocative – “no one knows what it means… but it gets the people going.”
The sequence of events this week seems to completely justify West’s claim that he and Trump are “brothers,” made of the same “dragon energy.” It’s never been more clear that they share personality traits and an instinctual understanding of the nature of fame that renders them virtually indistinguishable from each other. Kanye West does indeed believe in everything that Donald Trump stands for; which is to say, both men stand for absolutely nothing outside their own ego – their own sense of carefully-crafted celebrity supersedes any other system of morals or values.
This is not to suggest that they are incapable of creating great work or upholding other ideals; quite to the contrary. Kanye West’s musical legacy will go untarnished for as long as there are consumers of hip-hop, and he has shown a capacity for reinvention and breaking boundaries that eludes all but the truly great thinkers and creators throughout history. And it is a feeling he instills and cultivates in others, paving the way through his own trailblazing for someone like Virgil Abloh to take the reins of a fashion house as established as Louis Vuitton, or for someone like Chance the Rapper to subvert decades of tropes and traditions to create hip-hop that is unafraid to be vulnerable and experiment with unorthodox sounds.
And despite the general malaise (if not downright fear) he has inflicted upon the world since assuming the presidency, we can say much the same of Donald Trump. It takes more hard work and determination than most garner in a lifetime to successfully build a real estate empire, let alone one in the most competitive, expensive housing market on the planet. While said empire has had, at best, a rocky history, no one can deny that Trump doesn’t think outside the box, bringing a sense of innovation to both his business and his path to stardom that proved, if not palatable, undeniably prosperous.
Yet no matter the scope of their combined genius, no matter the countless individual lives they have changed, no matter the imprint they have left on pop culture, and no matter what views they have espoused to the masses in their decades in the spotlight – the past 24 hours are a stark reminder that everything is subject to preserving and furthering their sense of fame. They have no other morals or values; they have proven time and again that these qualities are temporary, trinkets to be used and later discarded with impunity in service of fame. It is their sole sense of purpose and the only ideal they truly believe in – expecting any more from them would be foolish.
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