Kanye West voiced his opposition to the 13th amendment — which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude — one day after postponing the release of his newest album Yandhi, citing his desire to record in “what is known as Africa.”
This followed his laughable performance of “I Love It” on Saturday Night Live. The cast drew criticism from the President, likely for its satirization of Brett Kavanaugh in the Blasey Ford testimony. The president proceeded to praise Kanye’s decision to wear a “MAGA” hat following the show, adding, “He’s leading the charge.”
Kanye West’s support of Donald Trump is nonsensical. West criticized George W. Bush in 2005 for “not car[ing] about black people” and claims to be opposed to anti-immigrant legislation and the exploitation of prison labor. But then again, he’s voiced his support for Candice Owens, a harsh critique of the Black Lives Matter movement, who famously made the assertion that slavery “was a choice” and defended Bill Cosby’s innocence in the face of mounting sexual assault allegations.
Needless to say, West has an extensive track record of saying things he’d later refine or apologize for.
How, then, does one navigate the dissonance posed by loving his music and fundamentally disagreeing with his world view? Does playing “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” on repeat at the gym undermine my beliefs and empower Kanye’s seemingly alt-right influence? As a liberal, can I like Kanye West?
Artists sometimes turn out to be bad eggs, and whether their art products can still be appreciated given our knowledge of their controversial lifestyle choices is an ongoing discussion. From Kevin Spacey’s performance in House of Cards to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, some shitty people have produced stunning art.
On one hand, art is a subjective experience; what is to be gained from art is various and deeply personal. In theory it should be possible to disassociate an art product from its maker and critically assess it with some degree of authorial vacuity. What matters is the viewer’s experience with art, not the “controversies” section of the artist’s Wikipedia page. Kanye’s music is undoubtedly fantastic, and listening to “Runaway” won’t undermine my liberalism. Just as I have conservative friends, can’t I enjoy music by conservative artists?
But to totally disregard the person responsible for the art seems idyllic — possibly ignorant. Art relies as much on context and temporality as it does form and composition. A Basquiat can’t be analyzed without an understanding of the person Jean-Michel Basquiat and the social and cultural influences of the seventies and eighties. Basquiat’s distinct style was influenced heavily by a childhood car accident, and his work concerns itself greatly with the social and cultural stratification of his time. Without this context, some meaning can presumably be derived from his work, but any such analysis would be fatally ignorant.
Considering the nature of music as a medium of art, and the fame afforded successful musicians as contemporary cultural icons, disentangling a song from its musician can be even trickier.
Much of Kanye’s body of work concerns himself. Situating race and gender relations, the black experience, mental health, and celebrity in relation to his own identity, Kanye West’s music is largely about Kanye West’s place in the world. To enjoy his music without appreciating his person seems difficult when he delves so deeply into his inner demons, his beefs and his absurd notions of reality.
It’s important to consider just how outspoken Kanye is too, and how powerful his voice can be. Between his 28.5 million Twitter followers and his wife’s 58.8 million, Kanye has a voice unlike any artist in history. Every endorsement, criticism, and half-baked conspiracy he puts into the world is consumed by huge masses; the very nature of the Kardashain-West marriage propels his tweets, interviews, and hat choices to the forefront of media.
This isn’t to say Kanye is an egregious person. He hasn’t been accused of committing any form of sexual harassment like Spacey and Allen, although his lyrics may suggest otherwise if you take him at his word. Personally, I just don’t align with his world view and think the way he uses his gigantic platform is dangerous.
Even if I can separate his music from his person, that I listen nonetheless suggests that his behavior isn’t a deal breaker to me. Every listen is more money in Kanye’s pocket and more affirmation that his word is actually the “motherfucking truth” he thinks it is.
Should this compel me to boycott Kanye West’s music? Should I abstain from looking at Twitter and avoid all mention of his whereabouts? Should I pretend to have never heard of him if his name is mentioned in conversation? Essentially, need I absolve myself of Kanye West if I am to have a clear liberal conscience?