Kanye West’s sudden decision earlier this spring to begin praising Donald Trump, and the rapper’s subsequent embrace by the political right, left a whole lot of people scratching their heads.
What’s the man who once declared, in a televised Hurricane Katrina telethon, that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” doing cozying up to another Republican president – one who, it’s fair to say based on his long public record, cares even less about black people?
West has palled around with Trump-worshipping “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams, has been photographed in a MAGA hat, praised conservative commentator Candace Owens, and has expressed admiration for Trump’s “Dragon energy.”:
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. 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.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
West, who has expressed interest in the past in one day running for president himself, had met with Trump at Trump Tower during the presidential transition, but had mostly kept his mouth shut about politics in the ensuing year, before reactivating his long-dormant Twitter account and getting on the Trump train.
This led to West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, meeting with the president in the Oval Office last week to talk about prison reform, and Trump to claim that West’s endorsement had coincided with a double-digit rise in his approval rating among black men, a statistical finding that’s been seriously disputed.
What’s Going On With Kanye?
Some have called it a publicity stunt, timed ahead of the release of West’s new album, Ye. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield described the new album as “chaotic” and “insecure,” while The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla called the new work “just good enough to keep him interesting, but no better.”
Our own Dario Hunt was harder on the album, ripping it as “shockingly devoid of any substantial follow-up or clarity… about as shallow as any album he’s put out yet.” As a film writer who unofficially retired from paying attention to popular music a few years ago, I am yet to hear the new album, although I have quite a bit of affection for West’s early work.
Kanye and Trump have a lot in common: They’ve been frequently accused of narcissism, they both crave the limelight, and both are known for grandstanding on Twitter…
There’s also the theory, which likely has some merit, that Kanye and Trump have a lot in common: They’ve been frequently accused of narcissism, they both crave the limelight, and both are known for grandstanding on Twitter and for making major tabloid news with their romantic exploits.
Yes, there’s a chance that West has genuinely studied the issues and determined that Trump’s political program is the way to go. But I suspect that’s not quite it. West seems to have simply caught the Trump bug. Trump is an acquired taste, and he’s acquired it. And besides, the great Twitter comedy persona Pixelated Boat had the best opinion of all on the matter:
Kanye is baffling to people on twitter because everyone on twitter spends 18 hours a day being angry about politics and Kanye has spent maybe two minutes in his life thinking about politics
— popular comedy account “the pixelated boat” (@pixelatedboat) April 25, 2018
(Unheard of) Embrace from the Right
To me though, what’s most striking about West’s turn to Trumpism is this: It’s gotten social conservatives to embrace a rapper. Because in the last 25 years, it’s hard to imagine anyone the cultural right has had more contempt for than confrontational, African-American rap artists.
Few poses are as predictable as right-wingers showing disdain for rappers, hip-hop culture, and rap lyrics. It’s practically a cliche for schoolmarmish types to read out of context rap lyrics out loud disdainfully. It may date back to Tipper Gore and the PMRC in the 1980s, but a bitter white person reciting the language of rap songs is a trope that’s lived on – something brilliantly parodied on the most recent season of Atlanta.
What About Rappers?
Then, of course, there’s “What about rappers?” This one gets used in various contexts, but most prominently as the go-to defense for anyone found to have used the N-word out loud in public, among those who sincerely believe the worst racial double standard in America life is that black people get to say the word and white people don’t.
It has other uses too – Rush Limbaugh, in 2016, decided to put out a “what about rappers…” in reaction to Michelle Obama criticizing Trump following the “Access Hollywood” tape.
What’s always funny is that those attacking rappers… almost certainly have never listened to rap music in their lives. This is how we get people like Beyoncé and Bruno Mars referred to as “rappers,” and bile-spewing New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick stating repeatedly that Drake, of all people, is a dangerous thug.
I’m just floored to see O’Reilly – who just four years ago was denouncing Kanye West and Jay-Z as a “disease” – actually having something nice to say about a rapper, much less West himself…
This sort of stuff has long been a staple on Fox News, to fearmonger to television’s oldest and whitest audience about those out-of-control thug rappers. It fits like a glove with the “shut up and sing” ethos that states that the political views of liberal celebrities are simultaneously irrelevant and worthy of endless derision, while the views of conservative celebrities – starting with the one currently in the White House – are sacrosanct and true.
But in the first 15 years of the century, no conservative in media was more anti-rappers than Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly engaged in feud after feud with rappers, including one clash that got “thug rapper” Ludacris fired from a Pepsi endorsement deal. Other fights were with Killer Mike, Jay-Z and others; O’Reilly, whose serial sexual harassment transgressions during this same period incurred settlements in the high tens of millions, was always quick to blame the rap artists for America’s moral downfall.
So it was a watershed moment last month when a now-in-exile O’Reilly… praised Kanye West.
“It is amusing to see ideological zealots in the entertainment industry turn against Kanye West,” O’Reilly wrote on his website in late April. “People like John Legend, apparently a political science enthusiast, are blasting Mr. West for supporting President Trump. In 1855, the Know Nothing Party burst upon the political scene. Perhaps there’s now a renaissance of that situation.” O’Reilly went on, later in the same article, to state that “The Stalinists have taken over.”
I’ve got a feeling Kanye’s MAGA period will be looked upon by future music historians as a bizarre, brief interlude in a great artist’s career, sort of like Bob Dylan’s Christian phase…
Kanye West praising Trump, and John Legend criticizing West for that praise, sounds to me like a harmless, run-of-the-mill disagreement over politics between two famous men, one that doesn’t have anything whatsoever in common with Know-nothingism or Stalinism. West hasn’t been thrown in a gulag for his political conversion, or blacklisted, or suffered in any other way other than being criticized.
I’m just floored to see O’Reilly – who just four years ago was denouncing Kanye West and Jay-Z as a “disease” – actually having something nice to say about a rapper, much less West himself, while throwing terms like “Stalinism” around in reference to criticism much more mild than the stuff BillO himself used to say regularly.
O’Reilly’s not the only right-winger who’s suddenly on Team West due to his political conversion. Even Alex Jones had praise for West:
.@kanyewest I admire your bold moves against the thought police. And if you want to see these control-freak vampires really go crazy, please join me on my broadcast!👌
— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) April 23, 2018
So where is this all going?
I’ve got a feeling Kanye’s MAGA period will be looked upon by future music historians as a bizarre, brief interlude in a great artist’s career, sort of like Bob Dylan’s Christian phase or the Beatles’ sojourn into Eastern meditation. And I won’t be surprised if someday there’s a weird indie movie that’s a fictional dramatization of Trump and Kanye’s Trump Tower meeting, a la 2016’s Elvis and Nixon.
The election of Donald Trump has caused social conservatives to accept a level of in-your-face vulgarity simply unimaginable as recently as a couple of years ago. Once they’ve taken that leap, having nice things to say about rappers isn’t such a big ask.
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