Why the attempt to turn artists into political pundits will always fail
“So I know you give these questions, and I give you all these three-part answers. This is a cool format for you?”
— Kanye West, Tucker Carlson Tonight
Kanye West’s controversial appearance at his own fashion show in Paris the other week, where he launched a sweater with the slogan “White Lives Matter” with models including activist Candace Owens and Bob Marley’s granddaughter Selah Marley, has returned the musician to the media’s spotlight.
The reaction from the Left was exactly what you’d expect. On the conservative Right meanwhile, the response was to praise Kanye for taking a stand against BLM, which he would go on to describe as a scam, and for his conservative views, such as being pro-life. But to treat Kanye West as a straightforwardly political figure is a mistake from either direction.
Even though Kanye has always been willing to make political statements and increasingly willing to make them against the Leftist consensus the position he’s coming from and the meaning of his speech cannot be interpreted from a political standpoint, let alone as straightforwardly conservative views. Kanye West is an artist, a businessman, a black man, a Christian, a manic depressive, a man going through divorce, and a fool, in the Shakesperian sense.
The eccentric dimensions of some of Kanye’s views became clear almost immediately from his bizarre comments on social media regarding the Jews, and even more so later on, but regardless, when he wears a sweater spelling White Lives Matter or a MAGA hat, Kanye is not attempting to shift the Overton Window, or convince his friends and followers to join a certain political cause or party. He’s instead more or less instinctively tapping into, or attempting to intervene in something that strikes him as symbolic, and potentially iconoclastic.
West calling out BLM saying it “was always a scam” to be sure enters the political discourse. But it also should not be confused with simply wishing to make a political point, or put another way, it highlights the hybrid logic that political discourse has come to assume.
This isn’t the first time Kanye has been thrust (or has thrust himself) into the political arena. His choice to endorse then-President Trump in 2018, followed by his visit to the White House, as well as his tweet “I like the way Candace Owens thinks” was equally, if even more controversial.
Here again the occasioning cause came out of the logic of fashion and the particular connotations that had come to be condensed in the MAGA hat. But when asked why he wore the hat at the time, Kanye didn’t express alignment with Trump’s policies or his future plans for America. In a 2018 interview with fellow rapper T.I. he said that what moved him to wear it was “my subconscious [which] spoke to my conscious,” and that his choice was more like “a feeling.”
This wasn’t picked up by Candace Owens nor her fellow conservatives in the mainstream, whose subsequent attempts to box him into a more straightforward position and potentially into TPUSA talking points drove him away and he eventually made him distance himself from politics. He went back to work and a year later his first explicitly Christian album Jesus is King dropped.
The response from mainstream conservative figures this past week, at least before his comments on Jews, however, was no different than in 2018. Almost every question asked by Tucker Carlson on Fox News the day after the event was explicitly political, or at least phrased in a manner which seemed to encourage Kanye to be.
Right at the start, before Tucker has had even a chance to ask about the reason for wearing the WLM sweater, Kanye dives into his belief in God: “You know, God builds warriors in a different way […] He made me for such a time like this […] Even if you don’t believe in God, God believes in you.” Of course the reason why Kanye was there in the first place was to talk about the controversy and so Tucker justifiably ignores such remarks and asks him what drove him to adopt the slogan in the first place. But then the rest of the interview follows the same pattern.
Throughout his Tucker appearance, Kanye repeatedly ventures into spiritual/pseudo-philosophical territories several times only to be brought back into the political realm by a following question. Now, this isn’t to criticize Tucker, who was only doing what the job requires: get the story while it is still hot and make it relevant to the current state of political discourse. But this is exactly the problem.
Our political institutions aren’t built for, nor are meant to accommodate this kind of complexity. Attempts by the mainstream media to weaponize figures like Kanye for political purposes will therefore always risk alienating them, if not even backfire, because of their inherent incentive to politicize every statement, even the most spontaneous and irrational.
Another case in point was the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro. It’s extremely unlikely he or any other mainstream media figure will attempt to approach Kanye now following his supposedly Black Hebrew Israelites-inspired comments, but it was hard not to notice the disappointment on Shapiro’s face this week on his show when forced to address his “antisemitism”, who most likely would have rathered getting Kanye alongside Candace Owens as a regular on a DW special to endorse free-market capitalism and the 2nd amendment.
West clearly had some things to get off his chest and probably agreed to appear on Tucker Carlson’s show for this reason, but it’s unlikely he will return soon. He is not interested in being a right-wing celebrity pundit, and trying to make him into one will only push him away.
Why not wait instead for a couple of weeks until the controversy has cooled off, and get him to talk about his spirituality, how God influences his work, or when he first realized he was a Christian? The latter would make him feel more like he’s truly welcome and valuable for the Right, but as an artist rather than just another man expressing the ‘correct views’, which is the very he seems incapable of doing.
To be sure, Kanye is not your average artist. His bipolar personality is clearly the cause of most of his erratic behavior and controversial statements (and likely a big part of his music and probably even investments), which likely emerges during manic episodes. But this only adds to the point.
The attempt by conservatives to entice artists into political activism, as Alex Perez has also pointed out for us, is and will always remain a losing strategy. Leaving aside the fact that when an explicitly partisan outlet like the DW decides to get into the art industry likely devolves into producing propaganda (which, despite its best and noble efforts, is exactly what it has been producing), the fundamental misconception by political actors is the belief that the artist’s influence can be separated from his or her own art.
Kanye, like any artist worth the label before him, became influential because of his music, not the other way around. To think his opinions would have the same cultural effect as his art is misguided (especially for a man clearly incapable of moderating himself and thinking rationally like Kanye), just like every progressive celebrity’s impact when expressing their political preferences is largely exaggerated by political commentators.
Celebrities become explicitly political when incapable of producing good art. The more incapable, the more political. What Alyssa Milano and Asia Argento, two of the main faces of #MeToo, Meghan Markle, the princess of Woke, and most of the celebrities-turned-activists all have in common is that they’re failed artists. There are notable exceptions, but these people’s politics and activism are often a way to mask their lack of talent and an attempt to stay relevant in the public’s eye (or respond to mob pressure).
But Kanye is far from a failed artist, and has plenty of talent to rely on, at least for relevance. His brief run for President in 2020 as well as his declared intention on multiple occasions to run again at some point suggests that it might come a time when we’d need him to say all the ‘right things’, if he’d ever be capable, but until then, he should be encouraged to continue to cultivate his skills as a musician and made feel important to our side for his art, rather than political opinions.
Jesus is King, a genuinely and passionately evangelical album, was free of politics. In this, Kanye drew on one of the oldest and strongest traditions of Black American culture, namely the gospel tradition which has always occupied the antithetical pole to the more materialistic celebrations of criminality which reached an apotheosis in the year of Floyd. But would have it happened if he didn’t distance himself from politics in 2018?
Artists and figures like Kanye West don’t belong on the Ben Shapiro Show, Fox News, or any other conservative media for that matter. They belong in a separate world, beyond the political, reaching deep within themselves for that part of us that makes us human, and expressing it for the rest of us so that we can yes, eventually, adopt the right views and get inspired to conduct ourselves accordingly.