Separating the Art from the Artist: How to Handle Kanye West

Eben Cook

On the wall up against my bed, a large vinyl poster of every studio album Kanye West has released looks over the room. Each album pictured on this poster recalls to mind vivid memories that span from discussing the perfection of the production of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with friends at my lunch table in middle school, to critiquing the inconsistencies of The Life of Pablo while looking over chemistry notes in a study group sophomore year of high school. Most, if not all, avid fans of hip-hop can point to several instances of Kanye West benefitting hip-hop culture; those who put hip-hop on the backburner of their music preferences can still name at least one track they enjoyed from him.

So what do we do when Kanye suddenly decides to contradict the messages he has promoted over the span of nearly two decades?

The year of 2018 has plagued our social media feeds with pictures of Kanye wearing a red Make America Great Again hat, dropping loaded statements such as “slavery was a choice” and justifying those statements with the concept of free thinking. Through his antics, he has painted this picture that we should all live in a society in which we can speak our minds without being thrown under the microscope of scrutiny. While I do not necessarily disagree with this notion of personal expression, a few asterisks need to be tacked on to this idea. For one, a free thought should be just that: a thought. Free thought does not include an on-a-whim public statement that has not been fleshed out entirely. Especially when the creator of the thought has built a massive platform for spreading it, there needs to be a second review before hitting that blue tweet button.

Additionally, instances exist in which the influence of others can further explain a thought and make it more understandable. I imagine that Kanye did not really believe slavery was a choice — he justified this by highlighting the mindset of the oppressed and how this feeling of helplessness will not lead to any further justice in the United States. The latter idea, although not entirely representative of the state of oppressed groups in this nation, makes far more sense than misguiding us with a flamboyant statement. Free thought needs to be accompanied by further thought; otherwise, it proves to be a detriment to our ability to come together and rationalize.

Kanye has recently come out and admitted that his rhetoric in the past year has been misinformed and that he wants to distance himself from politics. What should we make of yet another sudden political pivot from Mr. West? As a white man, I can hop on and off the Kanye bandwagon, choosing whether or not I buy into the sincerity behind his words. At the end of the day, his actions have not, and will never, impact my life. Unfortunately, the same does not apply to marginalized citizens. How can it be overlooked that Kanye endorsed the actions of—and even dared to embrace—the blatantly racist leader of our nation? This leaves a permanent blemish in the back of minds everywhere, especially for those more impacted by the President’s dangerous rhetoric. Having the ability to separate the art from the artist is a privilege, and I consider myself lucky to be able to keep my Kanye poster up without needing to consider the repercussions of his hypocritical history.

Even though I can put on my Kanye blinders and ignore this past year, it is important for everyone—including myself—to hold our favorite artists accountable. Understand the motivations behind their actions, and if you do not agree with them, do not promote their new music. Take their old music that you fell in love with a grain of salt, and understand that they may not be the same person today that they were when recording that music.