Shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency, Kanye West, the successful and controversial hip-hop artist and fashion mogul, tried to start a conversation about political pluralism. On stage during a show in San Jose, California, he admitted something he knew would alarm a lot of his audience: While he hadn't actually voted, if he had, it would have been for Trump.
"That don't mean that I don't think that black lives matter," he clarified. "That don't mean I don't think that I'm a believer in women's rights. That don't mean I don't believe in gay marriage." Still, West told his San Jose crowd, it was time to "stop focusing on racism.…We are in a racist country, period…and not one or the other candidate was gonna instantly be able to change that because of their views."
Most of his friends and family were for Clinton, he conceded. And he knew none of his political ruminations were apt to please his fans. "I guess we're just not gonna sell out the rest of the tour now," he said, presciently. New York magazine chided him afterward for turning himself into "basically the uncle you really wish you could avoid at Thanksgiving dinner," and R&B singer John Legend told a French magazine that "for Kanye to support [Trump's] message is very disappointing."
A week after the San Jose show, West canceled 21 remaining tour dates, was hospitalized for "stress and exhaustion," and disappeared from public life and productivity for a year. He later attributed his troubles that week to trying to wean himself from an opioid dependency; he has since publicly identified himself as diagnosed bipolar, and he often talks about when he is or isn't on his meds.
He became active again in 2018, releasing a string of albums that he either performed on or produced in early summer. This time, it looked like his politics might not hinder his creative ventures. His solo record Ye quickly hit No. 1. A week later, a collaboration with Kid Cudi called Kids See Ghosts debuted at No. 2, while Ye held on to No. 5.
But during this same period of artistic fertility, he also dove back into politics, doubling down on his support for Trump. The cultural storm he generated by praising the president didn't initially drive away his core audience, but it did result in months of increasing pressure that culminated in a late October announcement from the singer that he would be eschewing political arguments to focus on just being creative. The bumpy road leading to that declaration demonstrates the toxicity of politics today—and, as collateral damage, likely ends West's ability to use his influence to do real good for real people.
'The Mob Can't Make Me Not Love Him'
West's public announcement of his bipolar diagnosis and struggles with addiction were a relief to admirers who hated the president. It allowed them to write off the Trump talk as a side effect of stress, mental illness, and/or a drug problem.
Then, in April 2018, after being absent from Twitter for over a year and having released no music in the interim, West tweeted a photo of himself in a "Make America Great Again" (MAGA) hat. People got mad all over again. In response, he tweeted that "the mob can't make me not love" Trump. "We are both dragon energy," he said. "He is my brother."
West also struck up an unlikely ideological alliance with Candace Owens of the right-wing advocacy group Turning Point USA. Owens, a black woman who pushes black support for the Republican Party, became a frequent public companion, including at the release event for West's Ye album, which he issued about a month after launching himself as a born-again MAGAite.
Hearing "love" anywhere near "Trump" caused the tastemakers of hip-hop and respectable popular culture to see red, as West well knew it would. In his songs, if not always in his copious interviews, he has frequently been his own most intelligent observer and critic. Despite his reputation as an arrogant maniac, he consistently looks on himself with usually wise judgment and vivid self-awareness.
In response to the MAGA controversy, West and rapper T.I. rush-released a duet single, "Ye vs. the People." In it, T.I. stands in for "the people," capturing the baffled incredulity of Trump-hating Kanye fans. "This shit is stubborn, selfish, bullheaded, even for you," he raps. "You wore a dusty-ass hat to represent the same views as white supremacy, man. We expect better from you."
West counters that his wearing a MAGA hat rebranded it: "Make America Great Again had a negative perception. I took it, wore it, rocked it, gave it a new direction. Added empathy, care, and love and affection." He analogized reaching out to the MAGA world as "like a gang truce, the first Blood to shake the Crip's hand."
Justice for Alice Johnson
Anti-Trumpers in pop culture remained on T.I.'s side. The current cultural mode, after all, is constant watchful hostility against one's political enemy and all who stand with him (or her).
A couple of West's subsequent public pronouncements fed the assumption that anyone, even a black man, who supported Trump must be soft on racism. He made a certifiably outrageous statement to TMZ in May: "When you hear about slavery for 400 years…For 400 years? That sounds like a choice."
Yet when West explained himself later, he touched on a line of political philosophy that goes back as far as the 16th century: the controversial idea, associated with classical liberal theorist Etienne de la Boetie, author of Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, that where rebellion is physically possible, the oppressor often forces on the oppressed a mindset that on some level justifies the slavery to the enslaved.
As West put it later, "My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved."
In late September, Kanye tweeted that "we will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment." He meant—as would be obvious to anyone familiar with the details of that constitutional amendment or the lingo of the modern prison reform movement—the part of the 13th that allows involuntary servitude for "punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." Kanye was advocating an end to the often brutal yet completely legal practice of forced prison labor. But confused onlookers, thinking of the 13th only as the amendment that largely abolished slavery in the United States, assumed crazy Kanye wanted to send blacks back to the plantation.
For his apostasy from standard liberal opinion on Trump, West became a victim of "cancel culture," the practice of completely writing off anyone—celebrity, relative, and everyone in between—who does or says something sufficiently disagreeable. Yet West's public attachment to the MAGA cause had already freed a woman from jail. In June, Trump took a meeting with the rapper's wife, reality star and media mogul Kim Kardashian. She asked him to commute the sentence of a 63-year-old black grandmother named Alice Johnson, and he did so.
In October, right before a controversial televised Oval Office meeting with West, Trump told Fox News that he was on the artist's side when it came to America's penal system. "There has to be a reform," he said. "It's very unfair to African Americans, it's very unfair to everybody, and it's also very costly." The president added that if a conflict arose between West's vision on prison reform and that of then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump would overrule Sessions in favor of West.
It wouldn't be fair to infer that West and his wife were the primary influence on Trump's surprising embrace of criminal justice reform; the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner is its biggest supporter within the White House itself. But in May, less than a month after Kanye's MAGA tweeting began, Trump hosted a prison reform summit at the White House. "Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens," he said. And Johnson's release does seem directly connected to the president's relationship with the Kardashian-Wests.
Kanye West analogized reaching out to Trump's MAGA world as "like a gang truce, the first Blood to shake the Crip's hand."
During their notorious October White House meeting, West physically embraced the president, told the country to lay off Trump because if he doesn't look good we don't look good, and said that wearing the MAGA hat makes him feel like Superman. He reinforced Trump's proclivity for trade protectionism via calls to bring manufacturing jobs to West's native Chicago. And he used the air time to offer, from beside the leader of the free world, a consistent positive message of mercy and reform for people stuck in the prison system. West was at the very least a prominent public part of the chorus of voices in Trump's ear that led him, in November, to say he'd be happy to sign the FIRST STEP Act if both houses of Congress can agree on a final version. That bill would, among other things, shore up re-entry programs and job training for federal prisoners and make it easier to rack up "good time" credits toward earlier release. The legislation, which has bipartisan support on the Hill, would also reduce some mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug offenders and limit the sentencing impact of possessing a firearm while committing a nonviolent offense.
The only two policies West explicitly spoke in favor of in his meeting with Trump—more industrial jobs in America and prison reform—are perfectly consistent with a 21st century progressive political agenda. These are also the only items on Trump's policy slate that West has ever actually endorsed. The rapper has been looking for points of agreement and commonality in places where other people from his world are blind, and he's been crucified for it.
Insane or Visionary?
The fractured, twisted, manic style of West's public statements, in addition to his admitted history of mental health problems, led many to write off his adventures in MAGAland as byproducts of mania or depression, not worth engaging.
This "ignore him, he's crazy" campaign is the most unsavory aspect of West's public shaming. Don Lemon and a panel of black pundits on CNN indulged in such rhetoric at length after the Oval Office visit. "No one should be taking Kanye West seriously," declared CNN's Tara Setmayer. "He clearly has issues. He's already been hospitalized." This is a shockingly retrograde view about mental illness and fitness for participation in civic life from commentators who ought to know better.
The connection between genius and madness is complicated, and the insights offered by a perpendicular view of the world should not be so readily dismissed. As music critic Chris Richards pointed out in a spot-on 2017 Washington Post essay, there are strange parallels between West and the eccentric and visionary science fiction author Philip K. Dick: Each man had an experience in a dentist chair that led him to believe he'd been stabbed with beams of divine wisdom.
Dick turned that revelation into a final series of novels, most prominently VALIS, and a sprawling, much-lauded journal thinking through the meaning and reality of what he thought he'd learned. West turned his experience into one of his most emotionally powerful songs, 2016's "Ultralight Beam," in which he marvels that "this"—the universe? his music? his life?—is "a God dream. This is everything." The song is beatific, mysterious, humbling, gorgeous—all the things people willing to apply the imperatives of "cancel culture" to West are rejecting.
Richards wrote in the Post that "we should remember to recalibrate our expectations" about West. "If he sounds as though he's lost his mind, it might mean he's found himself."
That's what West seemed to think happened. Most of the world disagreed, violently.
'It Hurts When People Try To Tell Me What To Do'
The vehemence of the public reaction to West reveals something unyieldingly dogmatic about our current politico-cultural moment. Even T.I., willing to be his foil in the "Ye vs. the People" single, publicly abandoned West after his White House meeting with Trump, saying on Instagram that it was "the most repulsive, disgraceful, embarrassing act of desperation.…I've reached my limits. This is my stop, I'm officially DONE!!!!"
This, even though Kanye has never expressed support for any actual policy of Trump's that the so-called #resistance is against. What turned progressives against West was his notion, per Owens, that a black person should have the ability to make a choice about his partisan allegiance.
West—the man who once said on live TV that George W. Bush "doesn't care about black people" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—was still concerned about the plight of his community. He just didn't see his friendship with the president as undermining that concern. He told a Chicago radio station in August that "I feel that [Trump] cares about the way black people feel about him, and he would like for black people to like him like they did when he was cool in the rap songs.…He will do the things that are necessary to make that happen because he's got an ego like all the rest of us, and…he can't be the greatest president without the acceptance of the black community." West laid out explicitly what he thought could come of open, friendly communication with the president: "It's something he's gonna work towards, but we're gonna have to speak to him."
West doesn't talk like a political strategist, but if you pay attention to what he's done (use his family's star power to secure a black grandmother's release from prison and to get Trump to tell Fox News that he supports reforms that would make life better for many inmates) and to what he has not said (that he supports any particular Trump policy other than industrial production in the U.S.), what he was trying to pull off was clear enough. He wanted to open a dialog with someone he thought could make a positive difference in the world. Sadly, all "cancel culture" saw was a lunatic rebel with a cause they were too prejudiced even to try to understand.
What did it cost West to have opinions he took seriously shredded and mocked as signs of insanity? As he said in a video rant posted to Twitter in October, it's "like someone touched your brain with their hands…how that would hurt you, that's how it hurts when people try to tell me what to do when I'm going from my heart."
That was a vivid artist's way of expressing something that any citizen of a post-Enlightenment nation should be able to relate to at least a little: the sense that freedom of expression is important in part because what we think, feel, and believe is emotionally and intellectually core to our being. Pressure to force it underground can seem like an intolerable violation of our autonomy.
Such pressure to conform, whether you feel it from others or impose it on others, makes the world an uglier, narrower, more unpleasant place—and all for little gain other than the pleasure of hating and disdaining people who seem to think differently from you.
No Safe Space for Trump Fans
By late October, West was in public conflict with former political consigliere Owens over her attaching his name, apparently without his permission, to a product for her "Blexit" campaign to encourage blacks to abandon the Democratic Party.
Soon thereafter, he tweeted some of the things he stands for politically, including "holding people who misuse their power accountable." He continued: "I believe in love and compassion for people seeking asylum and parents who are fighting to protect their children from violence and war.…I support creating jobs and opportunities for people who need them the most, I support prison reform, I support common-sense gun laws that will make our world safer."
West's final political tweet, an apparent effort to close out the Kanye-MAGA saga, read: "I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative !!!" While some people were clearly willing to take the prodigal back, the declaration was also greeted with tons of salty responses such as "unstable sellouts suck" and "just go away," as well as slightly more substantive rants insisting this was an insincere attempt to win back cultural market share and assuring him it was too late to regain their respect or attention.
West has gone to some considerable trouble to distance himself from Trump's immigration and firearms policies. He merely said he loved the man and, as he put it in an April radio interview with the media personality Charlamagne tha God, believed the reality star's election "proves that anything is possible in America.…I'm not talking about what he's done since he's in office. But the fact that he was able to do it."
Wearing a MAGA hat or meeting with Trump does not make you personally to blame for, say, the president's policies toward refugees. By any sensible standard of guilt—which should mean that you actually caused the thing to happen—even people who voted for Trump are not responsible for every bad thing he does, since his victory would have happened whether or not any specific individual cast a ballot for him.
At that San Jose concert in 2016 where he expressed his affection for Trump, West said that "whether you voted for Hillary or Trump, this is a safe space for both of you." As his public shellacking shows, many Americans are not interested in such safe spaces. Even at the expense of a dialog that literally led to freedom for an unjustly jailed black prisoner, they'd rather pillory, abuse, mock, and "cancel" than engage or even just ignore.
The sour but real joys of expressing contempt, however well-earned, for Trump have thus become more important to people—in Kanye's case and many others—than art, friendship, family, or even seeing literal justice done. That's a choice anyone is free to make, but given that no number of angry snubs of Trump fans will limit the damage wrought by his policies one iota, doing so simply makes the world a lot less pleasant.
West can take it; he loves being a provocateur, and it has long been his stated policy that "soon as they like you, make 'em unlike you, 'cause kissing people's ass is so unlike you." But in a country with tens of millions of Trump voters, one hopes the example of Yeezus sacrificing his reputation for the freedom of Alice Johnson will make people think twice about filtering all their human interactions through an acceptable set of political beliefs.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Kanye West Is Misunderstood".