It’s hard to be a music fan these days. Lately, it seems as though no sooner than you’ve learned all the lyrics to your favorite artist’s latest hit — and mastered the accompanying TikTok dance routine — than your fave has waded hip-deep into some murky, possibly racist corner of the internet or fired off a tweet that got a little too spicy with an unpopular opinion. In the past weeks, we’ve seen wave after wave of Stan Twitter “cancelation parties,” for everything from offensive language to poorly-framed comparisons.
Of course, it’s also far easier for artists in the thick of a controversial quagmire in the era of social media. All you need to do is fire up the old Notes app, record a long apology video, or vanish for an appropriate amount of time before popping back up like nothing ever happened. No artist is a better example of the latter than Kanye West, who is no stranger to the art of image rehabilitation.
Even when it seemed like he’d committed too many acts of egregious ego stroking, supported a shameful leader’s inflammatory rhetoric, and submitted a string of subpar projects, he and his fans have showed that he’s practically teflon when it comes to backtracking on his social miscues. Now, though, it might be time to recognize that he will have to do a lot more to make up for the damage he’s done in the past few years — both to his brand and to the rest of the world at large.
As protests against police brutality took place over the past two weeks, Kanye came under scrutiny for his sudden silence after being so outspoken for most of his career about, well, everything else. Some wondered whether he’d make some sort of statement addressing the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd which had sparked the protest. The urgency increased after Donald Trump — for whom Kanye had loudly stumped throughout most of 2018 and 2019 — wrote tweets threatening protestors with military force and praising law enforcement despite their obvious overreach.
Instead, Kanye’s PR loudly proclaimed his contributions to a college fund for Floyd’s daughter and legal funds for Taylor’s family as they pursued a wrongful death suit against the Louisville Metro Police Department. Later, Kanye himself turned up at a protest in his native Chicago, dressed in a nondescript, all-black sweatsuit with a mask covering the lower half of his face. West was reportedly on the scene for less than 30 minutes, mainly being swarmed by fans and criticized by the protest’s organizers for “hijacking” the march with his celebrity.
so uh apparently kanye has been running the long con this whole time??? pic.twitter.com/ukQRfexQBx
— T1J (@the1janitor) June 5, 2020
Just like that, Kanye West fans were ready to believe that he’d made up for his past half-decade of transgressions. Twitter lit up with praise for the prodigal rapper, with one tweet surmising he’d been running a “long con” going viral. Credulous commenters rushing to reiterate their longstanding belief that he’d been “playing chess, not checkers” over the past few years of running around in a “Make America Great Again” cap and buddying up to a wannabe dictator. The bar is on the floor, folks. Kanye has never been one to apologize — he never even issued a mea culpa for interrupting Taylor Swift’s 2009 VMA acceptance speech, after all. He just moves on to the next thing and hopes we’ll all forget his last one.
Think back to 2018. After struggling to bounce back from his 2016 support of Donald Trump’s election campaign, Kanye seemed to lean into his association with Trump’s cabal. He began sporting Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps while promoting the albums from his GOOD Music label’s so-called Wyoming Sessions. When the release parties for those GOOD Music projects received more attention than the underwhelming albums themselves, Kanye became a choir leader. When he flubbed the release on his first “gospel” album, he promoted another one. When that one failed to reconcile him to the good graces of the public and the press, he pivoted to glorified Easter pageants billed as “opera.”
Now needing yet another fumble recovery, it appears Kanye is again attempting to make up for past mistakes without acknowledging how and why he messed up in the first place. Contrary to fan conspiracy theories, Kanye has never owned up to the damage his support of Trump has done and has, in fact, repeatedly doubled down on it. The aforementioned “long con” tweet took a pair of quotes from two stories nearly a year apart out-of-context to make him out to be an espionage hero, but he’s not. People have been hurt by his actions and his silence on serious issues and these charitable acts do not come close to reversing their suffering.
Lmao. The article y’all reading in over a year old. pic.twitter.com/KeN71mG4PE
— chonsay (@pashminaguru) June 5, 2020
Kanye West’s acts of charity are all fine and good, but they are sullied by the climate in which he’s made them — a climate he helped create. Kanye’s prison reform efforts are undermined by the fact that he supported a “law-and-order” strongman, who just a week ago sought to bully protestors into silence, writing “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” to his 81.8 million followers on Twitter. To date, the only person Trump personally tried to free from incarceration was ASAP Rocky, who wasn’t even locked up in the US — mainly as a way to distract from ongoing investigations against him.
Kanye also failed to condemn Donald Trump’s inflammatory, racist rhetoric — rhetoric that led to an increase in the rate of hate crimes nationally. Those crimes included the death of Ahmad Arbery, which contributed to the powder keg that exploded into the protests of the past few weeks. When Kanye said “slavery sounds like a choice,” he unknowingly used a Republican Southern Strategy talking point that gaslights Black people. It pretends the targeting and inequitable treatment against us by police are a result of our “victim mentality” and not a coordinated, deliberate, statistically-proven pattern of abuse by police departments all across America against people of color — especially Black people.
West isn’t directly responsible for Trump’s actions, but he is culpable — as is anyone who enabled or excused Trump’s rise to power and all the tactics he used to get it. His actions normalized Trump’s, perhaps even popularized them, and to date, Kanye has never acknowledged the harm he’s done, only the backlash he’s received. His explanation for that backlash — “class warfare” — confirms that he doesn’t understand the impact he’s had or what class warfare actually means.
Let’s be real: Kanye’s charitable contributions are more to assuage his own conscience so he can go back to his farm in Wyoming and feel like he did his part. While other artists organize, march, provide reform resources, and advocate for change, Kanye’s only advocating for his own public image — just as he always has. By spending $2 million against his highly-touted billion-dollar net worth, by giving 30 minutes of his time — arguably in order to soak up some praise from celebrity-worshipping fans among the protestors — Kanye wants to project the appearance of redemption and growth without actually putting in the work. If he truly wants absolution, to negate the harm he’s caused, he’ll have to actually acknowledge it and spend the rest of his life making amends.