Kanye West’s ‘White Lives Matter’ Shirt Might Just Be His Worst Troll Yet

Kanye West has always fancied himself a free thinker. Going all the way back to the time depicted in his Netflix documentary Jeen-Yuhs, being a bit of a contrarian has always seemingly benefitted him. When it looked like the whole of the rap industry had placed their chips on gangsta images, he went with a preppy look that set him apart and won him millions of adoring fans who wanted something more relatable. When his dream label home, Roc-A-Fella, gave him the cold shoulder as a rapper, he toured with Rawkus Records fave Talib Kweli to show he had the chops to carry a full project — then smartly put representatives of both sides of the underground-mainstream divide on his album at a time when it felt like the line between them was more like the Berlin Wall.

With that in mind, Kanye’s recent, more controversial, left turns to make more sense. He still sees himself as the rebel, shaking the table, challenging the status quo, and blazing new trails. Unfortunately, for both us and him, he’s trying to do so in an arena in which he’s less knowledgeable or experienced. In making political statements like slavery “sounds like a choice” or “me putting the hat on forces an evolution,” he’s taking the mentality that worked so well for him in music and fashion and applying it to concepts that are far more nuanced than the ones he’s used to dealing with. In fashion, a faux pas is forgotten by the next season. When he supported Donald Trump in 2016, he undoubtedly helped an unqualified candidate get elected, causing incalculable damage to both the American political system and the very fabric of our shared society.

I say all that to say, I get why he thought wearing a “White Lives Matter” shirt to his Paris Fashion Week YZY season nine show would be a good idea. It’s provocative. It gets the people going. It starts a conversation, which is very likely his goal outside of just getting attention. I have little doubt that Kanye sees himself here as the catalyst for a much-needed discussion about the lack of equality in our society. But the problem is that he does not appear to realize that this is a discussion that has been going on around us for the past 300 years. Maybe he missed it — after all, much of that discourse has been recounted in books, and we all know how he feels about those. Kanye may think he’s trolling a particular mindset or folks who “take things too seriously” on the internet, but as usual, his inexperience is making him a mouthpiece for more nefarious players.

Enough has been written about the misappropriation of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan that I shouldn’t have to recap it, but “shouldn’t” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence (as demonstrated by Mr. West himself). The slogan was coined as a response to the very real threat against Black Americans’ lives by the society around us. Institutional racism permeates social systems including banking, education, healthcare, policing, and even environmental policy, all of which contribute to a deleterious effect on Black people’s lives. The recent government response to the COVID-19 pandemic is just one example; the fact that Black Americans were disproportionately hospitalized and killed by the virus due to inadequate education and allocation of services proves that too many of those in power still need to see the reminder that our lives matter as often as possible.

Kanye’s shirt not only undermines that point but it also undercuts his own desire to “start the conversation” and set himself apart from the Black “establishment” voices he sees as dominating it. For one thing, Kanye appears to want to reach the same end as the establishment, but his need to set himself apart, to play the provocateur, has him embracing a counterproductive, asinine argument that requires too much mental contortion to get there when the original slogan is already more effective at doing so. He’s also setting himself up to be used as a sock puppet by the actual forces promoting division and antipathy. It’s happened to him before; this time, one of the main people who used him as a shill, Candace Owens, was right next to him in a matching T-shirt, likely already plotting her next grift with his name attached.

Ultimately, Kanye is not really as much of a free thinker as he thinks he is. He sees himself in the way Twitter users sharing their “unpopular opinions” do. They’re being contrary to get attention, but they’re also poking holes in the hivemind status quo. But Kanye promoting a message literally and specifically designed to undermine a statement of solidarity and self-determination is not the same as me saying the new Black Panther: Wakanda Forever trailer did nothing for me. Me saying Black Panther was always a lame comic book character and is just as lame of a concept on screen is a hot take. Kanye parroting alt-right talking points actually spreads dangerous, toxic rhetoric — and validates it in the minds of those bigots who already embrace it. This latest troll isn’t just annoying and unfunny, it emboldens ignorant, hateful people and makes it that much harder to shut them down.

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