By Layo Laniyan
I was 12 years old, on my way to a wrestling tournament, when I first discovered Kanye West. I struggled to keep my earbuds in, but the sound still managed to flow into my ears over the roar of the bus engine. What was lost in the transmission of bass and beats that night I found in subdued synths and piercing lyrics as Lost in the World ushered me into a new reality. From then on, I carried his worlds and stories with me everywhere I went. His albums quickly ate up the storage on my Samsung Dart; I’d listen to his albums on repeat as I worked in the library after school. I, like millions of other kids like me, grew up on a healthy diet of Graduation, found solace in 808s and Heartbreak on countless late nights and listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on car rides back from practices. He was more than a hero, more than an icon, larger than life: He inhabited a world so different yet so similar to my own. Kanye West was a demigod, an amalgam of the spiritual, rhythmic, surrealist and realist — a musical talent so rare you knew you were witnessing something that only came around once in a generation. As I write this piece listening to his older tracks, I feel a sense of loss. The same traits that made Kanye a phenomenon in his own right — his transcendency, his dynamo, his celebrity, his maverick — are now the driving forces of a slow, public downfall. Kanye West was so much more than an artist to me — perhaps that’s why the events of the last few weeks still sting. There’s an inherent disappointment, an inevitable disillusionment, in seeing your heroes rendered human. But the spectacle that came with Kanye’s nationally-televised visit to the White House was something more than that. Two weeks ago, we watched our celebrity, too intoxicated in his own legend, enter a new phase in his descent.
The visual of Kanye and Trump’s meeting has been plastered across social media, picked apart in editorial pieces and blasted in community forums. Donning a MAGA hat and with a wide smile on his face, Kanye embraced Trump; camera lenses and the faces of staffers round out the background. The spectacle was surreal. With Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Kid Rock and Jim Brown in attendance, the rapper dove into an impassioned, scattershot monologue — he delivered a tirade as disjoint as it was far-reaching. In the span of 10 minutes, he jumped from topic to topic — from the symbolism of the MAGA hat, to his alienation from Clinton’s “I’m with her” campaign, to his recent deal with Adidas, to the “Yeezy Effect,” to the 13th Amendment, to his bipolar disorder, to his IQ, to hydrogen-powered planes. This wasn’t the Kanye on College Dropout or 808s & Heartbreak — forthcoming, honest, self-aware, conscious. This performance felt like a betrayal.
Yet, at the same time, it was quintessentially Kanye. He has persistently strived to be contrarian, rebelling against expectations of him based on his identity. His individualism has been a hallmark of his career. It is manifest in his music, from his defiant arrogance on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” to his performative claims to ascendancy on “Power.” He promotes his singularity as part of his brand, but in recent years, this quality has mutated into a misinformed egoism, a stubborn myopia. His longing to rise above his current station on “I’ll Fly Away” became egotism on “Dark Fantasy,” which then mutated into a grandiose claim to transcendence on “I Am A God.” The latest chapter in this development is his current “free thinker” phase. But the truth is that none of this is new. Rather, this moment — his support of Trump’s Make America Great Again platform, his alignment with black conservatives and his off-the-cuff tweets — is the most recent, mutated manifestation of a long-winded discussion in the black community of what it means to be black and “individual.”
The stage is Harlem, New York City, 1926. Between the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of intellectuals, writers, artists and musicians flowed into the city. That creative, vibrant explosion came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, and one of the consistent threads across this time period was fierce debate — about art’s political nature, its valuation and evaluation, and its larger ramifications in the pursuit of equality. And few of those debates ran fiercer than the debate over the “black aesthetic” — over its existence, its merits and its influence on the public perception of African-Americans. And within that debate, few argued more vehemently than Langston Hughes and George Schuyler. Hughes argued that a desire to be considered an artist independent of race was truly a desire to be white — a desire to lay claim to the culture heralded as beautiful in America. He argued that black artists should instead be proud of their culture and strive to depict it in their work. Schuyler disagreed, arguing that there was no such thing as “black art,” and that there was nothing distinct about African-Americans compared to their white counterparts. In his response to Hughes, “The Negro Art Hokum,” he argued that an expectation of an essentially black expression with a distinct style and subject matter played into the very same stereotypes that black artists sought to overcome. Both thinkers recognized that black art had ramifications — they lived in a period where art was used as a measure of a race’s advancement, where expression could be wielded as a weapon against social equality, where artists wielded a tangible political power in their labor. All artists were thus subject to scrutiny. A broader question occupied the forefront: What obligation did a black artist have to larger sociopolitical discussions?
Individualism is a quintessentially American ideal. It’s our fascination with a rags-to-riches storyline — to ascend in spite of your surroundings, in spite of your station, in spite of your community. Individualism champions building an identity around the self, regardless of social circumstances and communal obligations. Yet, that individualism is not offered equally. The right to be an individual has been historically denied to people of color. Identity is always an asterisk to their work — the fruits of their labor are always considered in the context of a larger group discussion, never as a singularity. This question of whether the self can truly exist in isolation, rather than in relation to others, has persisted as a discussion in the black community for years.
Kanye West is not original, and he certainly is not as original as perceives himself to be. Rather, this is a manifestation of this same discussion, a reiteration of a longing to be free of the politics of we. That desire is quintessentially Kanye. He is the embodiment of a desire to supersede the politics of one’s race, a symbol of the American obsession with absolute singularity. He represents a striving to a white individualism — to be singular, unencumbered by his race. In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, he’s a champion of a white freedom, a freedom without consequence, a freedom without responsibility, a freedom without hard memory. In all that he represents, what is lost in his decline?
While he was mistaken in his striving for a blameless freedom, Kanye could have expressed his individualism through his community, rather than in spite of it. He could have stood apart as an honest advocate for his hometown, rather than joining in on the dog-whistling. He could have used his art to portray the realities of his upbringing, rather than falling back on welfare mentality tropes. He could have been honest about growing up in a divorced household without reiterating men’s rights talking points. Other paths existed for him, yet here we were.
Therein lies the tragedy of that performance in the Oval Office. Kanye West’s misguided contrarianism, his disjointed soliloquies, his striving to be blameless has been elevated to a national spectacle. And as West sat at the face of the Resolute Desk, flanked by amused faces, pounding his fist and free-wheeling, as reporters around him hurried to translate his words into primetime headlines, as cameras rolled and lights flashed, the reality of it all hit me. Kanye West had been co-opted. His individualism had been reappropriated by the Trump administration for its political motives. His contrarianism had been repurposed as conservatism, his maverick as advocacy. Donald Trump, far-right pundits and conservatives at large seized on his “free thinker” moment, branding him their new champion for their cause. West’s celebrity has become a weapon, a sword wielded against the communities he once spoke for. There lies the tragic irony in his striving to be an individual: West has been robbed of the autonomy he strove ceaselessly for. Two weeks ago, we were all witnesses as the icon we once knew fell deeper, a casualty of his own celebrity.
When it comes to being true, at least true to me
One thing I found, one thing I found
Oh no you never let me down.
– Never Let Me Down, The College Dropout
Contact Layo Laniyan at olaniyan ‘at’ stanford.edu.