Kanye West visited the White House Thursday, ostensibly to discuss criminal justice reform. That didn’t really happen.
Instead, West, seated across from Trump in the Oval Office, surrounded by reporters, launched into a rambling soliloquy that touched on seemingly everything else, including planes, the 13th Amendment, and mental health.
Rolling Stone’s Ryan Bort described the scene:
While initial reports said West would visit the White House to talk about policy, the meeting served a second, arguably more important purpose: to mark the culmination of months of highly publicized exchanges between Trump and West. Just six months ago, West began effusively praising the president, referring to him as a “brother” and fellow wielder of “dragon energy,” before posting images of himself wearing a signed “Make America Great Again” hat.
That was followed by a string of shared compliments between the two that continues, with West notably grabbing the mic after a recent taping of Saturday Night Live to express his support for the president. “If someone inspires me and I connect with them, I don’t have to believe in all they policies,” West told the audience, shortly after claiming that Democrats conspired “to take the fathers out the home and promote welfare.”
West isn’t limited to only praising Trump. He’s also tweeted approvingly about far-right commentators like Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens, who called Black Lives Matter protesters, “whiny toddlers pretending to be oppressed” and said that post-Charlottesville concerns about rising white nationalism are “stupid.” West has also attracted attention for his own comments that “slavery was a choice” and his more recent remarks that the 13th Amendment — which outlawed slavery — should be abolished.
It’s all marked a controversial — and in some ways confusing — evolution for the rapper and producer who famously declared “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” back in 2005. (West attempted to walk back his prior comment back on Thursday, saying that the remark represented a “victimized mentality.”) In his earlier years, West positioned himself as a black artist unafraid to discuss the realities and possibilities of blackness.
That he has thrown his support behind a White House at odds with those things — and that his support has been followed by West renouncing much of his past self — has been a strange thing to witness.
But in 2018, some of that confusion may be misplaced. After all, West’s interactions with and praise of Trump date back further than this year. And West first flirted with far-right imagery and weird ideas about slavery years ago, well before Trump entered the political stage.
What we are seeing now then, may not exactly be something completely new. But West’s evolution from outspoken rapper to outspoken rapper and prominent Donald Trump supporter has still been one that has captured a fair amount of attention, not only for what it reveals about West himself, but for how it has come to capture concerns about race and racism in the Trump era.
Kanye West’s long history of courting controversy via spontaneous outbursts
West has long been known for his tendency to make a public spectacle, whether through on the fly comments or behavior. There was 2004 when, after losing a Best New Artist Award at the American Music Awards, the rapper left the show, later telling reporters that he was “robbed.” One year later, West slammed media depictions of black hurricane victims and declared that President Bush didn’t care about black people during a telethon raising funds for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
Then there was his 2009 outburst at the MTV Video Music Awards, in which he cut off Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to declare that Beyoncé had the superior video. The VMAs moment also put West in the path of another president, Barack Obama, who was caught on a hot mic calling the rapper a “jackass” for his outburst. West later referenced the incident in his 2010 single “Power” with the line, “they say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation.”
As each of these moments unfolded, West’s track record became a bit more clear. The outbursts showed that West was not only willing to blurt out what was on his mind at any given moment, but also that he was aware of how to take an event and put his thoughts and opinions front and center.
This belief, coupled with West’s larger than life self-image — the rapper wore a crown of thorns on a 2006 Rolling Stone cover and declared himself Yeezus seven years later— suggested that West wanted to wield influence over more than music. He wanted to be seen as a leader of American culture itself.
That belief was not entirely unfounded — West was one of the most prolific producers of the 2000s and helped expose a number of artists to the industry — and he’s become as well known for his outbursts as his own hits. But while West has always been controversial, his boasts and outbursts in the 2000s were seen as fitting into a broader commentary on race and racism that was at times reflected in his music, a reminder that one of the biggest artists of the decade was confident in his blackness and wanted to challenge those who he perceived as disrespecting that.
But over time, he started to push boundaries in ways that were harder for fans to defend.
One moment that is perhaps particularly relevant in hindsight: In 2013, well into the promotional tour for West’s sixth album Yeezus, he was spotted wearing a coat with a Confederate battle flag patch on its sleeve. The flag also made an appearance on tour apparel.
When a Los Angeles radio station asked West about the flag that year, he gave an answer that tracks pretty closely with some of his more recent statements:
West’s praise of Trump isn’t all that new, either
In the years following the Confederate flag incident, West wouldn’t speak as much about politics, though he was photographed with his wife Kim Kardashian West and Hillary Clinton in 2015, the same year that he proudly claimed that he would run for president in 2020. A year later, West offered a more direct commentary on politics during a post-election stop on his Saint Pablo Tour. This time, West was very clear about who he was supporting, telling concertgoers, “If I would’ve voted, I would’ve voted for Trump.”
Prior to this, West had referenced Trump’s wealth in a handful of songs and the 2016 video for “Famous,” in which a naked figure of Donald Trump joined West in bed with synthetic replicas of Kim Kardashian West, Taylor Swift, and others.
But in his speech onstage that November, West explained that it was Trump’s speaking style, not his policies, that were so attractive: “There’s nonpolitical methods to speaking that I like, that I feel were very futuristic. And that style, and that method of communication, has proven that it can beat a politically correct way of communication.”
A month later, West was spotted in Trump Tower for a meeting that West said was about “multicultural issues.” As they stood in front of reporters, then-president-elect Trump spoke of the rapper as if he were an old friend. “We’ve been friends for a long time,” Trump told reporters. “We discussed life.”
At the time, West’s meeting with Trump sparked confusion, but was mostly seen as a reflection of the two men’s somewhat similar personalities and desire to for status. As Constance Grady wrote for Vox, West and Trump shared a mutually beneficial relationship, by “filling a void in each other’s public personas. Kanye uses Trump in his lyrics to signal the idea that he has access to wealth and power. Trump mentions Kanye in his interviews to signal the idea that famous people like him.”
By 2018, that relationship would attract much more scrutiny.
West has since embraced fully embraced Trump’s presidency
More than a year after West met with Trump in New York, and after several months of silence on Twitter, the rapper returned to the platform this past spring. His first tweets were relatively simple, announcements for upcoming albums and random bits of self-help knowledge. But then West began tweeting about politics, and later, Trump.
He started with an April 21 tweet about Owens. “I love the way Candace Owens thinks,” West noted, offering little explanation of exactly what he liked. A day later he tweeted, “The thought police want to suppress freedom of thought.” And three days after that, he began tweeting about the president.
“You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him,” West tweeted on April 25. In another message, he shared an image of himself wearing a signed Make America Great Again hat. “Love who you want to love. That’s free thought. I’m not even political. I’m not a democrat or a republican,” West tweeted that same day.
The messages quickly drew attention, including from Trump, who thanked West for the support and offered his own words of praise, tweeting that the rapper “performed a great service to the Black Community.” All the while, West continued to argue that his support of Trump was not due to any policy, but rather his support of the president’s thoughts and approach to politics.
When West faced criticism for his support, he countered that he was “refusing to be enslaved by monolithic thought,” arguing that critics were angry that he had broken with the beliefs of other African Americans and that black people were too focused on racism.
Things took a further turn when West began making comments on the history of racism and slavery in America that alternated between misinformed half-truths and wholly incorrect statements. While West said a lot of things in a relatively short period, the most notable was that “slavery was a choice,” a comment that fits into a long history of minimizing the damages of slavery. West initially doubled down by tweeting out apocryphal quotes from Harriet Tubman and comparing himself to Nat Turner, but later deleted the majority of his more controversial tweets from this moment.
West’s support of Trump has little to do with policy — but Trump’s policies are exactly why this all so controversial
For a brief period, as West geared up for a busy summer of album releases, it seemed like his political commentary would cease. But West called renewed attention to this conversation in September after his outburst at Saturday Night Live, which was followed by the aforementioned tweets calling for the abolition of the 13th Amendment.
Those comments reignited a storm of controversy around the rapper that largely revolves around two things: 1) his vocal support of Trump that is often accompanied by claims minimizing the historical and current effects of racism, and 2) his tendency to make completely inaccurate remarks about race and slavery.
However, this is not simply about what all of this means for West, but how it has been used to advance narratives about race and racism that affect others. There is a concern that West’s comments and support give cover to a presidential administration that has pursued a policy agenda that will negatively affect communities of color. Writer and author Ta-Nehisi Coates captured this concern in an essay about West earlier this year:
West’s statements have made it clear that he does not understand this, or that if he does, he doesn’t care. On Thursday, he noted that it was Trump’s masculinity and his “male energy,” not his policy proposals, that made him a more attractive pick than Hillary Clinton. In an interview earlier this year, West said that “feeling is more important than thought. I had enough of the politics.”
In May, T.I., a rapper who has repeatedly collaborated with West and featured on his single, “Ye vs. the People,” told radio program the Breakfast Club that West was largely unaware of Trump policies like the travel ban.
“He loves the thought of [Trump]. … He defied all odds … and in his mind, that’s how it is,” T.I. explained. “He don’t know the things we know because he has removed himself from society to the point that it don’t reach him.”
But, even if West sees himself as removed from politics, it is impossible to separate his support of Trump from it. When West supports Trump and says he wants to talk about criminal justice reform and violence in Chicago for example, he is saying that he wants to sit with a president who has advocated for implementing stop and frisk in the city and whose attorney general is actively trying to stop a police consent decree between Chicago and the state of Illinois from going into effect.
Though West is willing to say that he disagrees with the president on some aspects of policing, statements like “we kill each other more than police officers” are more than enough to cancel that out.
Trump has repeatedly thanked West for his public statements of support, crediting them for a supposed increase in support from black voters (this was not actually the case), while conservative commentators have argued that West’s support is proof that Trump and the Republican Party at large are not racist. West, meanwhile, claims he’s changed the image of Trump supporters and MAGA-branded apparel. Even as West continues to declare his independence from politics, he is increasingly being positioned as a political ally not just to Trump, but to conservative politics in general.
The White House is revealing both a core misunderstanding of black politics and a cynicism about race in holding up West — even as he continues to make missteps on a range of political topics and makes grossly inaccurate remarks about racism and slavery — as an example for black voters to follow. While conservatives and Trump seem comfortable with West, they are by no means able to speak about race in a way that will move large numbers of the demographic to which they claim to be reaching out.